CBGB-Seymour-Stein-CBGB-Fest-illustration-v2CBGB ICON AWARD: SEYMOUR STEIN

Seymour Stein Awarded First Annual CBGB Icon Award

CBGB Seymour Stein gets awardedThere probably aren’t a whole lot of evenings left like Tuesday’s presentation of the First Annual CBGB Icon Award to Seymour Stein—Tuesday evening at the Bowery Hotel.

People you hadn’t seen in decades—some you wish you still hadn’t seen in decades—literally crawled out of the woodwork, and as the hotel is just a couple blocks up the street from CBGB (now a John Varvatos store), everyone brought along memories of a time long ago.

Seymour—and it’s hard for anyone who knows him to call him anything else—was and is the head of Sire Records, home of CBs acts the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Dead Boys and Richard Hell & the Voidoids, also Madonna, an acknowledged icon in her own right, who called Seymour an “icon finder” in remarks read by his documentarian daughter Mandy Stein (Burning Down The House: The Story Of CBGB, and Too Tough To Die: A Tribute To Johnny Ramone).

The music world wouldn’t be the same without him, Madonna said of Seymour, and boy, was she not kidding. “Seymour believed in me when everyone else was closing doors in my face, or writing me off as one-hit wonder.”

Among the many luminaries who were there in person was Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith’s collaborator and one of the most knowledgeable rock ’n’ rollers around, not to mention most all-around good guy.

“Seymour always remembers the time we were standing outside CBGB singing doowop songs and he heard the Talking Heads playing and they magically moved him to the front of the stage,” he told me. “I remember it in reverse: the Talking Heads were playing and Seymour was outside, and he was there—at the center of the musical action—to be able to hear their sound, and understand their potential and possibility. A true fan of music, always on the quest for something new and innovative, and an appreciator of a century’s worth of human creativity through the magic of sound.”

Hear! Hear!

Seymour, in his speech, singled out songwriter Richard Gottehrer (“I Want Candy,” “My Boyfriend’s Back”), his Sire founding partner, who left to further his production career (Blondie, Richard Hell) and later formed digital music distribution company The Orchard.

Seymour had met Gottehrer in an elevator at Midtown Manhattan’s famed 1960s songwriters haven the Brill Building, where Seymour was working at the legendary Red Bird Records. Also in his speech, he evoked Red Bird’s George Goldner (and owners Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), along with other fabled names that fewer and fewer people know from that golden era of the music business—Ahmet Ertegun, Leonard Chess, Billboard’s Tom Noonan and Paul Ackerman (Seymour’s career began in 1956, when Noonan allowed the then 13-year-old to come in and copy down the Billboard charts), and especially King Records’ Syd Nathan—among his mentors.

In other words, Seymour is pretty much the last man standing when it comes to the formative years of the modern record business, worthy of veneration by the generations that succeeded it and who were so well represented at the hotel.

Oh, yes. And Hilly Kristal.

After all, the event was the kickoff of the CBGB Film and Music Festival 2013, and took place before the New York premiere of the movie based on the history of the landmark club for which it’s titled. The club that Hilly built, and like Seymour, you can’t really call Hilly, as much a character as Seymour, anything other than his first name.

That there’s only one Hilly—same as there’s only one Seymour—is driven home by the movie, which for me was pretty much a joy to watch.


I’ve seen some reviews belittling the fact that it’s not serious enough, and slagging the device of using comic illustrator John Holmstrom’s artwork throughout—which I loved, as Holmstrom’s Punk Magazine was so much a part of the scene; indeed, it gave the music a name.


A bit problematic, Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” which is performed, didn’t come out until well after the time period of the movie. Also, and more problematic, there are no Ramones songs, apparently due to the copyright owners’ misgivings over the casting. Too bad, for I found the casting fine all the way through, especially, the brilliant Alan Rickman as Hilly.


As I wrote the first book on The Ramones, I knew Hilly very well, and Rickman nailed it. A gentle bear of a man, Hilly spoke and moved slowly, putting all his energy into caring about the original music and artists that made CBGB (considering what it became known for, an ironic acronym for country, bluegrass and blues) maybe the most important rock club in history.


When Seymour was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he made sure Hilly sat at his table. Certainly if it weren’t for Hilly, who died in 2007, there’d be no CBGB Icon Award, and probably a whole lot else.


“It’s been a dream come true for me,” Seymour said, accepting his award.


For the rest of us, too, Seymour.



Jim Bessman


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