The Scene was one of New York’s hippest Sixties venues and the place where many underground British groups, including Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd and Traffic, played on their way to stardom.
Jimi Hendrix was a regular at Steve Paul’s club, guesting with Ten Years After, as was Arthur Brown, who later recalled: “Steve somehow created an atmosphere in which diverse musicians would want to get up and jam together.”
The epitome of a mover and shaker, Paul also managed Johnny Winter for 15 years, negotiating the fiery guitarist a landmark deal – reportedly for $600,000 over five years – with Columbia Records in 1968, and helping to establish him on the world stage. From 1973, Paul also headed Blue Sky, a label bankrolled by Columbia, where Winter and his multi-instrumentalist brother Edgar continued their careers, though its biggest successes came from Winters collaborators and acolytes such as the guitarist Rick Derringer and the “Instant Replay” and “Relight My Fire” singer and songwriter Dan Hartman.
Blue Sky also issued four solo albums by the New York Dolls frontman David Johansen and introduced the bluesman Muddy Waters to a new generation of listeners with three Grammy-winning albums – Hard Again, I’m Ready and Muddy ‘Mississippi’ Waters – Live – produced by Johnny Winter in the late 1970s.
Born in New York in 1941, Paul was the son of a high-school principal but never intended to follow a traditional career path. Fascinated by the nightclubs he saw on the silver screen, he dreamed of opening his own. “I’d create me a world of reality within the world of reality. Make your dreams come true,” he wrote in Hullabaloo magazine in 1967. He started out doing public relations for a couple of New York restaurants and helped popularise the Peppermint Lounge, the Manhattan bar associated with the twist craze of the early Sixties. By 1965 he had enough money to turn a labyrinthine, cavernous, 5,000sq ft club, located on 46th Street near Times Square, into Steve Paul’s The Scene.
Originally a Big Apple take on the discothèque concept pioneered by Régine in Paris, the club attracted a hip, after-hours clientèle which included entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr, Liza Minnelli and Richard Pryor as well as the author Tennessee Williams and the artist Andy Warhol, whose Factory was a stone’s throw away, but the place soon lost its cachet and closed for a brief period. “We owed $90,000,” he recalled. “We weren’t even doing business on Saturdays.”
Thankfully, the poet Allen Ginsberg and Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary came to the rescue and the reopened club found its bohemian niche alongside Cafe au Go Go in Greenwich Village and Ondine under the 59th St Bridge. The Velvet Underground and Nico made several appearances in early 1967, while Tiny Tim, strumming his ukulele, became the regular opening act – “365 days of the year” claimed the ads – for myriad headliners including Tim Hardin, The Doors and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who made their New York debut at The Scene in July 1967.
Two months later Paul hosted a TV special, Steve Paul’s The Scene, featuring Aretha Franklin, the Chambers Brothers, Moby Grape, Janis Ian, the Young Rascals and the Blues Project, now archived at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York. The club welcomed more acts from the British Isles, including Joe Cocker, Jethro Tull, Van Morrison and Spooky Tooth, before closing its doors in 1970, the year it was featured in the notorious Groupies documentary. By then, Paul was spending most of his time managing Johnny Winter.
He had read a Rolling Stone article which called the Texas-based albino guitarist “the hottest item outside of Janis Joplin,” and brought him to New York, where he appeared with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper at the Fillmore East in 1968. Winter became a mainstay at The Scene, inevitably jamming with Hendrix, and made the US charts with his eponymous 1969 debut for Columbia, for which Paul wrote liner notes in his typical “hipster” style: “A great blues player. And a human being. With feeling. Getting what he deserves. A chance to let other people feel through his music. As he has felt from other blues people.”
He booked Winter at Woodstock but couldn’t reach an agreement for his performance to be included in the documentary or the two live albums issued the following year. When Winter’s rhythm section quit after Second Winter, Paul put the guitarist with the McCoys – including Derringer – who were struggling to shake off the bubblegum success of “Hang on Sloopy” and had become resident band at The Scene. The new line-up caught fire, triumphed at the Albert Hall in April 1970 and charted in the UK with Johnny Winter And, including the Derringer song “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo”, as well as Johnny Winter And ... Live.
However, their progress stalled as Winter struggled with heroin addiction though Paul encouraged his client to clean up and admit to his foibles when he returned with Still Alive And Well, his highest-charting US album, in 1973. Winter sometimes criticised Paul for putting too much emphasis on the big Columbia advance but the visionary impresario paid a big part in his success.
Paul subsequently produced musical revues on and off Broadway. Recently he developed downtownTV, an online entertainment network, taking his customary zest for networking, once lauded in the pages of the New York Times, Newsweek and The Village Voice, into the virtual world.
Stephen Neal Paul, club owner, manager and entrepreneur: born New York 28 April 1941; died New York 21 October 2012.
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