When you think of performers who started their career in Greenwich Village, Bob Dylan is likely the first to come to mind. Some say his first New York performance was at Cafe Wha? on MacDougal Street, while others contend it was at the late, lamented Gerde’s Folk City on West Fourth Street. He wrote “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” at the Village Gate club at the corner of Thompson and Bleecker Streets and “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the one-time Commons café on MacDougal Street. And of course, the iconic photo on the cover of his second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” was shot on Jones Street.
Dylan is hardly the only well-known figure to have started out in the Village, however. In 1960, a year before Dylan made his way east from his native Minnesota, Brooklyn-born Barbra (or Barbara, as she then spelled it) Streisand won a talent contest at the Lion, a gay bar on West Ninth Street that is now the site of Italian restaurant Casa Apicii. Streisand received such a rapturous response that she was soon booked to appear regularly at a larger club, Bon Soir, on West Eighth Street, which gained her a loyal following. By 1962 she had made it to Broadway in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” stealing scenes, winning a Tony nomination, and establishing herself as a star on the rise.
Also in 1960, Jerry Orbach originated the role of El Gallo in “The Fantasticks” at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, which was converted to a condo building in the early 2000s. It was Orbach’s first major role but certainly not his last. Long before he became known for “Law and Order,” Orbach starred in Broadway musicals including “Promises, Promises” (for which he won a Tony) and “Chicago” (originating the role of Billy Flynn).
Folk artists had been getting their start in the Village since the 1940s: The Weavers, for instance, featuring Pete Seeger, made their debut at the Village Vanguard in 1948. (Woody Guthrie, a sometime member of the Weavers, wrote his best-known song, “This Land Is Your Land,” while living in Greenwich Village in the 1940.) It was in the ‘60s, however, that the folk and folk-rock scene really broke big, thanks largely to performers who honed their acts in the Village. One such group, Peter, Paul, and Mary, made their professional debut in 1961 at Bleecker Street’s the Bitter End. A year later their eponymous debut album was at the top of the Billboard charts.
In 1963 the duo Kane & Garr began performing at Gerde’s Folk City. They had enjoyed a taste of fame as pop duo Tom & Jerry in the late ‘50s, but their new folky sound, spotlighted in their original song “The Sound of Silence,” led a major label to sign them and release their debut album under the name Simon & Garfunkel.
The Mugwumps were playing a number of Village coffeehouses and bars around the same time. After their self-titled 1964 album flopped, they broke up, ultimately forming two more successful groups. John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky recruited two other members to form the Lovin’ Spoonful, which debuted at the long-since-defunct Night Owl Cafe on West Third Street. The other Mugwumps members, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot, joined a folk duo already well known in the Village, John and Michelle Phillips, to become the Mamas and the Papas. Like the Lovin’ Spoonful, James Taylor got his start at the Night Owl Cafe, where he regularly played as part of the Flying Machine. The group attracted enough attention that they recorded a single, but poor sales and Taylor’s heroin addiction led the band to break up.
Jimi Hendrix is more closely associated with the West Coast and London psychedelic scenes than with East Coast folk-rock. Yet Hendrix got a big break while playing a residency at Cafe Wha? in 1966 as the frontman of Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. Chas Chandler, the original bassist for the Animals who was looking to become a producer and manager, heard the band perform a cover of the 1962 song “Hey Joe.” He subsequently flew Hendrix to London and signed him to a contract, building the Jimi Hendrix Experience around him.
Musicians were not the only performers to begin their careers in the Village. Joan Rivers started out in the early 1960s at the Duplex, at Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue. Also in the early ‘60s Richard Pryor played numerous Village clubs, including the Village Gate. Jon Stewart made his professional standup debut in the 1980s at the Bitter End (and his first post-“Daily Show” gig at the Comedy Cellar on MacDougal Street).
So next time you pass a club with an open-mic night or featuring a band you are unfamiliar with, consider stepping inside for a listen. Perhaps like those who saw Hendrix or Pryor at their early gigs, you will later be able to say, “I saw them play when they were still unknown!”
Greenwich Village – Musical Launching Pad