Manny Roth, Cafe Wha? Owner and Pivotal 1960s Rock Figure, Dead at 95

The venue would host performances by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen over the years

Manny Roth and David Lee Roth
Courtesy of David Lee Roth/Ultimate Classic Rock
Manny Roth and David Lee Roth
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Manny Roth, founder of the New York City club Cafe Wha? – where Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen and more played in their formative years – has died. He was 95.

The Truth Behind Bob Dylan's First Encounter With Cafe Wha?

"He was a legend in discovering talent, and he will be dearly missed by us all," a message on the venue's Facebook page said. "Thanks for everything, Manny, and we hope to continue your legacy long into the future."

Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth, Manny's nephew, offered up a tribute on his personal website. "He was happy, laughing and smiling right up 'til the end," he wrote. "His presence already missed, his contributions with us forever."

The elder Roth opened up Cafe Wha? in 1959, according to Ultimate Classic Rock, at the intersection of MacDougal St. and Minetta Lane in New York's Greenwich Village, an area that over the next decade would become the destination of folk artists across the country. "I used the last $100 I had to buy a truckload or so of broken marble with which to make the floor," Manny once said, according to Van Halen News Desk. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other Beat-generation luminaries had cocktails there, and eventually folk musicians like Bob Dylan – who reportedly made Cafe Wha? his first stop upon arriving in New York in 1961 – and Peter, Paul and Mary made its stage their home. The latter group's Mary Travers was a waitress at the club before teaming with her bandmates.

Over the years, rock took over at the club. As Ultimate Classic Rock reports, Animals bassist Chas Chandler spotted Jimi Hendrix playing with Jimmy James and the Blue Flames at the club, after which he signed the budding guitarist to a management contract. Acts like the Castiles, whose lead frontman was Bruce Springsteen, and Kool and the Gang performed there in the years that followed, as did comedians like Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, according to the website for the venue. Manny was even Pryor's manager at one point, according to Buzzfeed.

Roth sold Cafe Wha? around 1968, and, in the 1970s, the location became Cafe Feenjon. In 1974, Manny opened up another venue called the Village Gate, Buzzfeed reports. By the Nineties, he was also an owner of the West End Gate near New York's Columbia University. "This is where the [Beat] revolution started back in the 60's," Roth told The New York Times in 1994 of his new locale. "It was a lot dingier and grungier here back then."

In 1988, the owner of Cafe Feenjon, Noam Dworman, changed the name back to Cafe Wha?, as its house band began to take off. Dworman sold the club again in 2006. 

In January 2012, David Lee Roth and his Van Halen bandmates played a gig at Cafe Wha? in advance of releasing their most recent record, A Different Kind of Truth. David invited Uncle Manny, who had moved to California by that time and had not been to Cafe Wha? in two decades, to the show. "David called me and said, 'I've got great news. It's taken me 50 years, but I've finally made it,'" Manny told Buzzfeed. "He said he wanted to pay for my trip out there, but I wouldn't let him." Less than a year later, the younger Roth featured Manny on his video show The Roth Show.

"I'm not traveling much these days, but then my loved ones all convinced me I should come," Manny told Billboard at the time. And of his nephew, he said, "Dave is as good as it gets. He's like a son to me."