Sire Co-Founder Seymour Stein Honored as First Recipient of CBGB Icon Award
Seymour Stein (Photo: Bryan Bedder)
Seymour Stein (Photo: Bryan Bedder)
The lobby of the Bowery Hotel was packed with music industry luminaries including Sire Records co-founder Richard Gottehrer and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye to celebrate the presentation of the first inaugural CBGB Icon Award to Sire-co-founder Seymour Stein, historically one of the most gifted label executives when it comes to discovering and signing new talent.
The hotel was filled with portraits of bands he has signed over his astonishing career: the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Dead Boys, Madonna, Depeche Mode, Echo & the Bunnymen, Tegan & Sara, and others.
When Stein and Gottehrer launched Sire in 1966, they started by looking overseas for talent from EMI and soon signed their first act Barclay James Harvest. Subsequent acts included Climax Blues Band, Ten Years After, Renaissance, and Stackridge. But it was at New York City's CBGB, which opened its doors in 1973, where Stein made some of his greatest musical discoveries. That's why Stein was the perfect recipient of the Icon Award, which kicked off the CBGB Music and Film festival October 8. Stein was close friends with CBs founder Hilly Kristal and worked with him over the years to sign bands that frequently played the club, including the Ramones, the Talking Heads -- and against the advice of many, the Dead Boys.
"That was a band that [CGBG owner] Hilly Kristal managed," said Stein said in a series of stories he told after Gottehrer presented him with the award. "They were a great f***ing band. They really were. And it’s sad [that vocalist Stiv Bators was hit by a taxi in France and died in 1990]. But [after I signed them they were playing and] I [went] down to that toilet. I mean, that really was a toilet. And I see up on the wall, 'Seymour Stein, you finally signed a great band, the Dead Boys.' So I get Stiv Bators and said, 'What is this?' And he said, 'I don’t know who wrote that.'"
Stein also spoke about the time he first heard the Talking Heads opening for the Ramones, who, at the time, were co-managed by his ex-wife. Stein actually thought a band called the Shirts were on the bill before the Ramones, because that's what Johnny Ramone told him.
"[The Ramones] were in and out of my apartment. They knew everything that was going on," recalled Stein. "One Sunday I come home and 10 minutes later the phone rings and it's Johnny. He goes, 'Seymour, y'know, we've got some new songs.' And I said, 'Look, it’s a Sunday. Give me one day to clear everything up, and come in any time you want Tuesday. And he said, 'Seymour, we know you’re not doing anything Wednesday night so we booked ourselves into CBGBs.' And I said, 'Great, I’ll see you there. Who’s the opening act?' And he said, 'The Shirts.' So I'm standing there with Lenny Kaye and all of a sudden I hear the opening band go on. [Stein starts to sing] 'When my love stands next to your love.' I couldn't believe what I was hearing."
He knew immediately the band wasn't the Shirts but couldn't place them. They sounded artsy but melodic. The guitars chimed, but were choppy. The vocals were nasal, yet insistent.
"The music actually was like a snake charmer that sucked me in," Stein reflected. "I said, 'Lenny, this isn't the Shirts!’ And he said, 'No, Hilly got them a paying job in Staten Island.' Because Hilly was managing them. 'These are the Talking Heads.' I was riveted. I just stood there for the entire set. Then I rushed over to the stage like I was 17 years old and I started helping [bassist] Tina [Weymouth], who was stronger than me even then. And David [Byrne] says to me, 'Look, we have a loft down at Chrystie Street. Why don’t you come and see us tomorrow?' And that’s how I found and signed the Talking Heads."