Walking into the elegant, dimly lit Bowery Hotel last night (Oct 8) for the CBGB Fest’s tribute to Seymour Stein, the recipient of the event’s inaugural Icon Award, one was immediately struck by several sharp contrasts that at times bordered on the outrageously ironic.
Guests, upon entering, were faced with two large boards with CBGBs printed on them which the several hundred well-heeled attendees were encouraged to tag – as in Graffiti. One for Mr. Stein, another for the backdrop of CBGBs that will be reconstructed for an upcoming recreation of the hallowed club/dive, a mere block away that has since become a John Varvatos outlet, a purveyor of fancy jeans.
Next guests were confronted by a brightly lit step-and-repeat where a Getty photographer and others shot smartly dressed VIPs against a backdrop of the CBGB’s logo and a festival sponsor Coca-Cola. Here Mr. Stein posed along with some of NYC’s biggest music execs.
Seymour Stein with longtime friend and colleague and Sire co-founder Richard Gottehrer who called Stein "family" in his tribute. (Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)
Here, spotted mingling amongst the passed hors-d'oeuvres, was the Orchard’s (and Sire co-founder) Richard Gottehrer, former WMG exec Lyor Cohen, Ex-WMG chairman and CEO Edgar Bronfman, Jr., Beggars Group’s Martin Mills, Atlantic's Craig Kallman, Tommy Boy’s Tom Silverman, ADA’s Mike Jbara, Spotify’s Steve Savoca, ex-Sire execs Risa Morley and Sandy Alouete, Patti Smith Band guiarist Lenny Kaye, manager and journalist Danny Fields; Pandora’s Tommy Page, Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer, Astralwerks' Glenn Mendlinger, Razer & Tie's Craig Balsem, A2IM's Rich Bengloff, CBGB Fest's (and former CBGB booker) Louise Parnassa Staley; Philly DJ Jerry Blavat (AKA "The Geator with The Heator") and rock photographer Bob Gruen.
When approached for comment, Mr. Stein’s only words to this reporter, were “Where is [Billboard senior correspondent] Ed Christman?”
The estimable Mr. Mills (whom Stein himself introduced when A2IM honored Mills at its annual Libera Awards) offered that he was most impressed with how active Stein remains today and how often he sees Seymour out and about.
Tommy Silverman noted the influence Stein had on his life. While the music exec wouldn't say exactly what he's working on he did note that he's been spending a lot of time these days in Detroit.
From left: Mark Eichner, CBGB Festival; Tim Hayes, Co-Owner CBGB Festival; Seymour Stein with his Icon Award plaque; Louise Parnassa Staley, CBGB Festival (Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)
Introducing Mr. Stein was a young artist named Ben Fields who Mr. Stein had met in a bar in Australia and later signed to his label. Stein’s daughter Mandy followed by reading a note from Madonna who was unable to attend the event.. Her gracious words lauded the man who she said wasn’t just an Icon but an “icon finder.” Madonna credited Stein with discovering her, writing that “Seymour believed in me when everyone else closing the door in my face or writing me off as a one-hit wonder." She also noted that when she first met the music exec he was “in bed, in his underwear – so we were off to a very good start.” (At the time, Stein was in the hospital.). Madonna also noted that Stein could “tell you the color of the label of any 45 that ever existed.”
Richard Gottehrer’s wide-ranging tribute to his former Sire records partner, recalled their humble beginnings and initial meeting in an elevator “nearly 50 years ago” – in the famed Brill Building no less. He ruminated on their travels to Europe and using NY Cheesecakes to sign artists to their fledgling label. One misadventure found Seymour Stein inadvertently locked inside HMV's London flagship store on Oxford Street because he fell asleep while listening to music, requiring Gottehrer to call no less a figure than the head of EMI’s managing director Ken East to liberate him.
Stein's acceptance speech began with him saying how happy EMI was to give away their music to him and Gottehrer noting that Capitol Records had turned down the Beatles twice -- first to Vee Jay and later to Swan Records partially owned by Dick Clark. He discussed the bands Focus and Jethro Tull, the founding of Chrysalis Records and how he used to feel insecure because of his non-musician status when discussing bands with other executives who had a musical background.
Stein recalled the awe he felt when stumbling upon a band at CBGBs who were a last-minute fill-in for the Shirts (who eventually signed to EMI/Capitol,) who were slated to open for another band he had signed -- the Ramones. Stein, who remembered standing there watching the Talking Heads with Lenny Kaye, said he was “riveted” during their set and compared it to listening to a “snake charmer.” Afterwards he rushed the stage “as if he was 17 years old” and started helping Tina Weymouth move her equipment though she probably didn’t need the help. David Byrne invited Stein to come the next day to his loft on Chrystie Street and that’s how he came to sign them.
He also reminisced about signing the Dead Boys whom he called a “great fucking band.” No recollection of CBGBs, of course, would be complete without a story of its putrid toilets. Here amongst the graffiti covered walls someone had scrawled “Seymour Stein, you finally signed a great band The Dead Boys.” When he asked guitarist Stiv Bators about it, he denied any knowledge of the misdeed.
Stein noted that when he was inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame he gave his two tickets to CBGB founder Hilly Kristal and the other to Billboard Chart editor Tom Noonan. When Stein was 13, Noonan had let him into the Billboard office where he wrote down all the charts from the late-1930s to 1956. His time at Billboard, he said, greatly influenced his knowledge of and love for music. In fact, Paul Ackerman, Billboard's great music editor, introduced Stein to his “greatest mentor” Syd Nathan of King Records who over two summers in Cincinnati “taught him the business from the bottom up.”
Mandy Stein who noted while reading Madonna's tribute to her father that she too woulnd't be here with out Seymour. (Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)
Stein spoke fondly of CBGB’s founder Krystal, his vodka and his true love for country music. “If only he could have gotten Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys, he would have closed down the place,” Stein joked. “But that’s why it was so great, he let everybody have a chance, and you never ever knew what you could expect there – a surprise every night.”
Later, after the award presentation, while the event was winding down, Stein recounted to Ed Christman (of course) why he had abandoned his prepared speech. "After hearing Richard tell stories about the early days, he got me started," Stein said. "I could have gone on all night telling stories; I could have written a book up there tonight."
Additional reporting by the inimitable Ed Christman