Tower of Power’s Emilio Castillo and Doc Kupka Recall the Cozy Greenwich Village Club
Before it closed in January 2004, The Bottom Line presented artists that included Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, Miles Davis, Linda Ronstadt, Hall & Oates, Carly Simon, James Taylor and Van Morrison. Lou Reed, Johnny Winter and Patti Austin recorded live albums from its tiny stage.
Owners Allan Pepper and Stanley Snadowsky opened the Greenwich Village club in February 1974. “What we wanted was an intimate place where people could sit and listen to music,” Pepper told USA Today. “We designed the place so it was almost like an intimate theater.
"Also, we took the attitude that what we were selling is music. We never had a minimum. There was just an admission when people came in. You could sit and listen to music all night. If you didn’t want to eat and drink, nobody hassled you. We were about music.
“When we signed the lease, we both agreed we would take a name that both of us liked. I called up Stanley and said, ‘I think I’ve found the name… What’s the most used expression in this business?’ He immediately said, ‘The bottom line.’ He said it four or five times, like he was tasting it. Then he said, ‘That’s it.’ It stood for quality. What is the bottom line? It’s the essence.”
Columbia Records had high hopes for Bruce Springsteen’s third album, Born to Run, when he was booked at The Bottom Line for a five-night, sold out run ending Aug. 17, 1975. The Friday, Aug. 15 early show was broadcast live by WNEW-FM. The shows would catapult Springsteen to superstardom; by October, the singer-songwriter was on the cover of Time and Newsweek.
Springsteen and the E Street band gave blistering performances of songs that included “For You,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” Born to Run,” “She’s the One,” and “Thunder Road.”
"Thunder Road (Live at The Bottom Line)" by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
“On Top at The Bottom Line,” read the New York Daily News headline on Aug. 15. “For two years Bruce Springsteen’s fans have been predicting that his talent will explode him into rock stardom. From the looks of his reception at the Bottom Line this week, that day finally may have arrived.
"Springsteen gave the impression of sensing a turning point in his career. He was definitely up, his face beaming and full of energy, a couple of times going into the audience. He did two hours and 10 minutes the first show and had the strength to come back and repeat that length.”
“The records never lived up to the live performance,” Pepper told USA Today. “You had to see him in person… I never saw somebody that charismatic take the stage. I was just floored. He owned the stage. When he came on, he was on fire.”
As lesser-known artists were booked into the 400-seat club, crowds dropped off to the point that Pepper and Snadowsky could no longer pay the rent. The club closed in 2004, just shy of its 30th anniversary. New York University, which owns the building, eventually turned the site into classrooms. Snadowsky died in 2013.
Tower of Power, the funky West Coast R&B group that scored hits in the ’70s like “You’re Still A Young Man,” “So Very Hard to Go” and “What is Hip?” were practically The Bottom Line’s house band; in 25 years they appeared there 30 times. Saxophonists Emilio Castillo and Stephen “Doc” Kupka of Tower of Power recalled what was special — and not so special — about The Bottom Line.
What were your first appearances like?
Emilio Castillo: We asked, “Can we get something to eat?” and they wanted the money up front. And we just couldn’t believe the prices. “Don’t we get a discount at least?” “No.” And then somebody else wanted a pitcher of Coke and they were gonna charge us. So we went outside and got a Coke and they wouldn’t let us bring it in!
Doc Kupka: The owners were nice but notoriously tight. One time when they gave us a little bit of a raise I remember going to Allan Pepper and telling him, “Thanks for helping all of us break even.” They were nice guys but they were very hard-nosed business people.
Emilio Castillo: After a while we did really good and Allan would come backstage and say, “Guys, it’s great to have you back” and everybody loved us, including the staff. You know, we brought people in and they drank and they partied and they spent money. Keith Hernandez would come in there, he would drop tons of dough. A lot of famous people would come in, the whole scene was happening. We loved it.
Doc Kupka: It always took a long time to do sound checks. Equipment wasn’t the best. That being said, it was more than made up for by the excitement we felt from the crowd in an intimate setting like that. Being so close to a crowd, you can pick up the energy.
Emilio Castillo: We did some weird things. I remember we would step off the front of the stage and walk out onto the tables. I think about that now, I think, we were insane.
Did you share the bill or were you booked to play the whole night?
Emilio Castillo: We shared the bill a few times but eventually it wasn’t necessary. One thing about Allan and Stanley, they weren’t gonna spend an extra dime if they didn’t have to. What really worked was they would have a comedian open. Chris Rock opened for us. He was nobody then, but I remember him. He would get ’em laughing and then we’d come out.
When was the last time you were there?
Emilio Castillo: When the place was threatened, we hadn’t played there in years. And we went back and did a show to help them out. Stanley sort of poured out his heart to me about what a raw deal they were getting, thanks for helping and all this stuff. And then the last time I was there, I was in the Village and I found myself near The Bottom Line so I went over there.
And Allan comes down and we sit and talk and he was really angry. By this time, the word is out that they hadn’t paid their rent in two years. And Allan was really bitter. It was weird ’cause he talked to me as though I didn’t try to help him and where was I when he needed help. I was like, does he have brain damage or what? So that was kind of an uncomfortable deal: “Good to see you, Allan.”
Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.