Seymour SteinBy Caroline Ryder
Photo By Alain Levitt
You can be wrong most of the time in the music business and still be successful,” says Sire Records founder Seymour Stein, one of the few in the industry who seems to consistently get it right. Madonna, Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, the Pretenders, and The Smiths are just a few of his legendary signings, his first being the Ramones.
It was 1975, and the punk rock scene in downtown New York was about to explode. “The first time I was supposed to see the Ramones live I was so sick with the flu that I couldn’t go,” remembers Stein. He sent his wife (now his ex) to CBGB to see them, and she came back raving. The next day, bundled up in scarves and sneezing, Stein rented a rehearsal room and invited the “brothers” to come down and play. “I got the space for an hour. Really, we only needed 15 minutes. They did about 18 songs and accepted my offer of a deal on the spot. They went in the studio 10 days later. If only everybody was that easy to deal with.” Subsequent Stein signings, including Talking Heads, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, and the Dead Boys to name a few, came to epitomize the downtown punk/new wave scene.
A few years later, Stein was sick again, in the hospital being treated for an infection relating to a heart condition, when another artist came his way—someone named Madonna. Stein had hired Mark Kamins to find some acts for him, and after hearing a recording of the young Madonna Ciccone, he asked Kamins to bring her to the hospital to meet him. “I hadn’t shaved or showered, and I was wearing those hospital pajamas with a slit up the back,” he remembers. “I had my barber come to the hospital and give me a hair cut.” It was 3 pm when he made the call, and by 8 pm Madonna was at his bedside. He was as impressed by the woman as he was with her music. “The determination, the drive, the zeal, the ruthlessness . . . I remember saying to myself when she left, ‘Boy, if the shortest way home is through the cemetery at midnight, she’s taking it. This girl’s really in a rush.’” Stein, now 63, maintains a close relationship with Madonna to this day, and even helped her found her record label, Maverick, but he’s reluctant to take any credit for her stardom. “Let’s be honest: she’s just fucking great,” he says. “I didn’t create her, Madonna created her. I just happened to see her first.”
He was still close to Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny Ramone up to their recent deaths. He spent a lot of time with Johnny during the lowest points of his battle with prostate cancer. “I never really believed Johnny was going to die. We were all afraid of him, he was so tough.” Joey was the most fragile of the Ramones, “always sick,” but “a great guy, and so helpful to other people.” Less than a month before his death from lymphoma, Joey was still sending Stein music – demos by young bands he wanted to support. For Stein, the deaths of the three Ramones marked one of the saddest periods in an industry career that started half a century ago.
Stein’s obsession with music started when he first heard his older sister’s records as a child, as she blasted Les Paul, Mary Ford, and Guy Mitchell throughout their small apartment in Brooklyn. Then he discovered country music (Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Carl Smith), doo-wop, and R&B (Chuck Berry, Fats Domino). Unfortunately there wasn’t much doo-wop to be found in his predominantly Italian and Jewish neighborhood, so he would take the train up to Harlem, get off at 125th Street, and hang out at the record stores until they kicked him out. “Whatever money I had went on buying singles,” he says. “My allowance, any money I could make or steal. I was a real music junkie.”
In 1956, at age 13, Stein visited the Billboard magazine headquarters and begged them to let him help out. Tom Noonan, Billboard’s chart editor, took a shine to him, and together they developed the original Billboard Hot 100 Chart. While Stein was working part-time for Billboard during high school, Paul Ackerman, the publication’s legendary music editor, befriended the student and sent him out to review several early rock ‘n’ roll gigs. “It felt fucking great,” says Stein. “Getting paid to do what I love. When I got my first check from Billboard I came home and said, ‘Can you believe they are paying me to do this? I would have paid them!’ If I had any money, that is.” While still at Billboard, Stein also met his second and most influential mentor, Syd Nathan, founder of King Records, home to R&B stars like James Brown. Over two summers at the company’s Cincinnati headquarters, Nathan taught Stein everything about the music business, allowing him to work in every department.
In 1966, Stein teamed up with producer and songwriter Richard Gottehrer to form Sire Records. The label’s big break came in 1975, when Stein signed the Ramones, followed by Talking Heads in 1976. A year later, Sire signed a distribution deal with Warner Brothers and went on to sign some of the most successful acts of our time.
Being chairman of Sire (then later president of Elektra and now Sire again, reviving the label for the last three years with partner Michael Goldstein) has allowed Stein to travel the world in pursuit of groundbreaking music. He remembers visiting the tiny British seaside resort of Cleethorpes to see the Sex Pistols and The Clash play during the notorious Anarchy tour in 1976. “I had seen the Pistols quite a few times before that,” Stein recalls, “but I thought The Clash were one of the best bands I had ever seen. I felt it then, and I think it now.”
Today, Seymour Stein and Sire’s model remains the blueprint for American indie labels. Scottish band Belle and Sebastian penned a song, “Seymour Stein,” in his honor after Stein visited them in Scotland. “We had a great lunch at an Indian restaurant, and afterward we went to the lead singer’s apartment,” says Stein, who was president of Elektra at the time. “That place was like a shrine to Morrissey. I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, I am going to have to sign this band.’” (He left Elektra shortly after his return to New York, so the deal never happened). He’s currently working with bands like Finland’s HIM, The Veronicas, Evermore, and The Subways.
After 50 years, there’s only one thing he wishes he could change about the music business. “I wish there were less damn genres,” he states. “When I was a kid, there were three categories: pop, country, and R&B. Now it’s just ridiculous. Because, at the end of the day, there are only really two types of music: good and bad. And that’s all you need to know.”