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Monday 18 November 2019

Obituary: Paul Colby: Club owner who gave Bob Dylan and Woody Allen an early break

Club owner who gave Bob Dylan and Woody Allen an early break on the Greenwich Village scene

Paul Colby at the Bitter End in 1969 with the Everly Brothers behind him on stage
Paul Colby at the Bitter End in 1969 with the Everly Brothers behind him on stage

Paul Colby, who has died aged 96, sang backing vocals on Peggy Lee's Fever; helped Duke Ellington get his son into the United States Army Band; worked as Frank Sinatra's personal assistant; and made furniture for Miles Davis and Tony Bennett.

Colby became best known, however, as owner of The Bitter End, a nightclub in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, which offered a platform to such future stars as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Woody Allen and Billy Crystal.

Founded in 1961 by Fred Weintraub, the club was at the centre of the folk boom of the early Sixties. One of the first acts to perform there was a group called Peter, Paul and Mary, which used the club's brick walls as the backdrop for their album cover.

Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Curtis Mayfield, the Chad Mitchell Trio and Dion all recorded live albums there, while Bob Dylan used the club for rehearsals for his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. The folk singer Tom Paxton described The Bitter End as "a place to learn, to be bad, a place where you could clock your hours, learn what worked and didn't''.

Colby began managing the club in 1965, and bought it in 1974. In his memoir, The Bitter End: Hanging Out At America's Nightclub (2002, with Martin Fitzpatrick), he recalled Paul Simon interrupting a Simon & Garfunkel set to scold a noisy crowd ("The name of the game is to listen!"); Van Morrison kicking over tables and irritating his backing vocalists so much that they walked out mid-show; and Woody Allen being so overcome with stage fright that he tried to climb out of a back window before a show.

The star appeal of many of those who first trod the boards at The Bitter End was not always immediately apparent. Neil Young bombed, as did James Taylor when he played the club in 1969. "I was standing right there in the corner with Don Everly," Colby recalled. "The place was empty, and James Taylor was on the stage. And we looked at him and said, 'That's a genius.' [I paid him] $350 a week, and nobody came."

One of four sons of a tailor, Paul Colby was born in Philadelphia on October 4, 1917, and brought up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He studied textiles at school, served in the army and then worked as a shipping clerk.

Colby's career in the music business began when he was hired by a publisher to deliver sheet music. He worked for several music publishers, including Barton Music, where his job largely consisted of running errands for Frank Sinatra. In the early Fifties he set himself up as a maker of furniture, which he sold to stars he had met through his connections in the music world. After 10 years he took a job fixing elevators before landing the job of manager of The Bitter End.

The club did not have a licence to serve alcohol, so, on his own initiative and without telling Weintraub, his boss, Colby bought the bar next door, where patrons and performers from The Bitter End could go for hard liquor. Furious, Weintraub fired him.

Colby then changed the name of his bar to The Other End and invited folk artists to perform there – in competition with The Bitter End. In 1974 Weintraub conceded defeat and sold his venue to Colby.

Paul Colby, who died on February 13, is survived by his wife, Pamela Ann.

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