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Jerry Brandt, owner of The Ritz, who revolutionized rock concerts, dead at 82

BY EVERYNIGHT CHARLEY CRESPO | Jerry Brandt revolutionized the New York live-music industry in 1980 when he converted the dormant 19th-century Webster Hall in the East Village into The Ritz. Although no official obituary has been published yet, he reportedly died of COVID- and pneumonia-related causes in Florida on Sun., Jan. 16.

Brandt was born on Jan. 29, 1938, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. After serving in the U.S. Army, he entered the music industry as a messenger for one of the world’s biggest talent agencies, the William Morris Agency. Within a few years, he advanced to become the director of the agency’s pop music division. He reportedly discovered Chubby Checker, booked acts that included the Beach Boys and Sonny & Cher, brought the Rolling Stones to the States, and handled Sam Cooke, Dick Clark and Muhammad Ali for theatrical events. In 1967, he opened his first rock club, the Electric Circus, on St. Mark’s Place.

During his peak years, Brandt was New York City’s primary rock impresario. He will be remembered best for conceiving The Ritz, at 125 E. 11th St., the first large rock club in New York that had a dance floor in front of the stage rather than tables and chairs.

Jerry Brandt. (Instagram)

In 1980, disco was dead and danceable new wave rock music was booming everywhere. Videos featuring colorful rock musicians were prevalent, leading to the creation of MTV. Brandt adapted to the culture by hanging a 30-foot screen above the Ritz’s stage and showing videos between live acts. The Ritz immediately replaced the sit-down Bottom Line club as New York’s primary music industry showcase venue.

This writer first met and interviewed Brandt as he prepared to open The Ritz in 1980. That year alone, this writer attended concerts at The Ritz by Ray Barretto, Chuck Berry, the Buzzcocks, Carlene Carter, Joe Cocker, the English Beat, Nina Hagen, Hall & Oates, Joan Jett, the Jim Carroll Band, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dave Mason, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Robert Palmer, the Pretenders, Prince, the Psychedelic Furs, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, Ronnie Spector, Squeeze, the Stranglers, Thin Lizzy and U2.

After it was The Ritz under Jerry Brandt, 125 E. 11th St. was relaunched as Webster Hall. Constructed in 1886 as a “hall for hire,” the landmarked building is one of New York City’s most iconic nightlife spaces.
LIke other New York City live-music venues, Webster Hall, the former Ritz, has been closed during the pandemic. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

Brandt’s successes at The Ritz seemed limitless. U2’s first American concert was at The Ritz on Dec. 6, 1980. Tina Turner launched her comeback on that stage. Duran Duran performed there in September 1981 on the band’s first U.S. tour. Frank Zappa performed a 30-song set on Nov. 17, 1981, which was broadcast live by WLIR. Depeche Mode made its American debut at The Ritz in January 1982. Ozzy Osbourne recorded the live album “Speak of the Devil” at the club on Sept. 26 – 27, 1982. Sting made his solo debut there on Feb. 26, 1985. Many bands recorded live albums and/or filmed live sets at the venue.

Jerry Brandt.

The Ritz moved in 1992 to the site of the former Studio 54, and Brandt remained rather quiet in the music scene from then on. The Bowery Electric honored him with an 80th birthday concert celebration on May 9, 2018. In 2020, Brandt started a crowdsourcing effort for “The Ritz NYC: The Essence of Rock ’n’ Roll,” which he described as “a photo book capturing life at The Ritz and the Rock ‘n’ Roll icons it hosted.” The book was budgeted at $35,000, but he raised only $1,021, just 2 percent of his goal, and the project was shelved.

He did publish at least one book, a memoir, “It’s a Short Walk From Brooklyn, If You Run,” in 2014.

The famed Ritz logo.

Public Image Ltd. fueled perhaps the music club’s most controversial moment. On May 15, 1981, the British band, led by former Sex Pistols vocalist John Lydon, became a late substitution for Bow Wow Wow. Lydon and his new band performed behind a projection screen and played their records through the club’s public-address system while playing entirely different music onstage. This reporter remembers frustrated attendees in front pulling on the rug to try to bring the band forward, while audience members behind them booed and tossed bottles and other missiles at the stage, causing a near riot.

Jerry Brandt, center, in the 1980s with stars from the New York Mets, from right, Keith Hernandez, Ron Darling and David Cone, along with nightlife promoter and former pitcher Matt De Matt.

The last time this writer and Brandt spoke was about three years ago. He said that the promoters that followed him at the renamed Webster Hall were “genius.” He was referring to how the new promoters had turned the venue into three separate concert halls that operated simultaneously, and how they had added post-concert late-night rave parties on weekends.

Neither Brandt’s estate, his business office nor his family has issued a formal statement yet announcing his death. Brandt’s son, Alexander Brandt, posted on social media: “You always lived by you, and I’ll try to follow.” Brandt’s legacy is sure to live on.

For more on Jerry Brandt and The Ritz, watch the brief YouTube video “Jerry Brandt shares how ‘The Ritz NYC’ made music history in the ’80s.”

22 Comments

  1. Kate Walter Kate Walter January 19, 2021

    Great piece, Charley. Nice eulogy for The Ritz and its founder, Jerry Brandt. It was great club. Went there many times. I think my favorite concert was The Eurythmics with Annie Lennox singing. “Sweet Dreams are made of this.”

  2. Drew Stone Drew Stone January 19, 2021

    Legend. R.I.P. Jerry you brought joy to many.

  3. Stuart Sporn Stuart Sporn January 19, 2021

    A nice eulogy to an exceptional and innovative person. I first met Jerry in the early ’70s, at the French Jean Shop, which may have popularized designer jeans in America. At that time he was rooming with Andy Moog Oldham, associated with the Rolling Stones. RIP Jerry

  4. Delphine Blue Delphine Blue January 19, 2021

    Thank you for this eulogy. The video screen at The Ritz predated the debut of MTV. The Ritz with its proscenium arch-sized video screen opened on May 14, 1980. MTV made its debut in August of 1981. As always, Jerry was a step ahead.

    • Steven Steven January 19, 2021

      Beautiful eulogy, thank you. And yes, Jerry was way ahead of the curve, and very generous to me, a young kid who followed in his footsteps. Delphine, your kick-ass sets and video mashups were total inspiration to me. I’ve always thought Bowie/Queen’s “Under Pressure” video was a direct lift from your ideas on that 30X30 screen… thank you for making that room dance.

  5. Gary C Gary C January 20, 2021

    Worked for him when he owned the club Spo Dee O Dee on w23rd St. Cool stuff.

  6. Harvey Kresky Harvey Kresky January 20, 2021

    JERRY BRANDT
    Unarguably, the original, and the greatest-of-all-time R&R and R&B music agent.
    He heard and saw it all coming before any other music agent in the industry.
    He had the “best ears” that ever were, and the best ears that ever will be.

  7. Thomas Tully Thomas Tully January 20, 2021

    Worked onstage for the opening with Mike Scopino, Sam [The Rim Man] Ellis, Charlie Hernandes, Tall Paul, many others and of course Delphine Blue. Jerry was entertainment itself. We owe a debt of gratitude for a life of rock memories. Thanks, Jerry.

  8. Jeffrey Feinstein Jeffrey Feinstein January 21, 2021

    Jerry, Thank you for everything. You are definitely a legend and will be missed

    Jeffrey Feinstein

  9. Aliza Burton Aliza Burton January 21, 2021

    Lived right down the street and of course went many times because my roommate’s boyfriend was a manager there. Many years later I moved to Florida and dated Jerry. This was several years ago. And of course we talked plenty about The Ritz.

  10. Thom Williams Thom Williams January 21, 2021

    Remembering Jerry Brandt.

    We can’t all be in the parade.
    Some of us just stand on the sidelines and applaud, as the real heroes march by.

    Sadly, Thom Williams

  11. JonathanM JonathanM January 22, 2021

    My most memorable moment at The Ritz was at a show by the Bangles, before they made it big.
    Girl wearing too much makeup in the corner of the bar area was waving me over. Weird & a little scary. She wouldn’t stop, so eventually, I walked over to see what she wanted. She recognized me from college. She was unrecognizable with all that makeup. ’80s.

  12. Alan "G.I.Joe" Matthews Alan "G.I.Joe" Matthews January 29, 2021

    Nice article, but The Ritz moved to The Studio 54 space in April 1989, not 1992, and closed for good at the end of the summer of 1993.
    RIP Jerry.

    • Kati B Kati B July 17, 2021

      Yes!! I was noticing that too. Made me wonder what else might be incorrect in this article. I saw the Eurythmics in the new location in 1989

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