Seymour Stein, record industry giant who signed Madonna, dies at 80

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Seymour Stein, record industry giant who signed Madonna, dies at 80
From left: Sire Records founders Richard Gottehrer and Seymour Stein at Angel Orensanz Foundation in New York, on Sept. 7, 2010. With an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music, Seymour Stein championed acts including the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Pretenders on his label Sire, and helped found the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Died on Sunday, April 2, 2023, he was 80. (Chad Batka/The New York Times)

by Ben Sisario

NEW YORK, NY.- It was early 1957, and a nervous teenager named Seymour Steinbigle sat in a midtown office with his father and a hard-bitten record producer who was offering to mentor the young man in the ways of the music business.

“Listen,” the producer, Syd Nathan, told the skeptical parent. “Your son has shellac in his veins,” referring to the brittle material used in 78 rpm records.

“If he can’t be in the music business, it’s going to ruin his life,” Nathan added. “He’ll wind up doing nothing and will have to deliver newspapers.”

The pitch worked. Steinbigle agreed to let his son spend the next two summers in Cincinnati at Nathan’s company, King Records, home to R&B stars like James Brown and Little Willie John.

The experience at King proved formative, and the young Steinbigle — better known as Seymour Stein, a name he took at Nathan’s suggestion — would become one of the music industry’s most successful and most colorful executives, signing Madonna, the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Pretenders to his label Sire, and helping found the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

He also worked with the Smiths, the Cure, Ice-T, Lou Reed, Seal, k.d. Lang and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, in a career that stretched well over 50 years. Stein died at his home in Los Angeles on Sunday at age 80. The cause was cancer, his daughter Mandy said.

In a business fixated on hits, Stein was a walking encyclopedia of 20th-century pop, and more. He could rattle off the lyrics, chart positions and B-sides of seemingly any notable record going back to the 1940s, and lovingly sing their hooks in a nasal whine. A champion of punk rock in the 1970s, he would also tear up over “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.

“He knows all the lyrics to every song you’ve ever heard,” Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders once said.

Even in the brusque world of old-school record executives, Stein could be startlingly impolitic. He sometimes told journalists — in jest, they hoped — that he would kill them if their work made him look bad. And while his memoir, “Siren Song: My Life in Music” (2018), written with Gareth Murphy, was filled with lighthearted anecdotes like the “shellac” scene with Syd Nathan, he also used the book to settle old scores with rivals like Mo Ostin, the longtime, widely admired head of Warner Bros., which had acquired Sire.

“Being liked was not my goal in life,” Stein wrote. “My business was turning great music into hit records.”

Seymour Steinbigle was born April 18, 1942, to an Orthodox Jewish family in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. His father, David, worked in the garment business in Manhattan; his mother, Dora (Weisberg) Steinbigle, had worked in a family market in Coney Island from a young age.

As a child, Seymour took comfort and pleasure in pop music — listening to it as well as learning every detail he could about it. At age 8, while tuning in his favorite radio show, “Make Believe Ballroom,” Seymour noticed that Martin Block, the announcer, saluted Patti Page on the 13-week run at No. 1 for her song “Tennessee Waltz” — an early sign of Stein’s lifelong obsession with music charts.

In his early teens, he showed up in the Manhattan offices of Billboard, the music industry trade publication, with a request. He wanted to copy, by hand, the magazine’s pop, country and Black music singles charts for every week going back to his birth. The editors agreed, and were amazed to see him follow through.

“He would come in every day after class and work on this project,” Tom Noonan, the magazine’s former chart editor, later told Rolling Stone. “It took him two years.”

After graduating from high school, Stein took a junior position at Billboard, where in 1958 he was part of the team that introduced the Hot 100, which remains the magazine’s flagship singles chart. In the early 1960s, he worked at King and Red Bird, a short-lived label founded with the songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; its first release, the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” (1964), went to No. 1.

In 1966, Stein went into business with Richard Gottehrer, a young producer and songwriter who had established himself with hits like the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” (1963). Mixing up the first two letters of each man’s given name — S, E, R and I — they called their new company Sire.

Stein developed a specialty of licensing British and European songs for American release. At first, New York cheesecakes helped open the necessary doors. According to Stein, he would board trans-Atlantic flights carrying a stack of cakes packed in dry ice, and serve them to salivating record executives in London. “The more we delivered, the easier it was to walk out with bargains,” he wrote.

Sire had its first hit in 1973 with “Hocus Pocus,” a yodeling rock novelty track by the Dutch band Focus. It went to No. 9 in the United States and, according to Stein, sold 1 million copies.

Gottehrer left the label in 1975. One night that year, Stein’s wife, Linda, came home from a downtown dive raving about a new band. The bar was called CBGB and the group was the Ramones. Auditioning the band the next day, Stein was amazed if bemused by the band’s blistering take on 1960s bubble-gum rock; he later described the Ramones’ sound as the Beach Boys put through a meat grinder.

“Ramones,” the band’s debut album, was released in 1976, and established punk rock’s blueprint of songs that were brutish and short, though with a tunefulness and winking humor that few could match. Still, Stein wrote in his memoir, “radio stations wouldn’t touch the Ramones with a toilet brush.” It took 38 years for their first album to go gold.

After the Ramones, Stein signed Talking Heads to Sire, and soon also brought to the label Echo and the Bunnymen, the Pretenders and Soft Cell (“Tainted Love”). Sire had its first No. 1 hit in 1979 with “Pop Muzik” by M, a new wave touchstone.

Stein made his most successful signing while hospitalized for a heart condition in 1982. Madonna Ciccone, a young singer and dancer, was beginning to attract industry attention for a demo tape of a song she had written called “Everybody.” Fearing competition from other labels, Stein summoned her to his bedside at Lenox Hill Hospital.

“Just tell me what I have to do to get a record deal in this town,” she said (using saltier language), according to Stein’s book.

“Don’t worry,” he assured her. “You’ve got a deal.”

Stein signed Madonna to a $45,000 contract for three singles, with an option for an album, and Sire released “Everybody” that fall. Madonna went on to sell more than 64 million albums in the United States alone, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

In 1983, Stein was part of a group of music and media executives that created the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, and in 2005 he was inducted into the hall as a nonperformer.

In the 1980s, he coaxed new albums from aging rock legends. He signed Brian Wilson for his first solo album, and Lou Reed for “New York,” the 1989 album that reestablished Reed’s credentials as a cold-eyed commentator on urban life. In later years, Stein remained at Warner Music, while the Sire imprint shuffled between divisions and was inactive for a time. He retired in 2018.

Stein is survived by his daughter Mandy, a filmmaker whose projects have included a documentary about CBGB; a sister, Ann Wiederkehr; and three grandchildren. His marriage to Linda Stein ended in divorce. She became an elite real estate agent in New York, and in 2007 she was killed by her assistant, who was sentenced to 25 years to life for second-degree murder.

His daughter Samantha Jacobs died of brain cancer in 2013.

In his memoir, Stein discussed his sexuality, including his attraction to men and the gay subculture that permeated the entertainment world, particularly in London. “I somehow knew we’d make a rock-and-roll king-and-queen combo,” he wrote of his marriage to Linda, “even if the roles were a little confused.”

Stein became a noted collector of art and antiques, which he often acquired while on scouting trips for new music. “The Siren,” a painting by Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse that Stein had owned for more than 30 years, was sold at Sotheby’s in London in 2018 for about $5 million.

But Stein always maintained that the business of music was his true calling.

“When I first got hired at Billboard, I went home and told my mother. I said, ‘Ma, they actually pay me!’ ” Stein told Rolling Stone in 1986, the year that Madonna’s album “True Blue” went to No. 1.

“I just love music and love this business,” he added. “And you know what? I still don’t believe I get paid for it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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