The man responsible for launching the career of Madonna has died from cancer at the age of 80. Music Executive, Seymour Stein, the co-founder of the Sire Records label, passed away in Los Angeles following a long battle with cancer.
He had been in the music industry since the age of 13, initially writing reviews, but he went on to become renowned for his ability to spot new talent, and nurtured acts spanning pop to new wave, with punk thrown in for good measure.
His eye for a potential star performer saw him introduce bands such as: Talking Heads, The Ramones, The Pretenders, The Smiths, and The Cure, who are all indebted to Stein for shaping their careers; along with a host of other leading names.
However, it was Madonna who was undoubtedly his biggest commercial success, actually signing her up from his hospital bed, whilst recovering from open-heart surgery back in 1982.
The following year in 1983, he was part of a group of music and media executives who created the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, and in 2005 he deservedly was inducted into the hall himself, as a non-performer in the lifetime achievement category.
Madonna’s moving tribute
“I need to catch my breath… Seymour Stein has left us!” That was the opening line to a post written on Instagram by Madonna, on hearing of the sad passing of the man who had set her off on her remarkable professional journey. She continued: “He was one of the most influential men in my life; he changed and shaped my world.”
Created a superstar
She admitted she was weeping as she went on to say: “Not only did Seymour hear me, but he saw me and my potential! For this I will be eternally grateful, it was the beginning of my journey as a musical artist!” She explained how she had been summoned to the cardiac ward of Lenox Hill hospital, in New York City, where Stein had recently undergone surgery following heart issues. He had listened to a demo tape of a song of hers called “Everybody”, presented to him by a DJ named Mark Kamin, who the singer had been pestering for months.
Madonna recalled how Stein had a cannula up his nose and a saline drip in his arm, but he had smiled and laughed when he saw her and asked if she was related to the Virgin Mary! In typical fashion she had said to her potential new boss: “Look, just tell me what I have to do to get a record deal in this town!” throwing in a couple of expletives for good measure.
To which the Music Exec replied: “Don’t worry, you’ve got a deal.” The contract with Sire, guaranteed three singles, with an option for an album. As she went on to sell more than 64 million albums in the US alone, delivering an impressive three number one albums, a massive ten number one singles, and a further 23 top-ten hits throughout the eighties, it could definitely be classed as a successful partnership.
Grateful beyond words
The superstar added: “Words cannot describe how I felt at that moment after years of grinding and being broke and getting every door slammed in my face.” Clearly distressed at learning of her great friend’s death she praised his passion for music and declared that he had “an ear like no other!”
She spoke of how wickedly funny, deeply intuitive and a little bit crazy he was. “Dearest Seymour you will never be forgotten. Thank You, Thank you, Thank you! Shine on!!” was how she closed her touching tribute.
Talent obvious immediately
When recalling the meeting himself many years later, Stein had remarked how it was Madonna’s desire to succeed which had clinched the deal. “I saw her staunch determination and I knew she would work as hard as I did and much harder, in fact.”
It would be wrong to focus on Madonna though, because the Seymour Stein story involves so many more artists.
“Deaf-initely” destined for a job in music industry
Born in Brooklyn in 1942 into an Orthodox Jewish family, he was seemingly always destined for a lifetime in music. At just thirteen years old he persuaded industry paper Billboard to let him have a desk in its office. Totally committed, he would apparently go there after school, copying their charts from the previous 20 years into a notebook and educating himself with information that would stay with him his entire lifetime.
Comically, he later explained how at school he listened to music all the time on a portable radio all the way through classes, having managed to convince his teachers that it was a hearing aid, which he needed because he was slightly deaf!
Sire began as a mix-up
In 1961 he began working for the label King Records, which was the home of James Brown and other major R&B and country acts. He switched to New York to work for Red Bird Records until 1966, which was when he teamed up with Richard Gottehrer, who was a young producer and songwriter. They mixed up the first two letters of each of their names to create a new record company they called Sire.
A little help from the wife
Early success came with tracks by Fleetwood Mac, but it was after his partner left in 1974 that Stein began to really focus on unearthing new talent. That said, it was in fact his wife who convinced him to listen to a band he wasn’t previously aware of, and that was the beginning of the success story that was the Ramones.
“Talk” about making a man wait!
Once on the road the New York City based band went from strength to strength, but it was actually one of their supporting groups who blew Stein away. “I stood there frozen, and when they finished I jumped up on stage and helped them with their equipment and I tried to sign them immediately, but it was the longest courtship ever at Sire Records,” he later confessed.
They would eventually sign nearly a year later and that band was… Talking Heads, who would go on to become one of the label’s most popular acts, releasing nine platinum and gold albums, over an eleven year period.
Incredible list of gifted acts
Sire became part of Warner Bros in 1978 and the talent just kept arriving. In addition to the acts already mentioned, the likes of: Echo & the Bunnymen, Madness, The Undertones, Morrissey, Brian Wilson, KD Lang, Seal, Ice-T, Lou Reed, Everything But the Girl, Aphex Twin, and Soft Cell, all came under the labels wing at certain times.
Understanding the UK scene
Stein loved the UK music scene and was thrilled to land licensing deals with labels like Rough Trade and Creation and equally delighted to secure The Smiths after a gig at the ICA in London. Guitarist Johnny Marr remarked later: “He was one of the only people in the whole of the States who got it, so we wanted to be on Sire.”
Daughter pays tribute to father’s inspiration
His daughter Mandy spoke lovingly of her father saying: “I am beyond grateful for every minute our family spent with him, and equally grateful that the music he brought to the world impacted so many people’s lives in a positive way.”
Great to have in a pop quiz
Seymour Stein was fantastic at what he did, but that was probably because he loved music so much. He was regarded as something of a walking encyclopedia of 20th Century pop. His knowledge was astonishing, being able to recite lyrics, chart positions and B-sides of pretty much any notable record, going right back through the decades.
Indeed, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders once said with total admiration: “He knows all the lyrics to every song you’ve ever heard.”
A man totally in love with music
The man himself once said: “I just love music, I love this business, and you know what? I still don’t believe I get paid for it.”
Those are the words of someone who truly found his vocation in life.