NEW YORK — The record studio wasn’t available that night in 1973, so the owner of music bar My Father’s Place, Michael “Eppy” Epstein, decided to broadcast his regular live weekly radio concert directly from his Long Island venue — a technological feat at the time.
The broadcast was to be the second performance at My Father’s Place for a young musician eliciting comparisons to a young Bob Dylan: Bruce Springsteen. This was two years before “Born To Run” informed the world of The Boss’ musical genius.
According to Epstein, Springsteen was a bit anxious leading up to the broadcast. They smoked a joint backstage before The Boss went out for WLIR’s first live broadcast from My Father’s Place.
Springsteen looked out at the tiny crowd. “Well, here we are, on the radio,” he said to begin the broadcast. “Damn, radio’s a nervous business.”
Springsteen paused to gather himself for a moment. “We were playing at Max’s Kansas City a few weeks ago. And some cat asked what Asbury Park [New Jersey] is really like… So I played them this song,” he said.
Springsteen opened with “Fourth of July, Asbury Park” — months before its release — for a few dozen audience members and countless others on the FM airwaves. The nerves eased away, and Springsteen delivered an epic hour-long performance.
“It was clear he was the future of rock n’ roll right there,” said Epstein. “What they were doing was so different.”
My Father’s Place, a divey Long Island night club advertising “IRISH COFFEE,” was the unlikely venue that helped launch stars such as Springsteen, Billy Joel and The Ramones. During its heyday in the ’70s and ’80s, music fans lined up outside My Father’s Place and young part-owner Epstein was living every Jewish kid’s dream.
Innovative business partnerships thought up by Epstein — such as live radio broadcasts — turned My Father’s Place into a staple of the populous suburban enclave. In time, the venue was written into the pages of rock history for its role in exposing emerging genres such as reggae, punk and new wave before they were all over American radio waves.
During his lifetime of musical exploits, Epstein says he has been privileged to have his “ass straightened out” by Bob Marley on “politics, ethics and how to be a human,” and learned what the Deep South was really like from Macon, Georgia’s legendary Duane Allman. But first, he laughs, he was just another “spoiled Jewish kid from Rockville Center.”
This June, 30 years after the original My Father’s Place closed, the 71-year-old bandana-brandishing hippie reopened his club. He still works tooth and nail to find and promote the next big thing in music: No cover bands, no crappy music — it’s a set of principles he preaches to the next generation of promoters and performers alike.
My Father’s Place, now reimagined as a supper club with world-class cuisine in a converted ballroom at The Roslyn Hotel, still hosts a lot of the musical acts and fans that frequented the old place a few blocks away.
But whether or not the venue that helped make Billy Joel and countless other household names will recapture its glory days, its first incarnation helped launch legends.
The roots of Eppy’s rock n’ roll legacy
Epstein was born into a family of Jewish hustlers with a history of snubbing their noses at authorities. His great-grandmother was a peasant in the fields of Bessarabia who illegally sold “nickel bags” of tobacco. After she was caught, her husband — who also acted as her lookout — took the blame. A rabbi, he died starving in prison after authorities refused to provide kosher food. The rest of the family fled to America.
Epstein’s parents lived in Brooklyn in close proximity to a dozen other socialist Jewish families, and, as Epstein put it, “the rich ones would carry the poor ones.” But his father was a self-educated engineering genius that came up with several innovations in zipper production, and by the time Epstein was five, they were wealthy enough to move to Rockville Center in Long Island.
Epstein found himself when he went off to college in Boston in 1967. He joined Students for a Democratic Society, worked at a head shop and mopped floors at The Ark, a prominent psychedelic night club.
During the Summer of Love, he was tasked with running a head shop in Cape Cod.
From behind the counter, he struck up a rapport with a tall, dark-skinned customer wearing a flat jacket and beads draped around his neck. The man turned out to be Richie Havens, a musician who would go on to Woodstock fame two years later.
The wise-cracking Jew from Long Island would make the most of his relationship with the folk star from Bed-Stuy: A musician himself, Epstein became Havens’s bag man and started to meet more people in the music scene through him.
Eventually, Epstein decided to drop out of school and set up a head shop in Roslyn, a quaint village on Long Island known for its dozens of pre-Civil War buildings and picturesque duck pond. He took a beautiful building built in the year 1830, and painted it purple and yellow.
“The village was not happy about me fucking up one of their landmark buildings,” Epstein laughingly told The Times of Israel.
The village cited zoning laws in preventing him from opening a small coffee shop there for folk singers to perform. Undeterred, Epstein approached the owner of a failed bowling alley nearby called My Father’s Place.
“The ballsy Eppy that I was, I said, ‘I’ll tell you what — if I fill this place up on the worst night of the year, will you give me 49 percent of the place for a dollar?’” Epstein said. “I had no fucking idea what I was talking about.”
The owner, Jay Lenihan, chose Memorial Day, 1971 to have the performance. Eppy called up his old friend Richie Havens to perform, and it sold out.
Slow beginnings give way to musical discoveries
It took some time for My Father’s Place to attract the stars and adoring fans it eventually became known for — this was Long Island, after all. But with occasional advice and help from industry insiders like Albert Grossman, things started to improve over the next couple of years. Acts like The Band started to come.
But even more important to the venue’s ascension was its relationship with WLIR, the famous Long Island radio station that introduced many envelope-pushing bands of the ’70s and ’80s to wider audiences.
Epstein arranged with WLIR to do a Tuesday night radio broadcast of performers, including then-unknowns like Jackson Browne, at a nearby studio. Record companies began to lend their talent for one hour of uninterrupted exposure on radio.
When Charlie Daniels called in sick right before he was scheduled to perform on air, Epstein was desperate for a replacement. He thought of an old childhood friend with some talent — named Billy Joel. The two were acquainted from playing in separate bands at My House, a teen club on Long Island. Epstein called Joel to ask if he could play that night, but the piano man said he was too busy working on his debut album.
With just hours before the broadcast, WLIR program director Ken Kohl stepped in to try to convince him.
Epstein recalled Kohl’s pitch. “Listen, I don’t know you and don’t know your music,” he told Joel, “but whatever record you have, if you help us tonight, we’ll play the shit out of it for six months like it’s the only record we have.”
Joel agreed, and the world got their first taste of him on radio. The resulting album, however, “Cold Spring Harbor,” was a disaster; a mistake in the tape’s mastering infamously made Joel’s voice a semitone higher than had been recorded. But Epstein and WLIR stuck to their word as Billy Joel became the first to truly launch his career at the radio station and music venue, where he played several times in his career.
Then came the 1973 Springsteen live radio broadcast.
Stony Brook University professor Norm Prusslin, a music historian that co-founded the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, noted the pioneering nature of WLIR’s broadcasts from My Father’s Place. “[Broadcasting live concerts on the radio] did exist in the country, but this was pretty early on for sure,” said Prusslin. “Now everyone does it, but it was very novel back then.”
The next big thing in music — in person and on the air
Record studios and band managers began lining up to have their acts perform at MFP and be broadcast on WLIR. With their newfound status, the two helped shape the emerging music of the ’70s and ’80s.
“It was a terrific relationship,” said Denis McNamara, a music legend in his own right who became WLIR’s program director in 1975. “We were a groundbreaking radio station, and My Father’s Place was a groundbreaking venue. We broadcasted so many shows from there, like The Police in ’79, that became legendary. Bootleggers went crazy for recordings of them.”
This enduring relationship with WLIR provided My Father’s Place a unique platform to push new bands and music genres. CBGB, for example, is the music venue most credited with developing punk and new wave in New York City. But record companies at first hesitated to sign the electrifying bands hailing from decrepit corners of The Bowery.
“It was all anti-establishment music that [record execs] didn’t know how to market,” explained Epstein.
Those bands at CBGB — The New York Dolls, The Stooges, The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, Television, Joan Jett, Talking Heads, to name a few — also played at MFP, which partnered with CBGB’s owner, Hilly Kristal. With so many of the bands still unsigned — and thus no records to play on air — WLIR broadcasted their performances at My Father’s Place for its legions of music-obsessed followers. From there, record company execs began to pounce.
Epstein also played a big role in getting reggae out into the American mainstream. He met Bob Marley and other reggae musicians on early trips to Jamaica, and he had many of them come to Long Island for their American debut, with WLIR partnering for reggae acts like Peter Tosh.
On Monday night reggae nights, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones became fixtures at MFP, dancing with patrons and joining bands onstage.
“It was no big deal. People were so stoned on pot it didn’t matter,” half-joked Epstein, who also hosted the influential “Punky Reggae Party” show on WLIR in the early ’80s.
But what truly distinguished My Father’s Place was its embrace of all kinds of musical flavors — blues legends B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Johnny Winter played there, as did James Brown, top Jazz acts, folk heroes like John Prine and Randy Newman, and comedians such as George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal and Andy Kaufman.
Just about whoever else was producing great music at the time — Aerosmith, Lou Reed, Tom Petty, Madonna, Meat Loaf, Captain Beefheart, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Squeeze, Black Flag, XTC and so many others — played there, too. Local band Blue Oyster Cult signed their major record deal there, while U2 had their first American gig in Roslyn.
“Eppy knew who to bring in at the right time,” said rock historian Prusslin. “And the connection to the other media [like WLIR] became a collective that completed the circle of what was needed to create a music scene by itself. It was a place to hear the best and newest in music, where a lot of artists that eventually became international superstars had their start.”
The suburbs were sleepy no more
“Long Island is one of the biggest markets in the country,” said Alex Ewen, a current business partner of Epstein’s. “Because it was the only club of its size on Long Island and had a wide variety of acts, that meant that everyone from Long Island went out to My Father’s Place if they wanted to see anything.”
And even if they didn’t see it, they’d often hear it on WLIR — which reached as far as Manhattan, where devoted listeners craned for a radio signal from out east.
“Eppy was larger than life,” said Prusslin. “You say people with one name like Cher or Madonna, and you know who they are. In the Long Island music scene, ‘Eppy’ was like that.”
In 1987, the same year the FCC forced WLIR to shut down, the village of Roslyn refused to renew MFP’s license due to insufficient parking. The music venue that presented over 3,000 different acts to a generation of music fans was gone in an instant.
An embittered Epstein continued to promote and advise new acts, but for decades, he tried to bring back the music venue to Roslyn. The legacy of My Father’s Place, meanwhile, only grew. Prusslin, who frequented the venue in the late ’70s and early ’80s, recalled wearing an MFP shirt in Santa Fe, New Mexico last year and being stopped by someone who heard stories about the famous Long Island venue on the West Coast.
With the resurrection of My Father’s Place, what excites Epstein most about bringing back that old magic is finding and developing new talent. The “awful” state of the corporate music industry demands it, he believes.
“It takes years to develop a band. Unlike a pop act, you can’t create U2 or The Stones — all those bands took years before they made a record,” said Epstein. “You need that investment, but nobody wants to do that anymore. They hope you become a sensation on YouTube, and then they sign you — but by then, you don’t need them.”
Today, there isn’t much groundbreaking radio like WLIR, nor “the starmaking machine” at record companies that delivered emerging stars to his suburban venue. The music scene has changed so much that Epstein believes there is “no way” My Father’s Place would have made it today starting from scratch.
But Epstein and his business partners, CFO Ewen and COO Dan Kellachan, are determined to utilize their clout to develop new acts the old-fashioned way.
“When I found out this place was opening up with the same name and all the history, immediately, I thought, ‘Wow, there’s no way they’re going to want to bring in up and coming bands,” said Dylan Gleit, a multi-instrumentalist for the psychedelic indie soul band Ritual Talk. “When he reached out to us, I was dumbfounded. It really means a lot when Eppy has seen so much talent through the door.”
For Epstein, “It’s not about making money,” as he said to a business partner over the phone. “It’s about the song. Give me a song that creates a chemical reaction within me.”