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Hilly Kristal in Interview

Hilly Kristal was interviewed by Mike Thorne in the Basement Under CBGB, New York City, 11am May 20 1999.
Listen to excerpts from the interview here, or read the full text below.

Mad Mordechai cover

Mad Mordechai is Hilly Kristal’s only ever CD, containing a long 1991 version of his classic MudThe little wiggly pig dances on..


What was the first time you ever appeared on stage?

The first time I ever appeared on stage was, I guess, when I studied violin at six, seven, eight years old.   I played with the high school orchestra when I was about eight or nine, so that was kind of on-stage but not by myself.  Then, at about ten, I started giving little concerts.

How many instruments did you learn to play after that. Most of New York remembers you sitting at the doorway of CBGB with the guitar in your lap.

I could play the violin and, of course, the viola.  I can actually play the cello a little, but don’t feel I really play the other instruments.  Wouldn’t say I play the piano.  But I do play the guitar.  I can write on some of the others, but not really play them.

When you set off, how long did it take to decide that you might make your living by writing and performing?

I guess I was always going to be into music.  I was raised on a farm in New Jersey, but used to go to concerts in New York and Philadelphia.  I think I always felt I was going to do something in music: maybe as a violinist, maybe as a composer.  It was, more or less, classical music for me then.  I think I probably started singing as a teenager.  Actually, I even had a low voice as a kid, but it got even lower.  I don’t know when my voice changed–maybe at fourteen, fifteen.  So, I sang pop music.  I sang in the chorus.  We had little shows and I started getting interested in singing when I was a teenager.   I  was always interested and eventually studied opera.  I guess I always thought I would do something in music.

Was there any doubt in your mind? Was there an alternative career that might have been the day job?

No.  Actually, a lot of the things I studied after leaving school.  I took courses at Columbia, the New School.  I probably thought I was going to be a violinist.  Then I thought I was going to be a singer and then I was, actually, a singer!  As a violinist I did just local stuff , but also the music school orchestra.  Yeah, I think I thought I was going to do something, but back then it was all called “show business.”  This was before “rock and roll”, by the way.

What date was this?

Well, I was born in ’31 [September 23].  I don’t think we thought in terms of rock until ’53, ’54, ’55.  Pop music kind of started evolving into rock back in the fifties.  You know you had Rock Around the Clock, Elvis Presley and a whole lot of people in the mid-fifties who were doing R&B.  There was also rockabilly.  I think rockabilly and R&B preceded what we call rock.  Then there was the pop-rock which were really pop singers with a beat, a rock beat.  When I think of basic rock and roll, I don’t think that started until the sixties.

So, at that time, the focus of an aspiring musician wouldn’t be so much on making a record as getting on stage and performing?

Right.  I really never thought of making a record.  Actually, I did, when I was singing at Radio City Music Hall, the first time someone tried to get me.  People wanted to manage me, get record contracts and things, before I started thinking in terms of making a record.  What I was doing was performing live.  Making a record wasn’t the most important thing.  Coming out of the forties and fifties, the club scene and the live performance seemed to be more important.

Of course, we had a lot of music on television back then.  On radio it was mostly live music, not recorded.  They were all live shows.  Radio was the basic medium until ’49 and ’50.  By the early fifties it became the dominant medium for entertainment and I grew up thinking in terms of singing or playing.  Radio had Toscanini in classical music, the conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra.  The most important people in classical and pop music were on the radio, live.  Eventually, they were all on television.

There’s an interesting place here in New York, the TV and Radio Archives, where you can hear all kinds of programming as far back as the thirties.   It’s really quite fascinating.  They don’t have a myriads examples of one specific program, but you can hear one or two examples of all the programs.  At first, they only had transcriptions [for archives] because they didn’t even have tape.  Then it was wire recording, literally done on a piece of wire that stored sound.  Finally, it went to tape, but it was still quite a while before we started recording everything.

Hilly Kristal on the guitarYour song writing career has spanned such a huge change in the way that music is recorded and performed.  Do you feel that there is a different way of writing a song now than there was when music was a strictly live experience?

One of the things I did was country music, but it was really folk music where I started.  At various times folk music was quite popular: in the fifties and well into the sixties.  In the sixties it became one of the most popular music forms for two or three years.  Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio–all the top artists were folk artists.  And I started to become a folk artist.  I wrote my own music, since back then it was all about writing your own folk music.  I wasn’t (what we would have described at that time) a Tin Pan Alley song writer.  I didn’t write for other people.  I wrote for myself as a performer.

Woody Guthrie wrote for himself and other people.  He wrote such wonderful songs that everybody sang them.  I think he wrote for himself the way he felt.  He wrote about the thirties and the forties, he wrote about the depression that we had, which progressed for about ten or twelve years into a recession.  It got better, of course, coming up to WW II.  But then, all of a sudden, everybody was writing patriotic music and war music and bring-the-boys-home music.  In England it was the White Cliffs of Dover, etc., etc., etc.  I wasn’t writing that kind of music.  I was writing music that I personally felt close to.

I never thought of just becoming a song writer.  I have always liked like to write, since I was eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen.  I didn’t write lyrics then, I wrote music and didn’t sing it into a tape recorder.  We had none.  I just learned to write music, notation, and I liked it.  I used the violin as my instrument and I wrote the harmonies.  I wrote mostly in the classical form. 

The sixties was another very important era.  It was a social era, politically, in which people were writing music very personally.  Then, when rock came, I think it sprung more off pop music which was girl, boy, girl, boy, and that whole thing.  I think that’s rock music.   It was teenage, it was not folk.  It was really more from the teeny bopper angle and into using a bigger sound.  People had learned to use electronics, because back in the thirties and forties we did have microphones.  We even did have electric guitars, but very little was electric.

Also, we had single-track recording.   Then two track, four, eight, etc.  It all came very quickly.  The biggest studios were two track back in ’59 and ’60.  Then Atlantic Records started.  From what I understand, the first four track, then eight, then sixteen went on from there.

So, around this time you had your first record deal?

I had a record deal, yeah.  Actually, what I was seeing were agents and managers who saw me for different gigs in night clubs.  Also, the performance scene was very different then.  Actually, I enjoyed it a lot.  There were night clubs, supper clubs, small places, lounges, and you really could communicate with people.  It was very enjoyable.  It was like singing at parties.  In fact, I did sing at a lot of parties.  I’d be hired just to sing at a party. 

Once, I was actually booked by a big agency called ITA.  They needed a folk singer for a wedding reception down in Houston, Texas.  I made almost a thousand dollars, plus costs, flying down there.  They even put me up in a motel.  It was a huge wedding at a club, a country club.  There were hundreds and hundreds of people there.  They had a dance band in one room, and I was in the folk room, which is where I first sang Mud in front of a  lot of people.  I kept singing it over and over because they thought it was a funny song and people kept bringing more people.  Then there were people from Texas Air who said, “Stay here and we’ll make you a star.”  But I never did stay.

I still have to pin you down about your first recording deal.

I had a friend who took me to Atlantic Records.  He introduced me to Jerry Wexler, and I sang some of my songs which were, at that point,  Birds and the Bees, and Catch Me If You Can.  They liked those songs and were going to do a single.  Then Jerry went on vacation and passed me to Herb Abrahamson – we used to call him Doc Abrahamson.  He was the President of Atlantic.  For some reason, they never, ever talk about him anymore.

Anyway, I went to his apartment and played some of the songs.  He gave me some drum songs from New Orleans of Baby Dods, who was a New Orleans drummer.  Then he asked me to write a song to that rhythm, which I did, and it was a pretty decent song, called Tune Tom Toms  (back then, in New Orleans, they had these strip joints in which people played drums or toms).   This is way back in the thirties, forties, fifties.  So, I took the rhythm that had a little melody, wrote a song to the melody and then wrote a lyric.  I made the melody out of  what I could pick out from the tuned tom toms.  I think we did four sides.

At some point, he says, “Atlantic wants to sign you, but I am leaving.  I’m starting my own record label and I’d like you to be my first artist.”  So, I thought, well, this is wonderful!  I think I will go with him.  I mean, why not be the first artist of somebody who had been the President of Atlantic.  So, okay.  I didn’t stay with Atlantic.  I went with Doc Abrahamson and we recorded the four songs.  We recorded at a studio called Bell Sound.  Some wonderful, wonderful arrangements were made at a place named Roosevelt Music, with Jessie Stone who wrote quite a few hit records and just died in his nineties.  He rearranged Birds and the BeesCatch Me If You Can and a couple of other songs.  Well, we both worked with it.  And, by the way, Otis Blackwell (writer of Everybody’s Buddy) was part of Roosevelt Music.  This is not how I came to sing one of his songs, but it was coincident.  He had written many, many hit songs for Bobby Darrin, Elvis Presley, and other people.  He was considered one of the top writers. 

But nothing ever came out on Herb Abrahamson’s label.  Two or three months after recording he said, ‘Well, I am just dropping everything.”  I felt awful.  That was just an awful experience

Hilly KristalThe second one?

The first recording was not a deal.  Actually, I recorded somebody else’s music.  That was Freddy Annisfield,  who wrote for Gene Pitney and a few others.  He was successful and made his living writing music and songs.  He wrote  Man of the Sky, this being the early sixties, when we were putting out the Apollo space flights.  This song had to do with the astronauts, a single, with a kind of a love song on the other side.

That was recorded at A&R Studios, and, let me see, it was quite good.  They were all wonderful musicians.  I was just the singer.  I’d talk and sing it.  ‘Down on the Cape…..’ I forgot all the words, it was a long time ago, a talking/singing song about an astronaut.  Also, it was kind of an inspirational little love song.  I don’t remember the label but it was nice.  And it came out.  But they waited too long to put it out.  Two days later the Cuban Crisis started.  So, it really didn’t go anyplace.

But, this is the time you started to be drawn into running clubs and organizing other peoples’ music?

At this point,  I was singing at Radio City Music Hall, on a permanent basis.  I was trying.  I had an agent friend of mine, Irvin Arthur, in California, and I think at one point we were intending to start a club together.  He liked what I did and thought I would be a good front man.   I had never thought of having a club, but we had a place in mind, although it never went through.   Then I started to manage the Village Vanguard, my first job in music that wasn’t singing, I guess.  Of course, I heard some of the best jazz anybody could ever want to hear.  I heard Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Coltrane: just everybody.  It was wonderful!

How far before CGBG was that?

That was back in ’59, ’60, ’61.  Briefly, I went back a couple of times to sing at Radio City.  Then I was back at the Vanguard.  I was also hired to produce shows.  Actually, I was hired to write and do advance work for an up-and-coming folk and jazz tour sponsored by the Ford Motor Company.  I ended up being the producer, doing over three hundred college concerts.  That was in ’63 and ’64, around the time when the Ford Mustang came out.  Lee Iacocca [Ford’s President] was trying to make it a young car company, giving it a youthful image.  We would give folk and jazz concerts at colleges and universities all over the country.  I would book them and get the entertainment, put the things together and even go on tour with them.

So it took twelve years for you to get to the start of what is possible the longest phase of your life, which is CBGB.

Well, from there, I started a club. And Ron Delsener and I started the Central Park Music Festival.  I also started a club on Ninth Street [between 5th and 6th Avenues], where there is now a wonderful restaurant called Bondini’s, but this was called Hilly’s.  It was a restaurant/club and it did a lot of showcase music in ’66, ’67, ’68, ’69.  By the time I got to CBGB, it was December of ’73.  Going on my experience, I thought of country music more or less as Country Blue Grass Blues, which is, of course, what CBGB stands for, not really Nashville country.  I thought of it as folk and the fiddler convention-type music and blues.  And that is what I intended to do. 

I  heard that a lot of the cool clubs at that point were playing this kind of music.  A lot of artists just started.  Actually, on the Bowery we had a lot of artists.  The Bowery, of course, was really the den of inequity at that point, with twenty thousand lost souls, so to speak.  People would know where to go.  Mostly all the alcoholics would hang out on the Bowery.  It was quite a mess, but I got this big bar, one of the biggest bars I ever saw in my life, and I bought it.  And, that’s what I intended to do–Country Blue Grass Blues.  So, until then I was doing a lot of other kinds of things: singing, a lot of night clubs, managing places, producing shows, etc.  I didn’t intend to be here all these years.  But it happened, didn’t it?

What was the incident with pigs getting loose at Hilly’s?

The pig incident Oh!  I had a lease on CBGB here and had a lot of problems.  I closed it up for a few months and got another place in the West Village, on Thirteenth Street [between 5th and 6th Avenues].  For the opening, I had a country band.  It was a crazy opening!  I had a hay ride and I got all these rented animals and I put them in the check room.  I think there was a sheep or a goat and a couple little pigs.  The pigs escaped into the room and were running around–tiny little pigs were just running all over the place, very hard to catch.  I think the person in charge of the animals eventually caught it.   Otherwise, we would have roast pork!

What was the inspiration for the song Mud?

Well, I hate to tell you, but I’ve written another song called A Christmas Song, which was a beautiful ballad.  That was way back in the fifties, I think.  Back then, on a single record, your A side was your key song and your B side was your supporting song.  If you go into the forties and fifties that’s what most of the records were.  Only established artists who were around a while got to make full-length records.  I just wanted to write, for this ballad, an amusing little song for the other side.  I don’t know how I thought of it.  The only inspiration is that I wanted to write a fun Christmas song for the flip side of a single record.  That’s it.

Mud So Mud wound up on the B Side on the 1976 Christmas CBGB record. It was in the 80’s when we were propping up the bar that you had the idea of doing it differently…

I put that record out as a promo.  I never really released it, just made up a lot to send as Christmas presents.   I put a green and red label and actually sent it as a Christmas card.  The Shirts and a couple of other groups helped me put it together.  We literally recorded it, mixed it in four hours–the whole thing–both sides.  It sounds like it, too.

There are quite a few notables on that record playing.

Really!  Who?

I was asking you.

I don’t remember.  Actually, Craig Leon and Genya Ravan.  Well, I know Genya said that eeuugh at one point [a special moment just ahead of the third chorus].  They had fun with it and sort of produced it with me.  Craig, of course, did the first Ramones record and mixed the first couple of Blondie records and is still very active.  He lives just outside of London.  In fact, Craig did the latest Blondie record that’s just out.  I’ve kept in touch with him through the years.  But we were just fooling at the time.  We had put out that ’76 album,  the compilation album [Live At CBGB,a double-album anthology of the bands of the time].  Actually, it got reviewed.  It even got reviewed in Billboard.  Good review.  What do they know!

But, it was your idea to do Mud to a different drum in the early 80’s?

Oh, well, I don’t know if it was my idea or yours [Mike Thorne’s].  Obviously, I met you through–one of the bands on that double album– The Shirts. I loved The Shirts.  They were a band from Brooklyn, an odd band doing their own thing.  Their music, though simple, had some complexities, and was a little different.  I think that if they did it today, they would become big stars, 22 years later.  They almost did then.  Seymour [Stein, one of the founders] at Sire Records, who had signed the Talking Heads and the Ramoneshad come down to CB’s and saw them perform.  He liked them, but he wasn’t into this kind of music.  He got in touch with somebody in London, Nick Mobbs, head of A&R for EMI, who loved them.  He came to New York, heard them, loved them, signed them, and that is how we met.  You became the producer.

Do you think the songs have different impact in their new forms?  For example, Mud is a powerful dance record and Rock ‘n’ Roll Jackson uses electronics.  Do you think they are the same songs or do you think they have changed?

Yeah, well there is a change.   They are in a dance.  I don’t know, it’s kind of basically the same.  Of course, I re-wrote a lot of the stuff [for the new recording]. Mud, for instance.  I wrote a lot more to make it a whole different kind of record.  The Birds and the Bees is pretty much what it was when I worked it out with Jesse Stone.  It was a shuffle rhythm.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Jackson actually was the first song I wrote.  John Jackson was the Vice President of Backstage Operations at Radio City Music Hall, and he saw me entertain.  When you perform at Radio City you are one in a whole group of people.  But he heard me sing and wanted to manage me.  We worked together for a few months and I came up with Rock ‘n’ Roll Jackson because…….. here is a very straight-laced, tall, very dignified guy with, a deep voice, very commanding, and very strict.  He had come out of show business and this very dignified guy could dance!  Actually, his stage family had used a bull whip, all part of their whole act.  Since this guy could dance, I kind of patterned it after him as a way to poke fun. 

And, of course, there is the Otis Blackwell song [Everybody’s Buddy].  I got that song by coincidence, even though I’d met him many years before.  There was a guy named Hy Weiss, who, I think, had published a lot of his music.  He said, ‘Here’s a song he never put out, never gave to anybody.’  So, he let me use it.  I guess I am the only one who has ever recorded it.  I thought it was a very good song.  Actually, I didn’t have the music.  All I had was Otis singing on the recording, you know, a little demo.

Hilly Kristal So, this brings you to the present day.  What do you think the connections between your music and, say, a raucous band at CBGB?  Do you think it’s part of the same musical spectrum?

I don’t think there is any connection.  You know, I have never sung here at CBGB.  Ever.  Not ever, in 25, 26 years.  I don’t feel that what I do fits.  I must say that The Gallery, which I started some eight or nine years ago, and where we do more acoustic music, is getting to be very, very popular, maybe more sometimes than CBGB.  CBGB has the aura and the fame, but CB’s Gallery–I think the current crop of music people seem to like is more of a mixture of acoustic with electronic. It’s a little more varied.

Actually, I think the music scene today is so varied.  In one sense it’s not good, because there is just a myriad of records coming out: a lot of mediocre and bad stuff that just doesn’t represent anything.  I mean there’s five, six hundred a week.  But:, the other thing that’s good is that any kind of music is acceptable and can get heard or played someplace.  Of course, all this is happening on the Internet.  I think the Internet is a really wonderful medium for hearing new things.

I think the Internet may be the medium of the future to hear new music, see new art, or at least to get a glimpse, get a feeling for what you like.  Actually, look at what you’re doing [The Stereo Society].  You’re taking a lot of things that may be a little obscure in some ways, and you don’t want to bother with some of the record labels.  You just want people to hear them.  I think there are more people like you taking some really interesting things and producing it and putting it together.  I think it’s fascinating.  A lot of people will gravitate towards them, will want to hear these artists and buy the music (aside from me).

You mentioned that your music doesn’t fit.  Perhaps, a few years ago, that was a very big disadvantage because there was no slot available for it.  Do you see things widening to the point where any type of  music which makes people sing, dance, laugh or cry will be accessible, or do you think there will always be streams of musical types?

Hilly KristalI think there will always be streams of types of music, but I think the Internet will produce new kinds.  I mean, you can’t keep people off the Internet.  So if they like it, they’ll talk about it.  It’s a good way and also a beginning.  This is 1999. In another two, three years it’ll be more and more meaningful.  It’s like television, which started in ’48, ’49, ’50.  A few thousand people had it.  Then, a few hundred thousand, then a million, two million.  Back when some of the big shows were getting started, I don’t think there were more than ten million, twenty million TVs in the US, and very few in other countries.  So I think we’re now just about parallel with TV’s getting started, and I think it’s just a wide open field.  At this point, it looks like it is going to be very good for hearing new music.

So: for a final question, which you must have been asked so many times.  I suspect, though, that the answer is a moving target:  ‘If you were an aspiring musician starting out today, how would you do it?’

Hilly KristalWell, I’d come to CBGB and audition.  No, seriously, but I would if I wanted to do pop or rock.  Oh, I don’t know, it’s hard to instruct somebody.  First of all, I think the most important thing, (at least I feel it is the most important thing), is for people who are artists to have a strong feeling of themselves, and to be true to themselves.  I think to make a dent in this world, talented or not talented, you have to be very strong in your conviction, and you have to express it.  So I will say: do the music out of love, for the way you’re feeling is a form of expression.  That was how this whole scene started, back twenty-five years ago.  People were doing their own thing and didn’t care about the success.  They just wanted a form of self-expression.

I think, in this day and age, make this your first focus.  The second is to learn the techniques of producing the music.  Learn to play the different instruments.  Learn about them, but first get that thing inside of you and figure how to make it come out so that it’s you.  And, when you are more than one person, it can be combinations of voices whether it’s instruments or textures, but you have to have a strength in that.  And, of course, the more you learn the more you can feel about humanity, sociology, etc.  Everything helps.  The whole world is there.  When you write a song, when you put a piece of music down, the more you have behind you, in you when you do it, and the freedom with which you let it out so that people can hear it, is the beginning of being an artist.  I think.