Cafe Wha? opened in ’59 and is on the corner of Macdougal Street between Bleecker and West 3rd Street in the Greenwich Village about two blocks from Washington Square Park in Manhattan.
The club has been home to (and began the careers of) many musicians and comedians including Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Richard Pryor.
As a hangout for Ginsberg and the “Beat Generation” it became a stomping ground for many great artists at the start of their careers and known for its support of great talent.
Opened by Manny Roth – the uncle of David Lee Roth, frontman in 80′s Van Halen, the place was referred to by New Yorkers as one of the cities basket-houses - a den for intellectuals, hippies and aspiring folk and rock muso’s – who got paid whatever was chucked in the basket by it’s basket-case patrons.
Dylan’s first ever NY appearance was at Cafe Wha? in ’61 – his very first day in NYC. Roth hired him off the street and put him on as backing for Fred Neil (who later wrote songs for Harry Nilsson). Dylan would also play solo performances for Manny but only in the afternoons, “from twelve to eight,” Dylan recalls, also saying that it was tough to get noticed at Cafe Wha? because of the huge amount of performers that went through there and that it was usually just “tourists looking for beatniks in the Village.”
Jimi Hendrix was most famously discovered by Chas Chandler while playing at Cafe Wha? during the summer of ’66 with his short lived outfit called Jimmy James and The Blue Flames. Chandler (who was ending his time as bass player of The Animals) promptly signed Hendrix and immediately brought him to the UK to form a new outfit called The Jimi Hendrix Experience and get to work recording his debut album “Are You Experienced”.
Hendrix was suggested to Roth by Richie Havens, who also got his start at Cafe Wha?, and Roth hired Jimmy James and The Blue Flames for three months, from May thru till July, to play their psy-funked cover versions of tunes.
During their residency as the Cafe Wha? house band, the band also featured Randy Wolfe who Hendrix dubbed “Randy California” and who would later go on to found Spirit with his step-father drummer, Ed Cassidy. Randy California was only 15!!! at the time he was in The Blue Flame and it niggles me that he didn’t go to England with Hendrix and become part of The Experience, but still, Spirit are amazing, so it’s not all that bad.
A girlfriend of Keith Richards, Linda Keith, befriended Hendrix in New York sometime in ’66 and recommended him to the Stones flamboyant manager – Andrew Loog Oldham – but he wasn’t interested so she later recommended him to Chas Chandler who saw Hendrix at the Cafe Wha? on July 5th and reckoned he could make a killer single out of “Hey Joe”. The rest is history…
Although Hendrix and Dylan were Cafe Wha?’s most famous exponents, they only met once during that time in New York, at another village bar called The Kettle Fish.
Cafe Wha? is open to this day, although it was sold by Manny Roth in 1988, and is still supporting up and coming talent with its open mic nights and open door procedures.
Tags: 50′s, 60's, 70's, america, Andrew Loog Oldham, Are You Experienced, Bleecker Street, blues, Bob Dylan, Cafe Wha?, Chas Chandler, David Lee Roth, Ed Cassidy, Fred Neil, Greenwich Village, Harry Nilsson, Hey Joe, jimi hendrix, Jimmy James and The Blue Flames, keith richards, Lenny Bruce, Linda Keith, Macdougal Street, manhattan, Manny Roth, new york, new york city, New Yorkers, nyc, Randy California, Randy Wolfe, Richard Pryor, Richie Havens, sixties, Stones, The Animals, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Velvet Underground, Van Halen, Washington Square Park, West 3rd Street, Woody Allen