Legendary Talking Heads and Ramones Manager Gary Kurfirst Gets Rock Hall Push
The music industry has completely transformed since Gary Kurfirst’s epic four-decade run as a rock promoter, label head and artist manager to acts including the Talking Heads, The Ramones and Jane’s Addiction, but much of the advice he taught his artists remains true today.
Fine tune one’s craft. Build an audience. Create authentic and meaningful art.
“He wanted to keep his artists in the underground, focused on making music and creating art while protecting them from the business side,” says Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz, recalling the time that Kurfirst turned down a Rolling Stone cover because he felt the band wasn’t ready for such a career milestone.
“I remember him always telling us ‘Don’t smile in promotion photos – they’ll think you’re making a lot of money,’” recalls multi-instrumentalist Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, one of the many A-list acts Kurfirst managed and worked alongside including Bob Marley, the Eurythmics, Garbage and dozens of other bands. Kurfist’s career ran parallel to music industry giants like concert promoter Michael Lang, agent Frank Barsalona and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, and it’s one that belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, says his son Josh Kurfirst, a partner at WME and the agency’s global head of festivals.
Joshua Kurfirst is actively positioning his father to be considered for the Ahmet Ertegun Lifetime Achievement Award for Industry Professionals at the Rock Hall. While much of the nomination process is veiled in secrecy, the younger Kurfirst has been in touch with the artists and executives his dad collaborated with over the years, archiving thousands of documents and relaunching the website GaryKurfirst.com in hopes of adding his father posthumously to the Hall of Fame (Kurfirst passed away in 2009). Currently, there are four music managers in the Hall of Fame, all winners of the Ahmet Ertegun Lifetime Achievement Award: Eagles and Fleetwood Mac manager Irving Azoff, Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau, late Beatles manager Brian Epstein and former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham.
Kurfirst was also a concert promoter, a label chief at his Radioactive Records, and a family man who married an art teacher named Phyllis in the late 1960s. He had countless stories to share and was a tireless advocate for an artist’s career longevity.
“Gary knew it was essential that the fans walked away feeling they got a really good value for their money,” says Harrison. “And he balanced that with how much the band needed to make for the night to go on to the next show. He had been a promoter himself and knew every part of the business. He’d prefer to work with people, but he had no problem saying, “I don’t care if you’re the only guy in town, we will promote the show ourselves if we have to.”
He also stood by his artists when they faced difficult creative decisions, says famed Blondie front woman Debbie Harry, who hired Kurfirst to help with her solo career shortly after the new wave hitmakers called it quits in 1982 (they reunited 15 years later).
“I’m sure he would have preferred we got back together but he was very smart and came in knowing the dynamic,” said Harry. “He started when he was quite young and knew the industry from all the different angles. That is really the best kind of manager to have – somebody who gets it and loves it regardless of how crazy things get.”
Shirley Manson of Garbage recalls first meeting Kurfirst when her former band, Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie, was opening for Harry on her Debravation tour.
“He took a great interest in me at the time and told me,’ I think you’re a star.’ And I thought it was ludicrous – I was a backing keyboardist and vocalist,” she recalls. Kurfirst ended up buying out Goodbye Mr Mackenzie’s contract to bring them over to his own label Radioactive Records. The band never took off, and Manson performed with Angelfish until auditioning for Garbage, a group being formed by Nirvana producer Butch Vig.
“I needed an opportunity. And Gary gave me that,” Manson tells Billboard. “Above all else, I am so grateful to Gary for the belief he had in me. Even when things got tricky and there was a lot of backlash in the press, Gary told me ‘You’re great at what you do. You are a star. Just hold the line. I believe in you.’”
Kurfirst was born July 8, 1947, in Forest Hills, Queens. He graduated from Forest Hills High School in 1964 — he was classmates with members of The Ramones — and promoted concerts at the Forest Hills Stadium (then called the West Side Tennis Club). In 1968 he promoted the NY Rock Festival at the Singer Bowl in Queens that was headlined by the Doors, The Who and Jimi Hendrix with his then-partner Shelly Finkel.
Kurfirst expanded into Manhattan by striking a deal to book the Village Theater, a former Lower East Side cinema-turned live music venue that hosted The Who, who nearly caused a riot as fans gathered outside to see the legendary rock group. Bill Graham would take the reins of the theater in 1968, rechristening it as the Fillmore East (the sister venue to Graham’s Fillmore in San Francisco).
In 1969, Kurfirst began managing former high school classmate Leslie West and his hard rock band Mountain. Ironically, one of Gary’s first big tests as a manager came at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where Mountain was scheduled to perform in the afternoon.
When he and the band arrived at the festival site in upstate New York, Kurfirst noticed that the show was way off schedule and “more or less being made up as it went along,” his son Josh says. Noticing that instead of following a schedule, organizers were putting acts on stage as soon as they spotted all the members of a band together backstage, Kurfirst told the group to scatter to different parts of the site and meet backstage at 8:30 p.m.
“The plan worked perfectly, and Mountain ended up with a prime set time,” Josh says.
Managing Mountain brought Kurfirst into the orbit of Island founder Chris Blackwell, who eventually convinced Kurfirst to move himself and his family to the west side of Nassau in the Bahamas where Blackwell operated the Compass Point recording studio. Through his relationship with Blackwell, Kurfirst would meet Bob Marley and land a gig as tour manager for the reggae star’s debut US tour. Kurfirst would go on to manage former Wailers legend Peter Tosh and watched incredulously when he first saw Tosh bury a briefcase of cash he had been paid as part of the record deal Kurfirst had negotiated for him. When Kurfirst asked for an explanation, Tosh simply told him, “I made a deposit in the Bank of Jamaica.”
Upon his eventual return to New York, Kurfirst began to frequent Hilly Kristal’s East Village club CBGB, where he met and signed The Talking Heads as management clients and later signed The Ramones.
Kurfirst would go on to produce several concert films for the Heads, including 1984’s Stop Making Sense, which would be added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2021. Four years after launching Radioactive Records, an imprint for MCA Records, the label scored its first No. 1 album with Live’s Throwing Copper, which went on to sell eight million copies.
In total, Kurfirst managed more than 40 artists and groups during his career, including Steve Winwood, Robert Palmer, the B-52’s, Big Audio Dynamite, Deee-Lite, Dig, Los Amigos Invisibles and Skinny Puppy.
“Gary’s taste, ability to identify star talent, and build lasting brands out of those stars was extraordinary,” says Josh, who himself has risen through the top echelons of live music, leading WME’s festival division.
In the final years of his life, Gary began working with his son booking concerts for Spanish language artists. He passed away in 2009 while visiting the Bahamas. He was 61. One of his final management and label projects was with Blackwell, who was Kurfirst’s neighbor and friend for many years when Kurfirst and his family were living in the Caribbean.
The two developed a management company, Kurfirst-Blackwell Entertainment, as well as Rx Records, an imprint for artists that proffered more contractual flexibility and creative latitude than most major labels.
“He had a gift for getting the very best from the artists he worked with without getting in their way or pushing too far,” Blackwell says. “Gary was not just a great manager; he was an excellent marketer and a very creative businessman. He believed in his artists, and they really believed in him. They knew he would do whatever he could to make their music and their careers a success.”