Article 1966-11-00 New York City, NY

The Castiles at the Café Wha? – An Overview

Café Wha?, located at 115 MacDougal Street in the west village of New York City, opened in the 1950s. Under the guidance of owner/manager Manny Roth, it became a prominent, cutting edge musical venue during the 1960s. A plethora of famous musicians played there (many of them unknowns who were just getting started). The now legendary club still operates to this day in the same location as it did all those years ago. Bob Dylan’s first ever stage performance (a walk-on) in New York took place at the Café Wha in January 1961.

Although known more as a folk/blues club in the early 60s, the Café Wha? began hiring rock bands in the wake of the1964 Beatles / ‘British Invasion onslaught. So by 1965-66 the Café Wha? was catering for all types of music. A then unknown Jimi Hendrix performed at the Café Wha? with his short-lived band Jimmy James & The Blue Flames during May-July 1966. One of these shows (July 5th) was attended by Chas Chandler (then bass player for The Animals). Chandler promptly signed Hendrix and whisked him off to England in September 1966 to record a debut album and form a new band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

The Castiles (and Springsteen) legacy at the Café Wha? begins several months after the then unknown Jimi Hendrix had departed the Café Wha?/Village scene.

Members of The Castiles had been asking (pestering) their manager, Gordon “Tex” Vinyard, to try and get them booked at the club, a daunting task, as not only were the band unknown outside of a small area of suburban New Jersey but there were hundreds of bands in the wider region in the same boat, all wanting to land gigs at a trendy NYC village club. Yet somehow the crafty Tex Vinyard managed to get them a tryout, and lo and behold they passed the audition. The Castiles had their foot in the door.

The precise timeframe of The Castiles appearances at Café Wha? has been the subject of much speculation over the years, made more confusing by the fact that no ‘exact date’ memorabilia has emerged from the band’s performances there. The Café Wha? only advertised generically in newspapers, it didn’t promote non-famous artists by name. However after evaluating scattered interview comments by Springsteen through the years, interview comments by band member Bobby Alfano, comments by artists who performed with The Castiles at the venue and, lastly, after extensive Brucebase communications with band leader George Theiss, a far more accurate picture has finally emerged.

The Castiles performances at the Café Wha? appear to have spanned a period of about 15 months from around late November 1966 to about February 1968. The band performed about 30 times at the club (manager Tex Vinyard recalled '29 shows' in an interview and The Castiles founder, George Theiss, has recalled to Brucebase that 30 shows is indeed about the right total). Contrary to myth, the band were never contracted by the club for a large block of advanced bookings ,The Castiles, like all the other 'no record deal' bands, essentially worked from month to month at the venue, performing when and if slots became available.

George Theiss has noted to Brucebase that when The Castiles first began performing at Café Wha? there just so happened to be filming taking place at the club for the major Hollywood spy-spoof movie ‘In Like Flint’ (starring James Coburn). However, research has shown that the James Coburn movie was actually The President's Analyst, which opened in New York on December 21, 1967. It seems possible that the Cafe Wha? scenes were shot in late 1966, matching the time that The Castiles are believed to have began performing at the club.

Songwriter/singer Alan Merrill (lead singer of British band Arrows and co-writer of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll", which Joan Jett and the Blackhearts later covered in 1981, see note below) has commented that his 1966-67 group, 'Watertower West', often shared the bill at the Café Wha? with The Castiles. Merrill’s recollection is that these gigs were primarily during early-mid 1967. Springsteen recalled in a 1978 magazine interview in The Aquarian that Frank Zappa’s band The Mothers of Invention were performing regularly at other clubs in the New York City village during the same period that The Castiles were performing gigs at Café Wha?. Springsteen’s comment here is further supporting evidence that The Castiles performed at Café Wha? during the late 1966 and early 1967 timeframe. Zappa’s group arrived in New York City (from its California home base) in mid Nov 1966. The extensive Zappa club performances with ‘The Mothers” (at ‘The Ballon Farm’, 'Garrick Theater’, ‘Village Gate’ and ‘Café Au Go Go’) first began in late Nov 1966 and continued only until late June 1967. Zappa and The Mothers were not involved in the village club scene after June 1967, they were touring nationally in concert hall venues.

The previously mentioned club ‘The Ballon Farm” (its building also housed another famous club, ‘The Dom’, where The Velvet Underground played) changed ownership and was renamed ‘The Electric Circus’ in mid 1967. Springsteen also recalled in The Aquarian interview that “Mr Bojangles” songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1967-68 rock band Circus Maximus was also performing in the village during the period he was there with The Castiles. Springsteen’s comment allows the tail end of The Castiles Café Wha? timeline to be confirmed, as Circus Maximus did not even form as a band until Aug 1967 and they played an extensive residency at ‘The Electric Circus’ in the East Village from September to Dec 1967. This indicates The Castiles were still playing at Café Wha? in late 1967. In addition John Hall, bassist in the 1967-68 band Kangaroo (Hall is more famously known as leader of the 1970s hit group ‘Orleans’), has commented in interview that Kangaroo shared the stage several times with The Castiles at the Café Wha?. Kangaroo did not form as a band until the autumn of 1967 and Hall’s band only played the Café Wha? from about Nov 1967 to about March 1968.

The vast majority of the 30 or so performances by The Castiles at Café Wha? were daytime shows held over the weekend. The group sometimes played on one day, sometimes on both weekend days. These shows catered for the teen crowd (no alcohol served). Some of these daytime shows were sponsored by New York radio station WMCA-AM as part of its ‘Gary Stevens-Good Guy DJ’ shows. A typical daytime gig would find The Castiles performing alternate sets, from 1pm to 6pm with one or two other bands. Consequently over the course of this 15-month period they shared the bill with a plethora of unknown bands. Springsteen has mentioned two (The Raves and Robbin & The Hoods) in interview. However there were many others, including The Peepl, The Turnkeys, The Doughboys, The Roman Numerals, The Things, The Cherry People, Bo Grumpus and The Hello People.

Daytime shows were one thing. On the other hand the evening “adult” shows at the club (where alcohol was served) usually featured established artists with record contracts. The evening shows with 'name' artists the Café Wha? would advertise in the newspaper The Village Voice. It was George Theiss’ recollection to Brucebase that The Castiles never opened for, or performed with, any major group or artist at the Café Wha?. However during the last few months they performed at the club they were given an opportunity to headline a couple of early mid-week evening slots at the club.

The Castiles never performed in New York City at any other venue except Café Wha?. Intriguingly George Theiss has also mentioned to Brucebase that sometime in 1967, during one of the Café Wha? gigs, The Castiles were professionally recorded and filmed performing a set by a South African film crew who were in New York producing a documentary on the Café Wha?/Village music scene. This was the only professional film footage of The Castiles ever shot (no amateur footage is known). The name of the South African film company and/or its documentary and what, if any, footage of the band may have been in the documentary, or may survive elsewhere is unfortunately not known.

Note: Merrill's performance of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" on British television in 1975 earned his band Arrows a weekly TV series in 1976, which is where Joan Jett heard the song while on tour with the Runaways. Read about Alan Merrill's recollections of his time at Cafe Wha? here.
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