Seymour Stein, whose Sire Records launched Madonna’s career and signed such early punk rock and new wave icons as the Ramones and Talking Heads, died Sunday morning in Los Angeles after a long battle with cancer, his daughter Mandy confirms to Variety. He was 80.
Though Stein’s imprint, which he co-founded in New York in 1966, enjoyed major-label distribution, he approached the record business with an independent’s zeal, and took a multitude of risks on unproven, often underground talent that paid off on the charts. Depeche Mode, Ice-T, Lou Reed, the Pretenders, the Smiths, the Cure, Seal, the Replacements, Aphex Twin and many more artists released some of their greatest music on Sire, whether via a direct signing or a licensing deal. A well-curated mixtape of Sire releases from the ‘80s and ‘90s is like the soundtrack to an era.
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As Talking Heads’ late manager Gary Kurfirst told the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the occasion of the exec’s induction in 2005, “Seymour’s taste in music is always a couple of years ahead of everyone else’s.” He was indisputably one of the greatest A&R executives in modern music history.
Sire made its first mark in the late ’60s and early ’70s by releasing early work by the blues-rock incarnation of Fleetwood Mac and the Dutch art-rock band Focus (the latter with the unlikely hit single, “Hocus Pocus”). But Stein plunged wholeheartedly into the punk scene in the late ’70s, signing many of the genre’s top acts from New York, the U.K. and Australia. Sire enjoyed similar success with post-punk and new wave acts like the Pretenders, the Cure and Depeche Mode, among many others.
He cannily forged business alliances with a host of European independent labels, marketing name acts developed by such imprints as Rough Trade, Beggars Banquet and Creation in the U.S.
His most lucrative discovery was Madonna, who was still a relatively unknown Manhattan club act when Stein signed her in 1983. The singer vaulted to superstardom on Sire, ringing up three No. 1 albums, 10 No. 1 singles and a total of 23 top-10 hits before launching her own Maverick imprint in 1992.
In a statement Sunday night, Mandy Stein said, “I grew up surrounded by music. I didn’t have the most conventional upbringing, but I wouldn’t change my life and my relationship with my dad for anything, and he was a loving and caring grandfather who took pleasure in every moment with his three granddaughters. He gave me the ultimate soundtrack, as well as his wicked sense of humor. I am beyond grateful for every minute our family spent with him, and that the music he brought to the world impacted so many people’s lives in a positive way.”
Born Seymour Steinbigle in Brooklyn in 1942, he made his entry into the American music business while still a teenager. At the age of 13, he gained an entrée at Billboard magazine, where he obsessively copied the publication’s old charts by hand. Mentored by chart director Tom Noonan and editor Paul Ackerman, he was soon contributing reviews.
After graduating from high school, Stein made a brief stab at college before returning to Billboard full-time. He segued into the label side via an association with Syd Nathan, prexy of Cincinnati’s King Records; after interning with the label for two summers, he joined the company in 1961.
After two years with King, the home of James Brown and other top R&B and country stars, Stein returned to New York to work for Red Bird Records, an indie imprint run by label impresario George Goldner and hit songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
A schism between the Red Bird partners brought the label down in 1966, but Stein was approached by producer-songwriter Richard Gottehrer with an offer to form a new company together. The duo’s Sire Records — the name of which was an anagram of the first two letters in the partners’ first names — set up shop in the Brill Building, Manhattan’s music-biz hub, later that year.
Sire’s first years — during which the label was distributed by London Records, the U.S. arm of British Decca — were on the thin side commercially. Via an association with England’s Blue Horizon Records, the label offered Stateside releases of some of Fleetwood Mac’s early blues material, as well as the work of Chicken Shack, another bluesy unit fronted by vocalist Christine Perfect, who soon wedded Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie and joined her husband’s group. However, the band’s association with Sire produced no major hits.
Early albums by such arty U.K. bands as Renaissance and Barclay James Harvest gained some album rock radio traction for Sire, but little more. However, Sire scored in 1973 when the Dutch band Focus’ yodeling-infused hit “Hocus Pocus” became a No. 9 single, pushing the album “Moving Waves” to No. 8 in America.
Gottehrer exited Sire in 1974 to focus on producing. At around the same time, Stein — abetted by his then-wife Linda — increasingly began to scour the New York clubs for new talent.
On his spouse’s fervent recommendation, Stein set up a show by the Ramones at a New York rehearsal in late 1975. Though he was sporting a 103-degree fever that night, he was drawn by the quartet’s energy and image, and signed the punk godfathers to a contract. The band’s self-titled 1976 debut album peaked at No. 111, but effectively introduced punk rock to American and British listeners. The group, which went on to be managed by Linda Stein, issued 11 studio albums on the label before exiting in the early ’90s.
A trip to the Bowery punk Mecca CBGB to catch one of the Ramones’ opening acts led to another auspicious agreement. Stein went to scout the Brooklyn group the Shirts, but they had dropped off the bill and been replaced by a jittery trio of former Rhode Island School of Design students. Talking Heads became one of Sire’s most popular acts, releasing nine platinum and gold albums during 11 years on the label.
Other high-profile punk signings of the era included such CBGB staples as New York’s Richard Hell & the Voidoids and Cleveland’s Dead Boys. Stein also gave early Stateside exposure to Scotland’s Rezillos and such antipodean products as Australia’s Saints and Radio Birdman.
Sire was distributed by Warner Bros. from 1977 and acquired by the company in 1978. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Sire presciently signed or distributed music by a variety of top-flight punk and post-punk groups from the U.S. and abroad. At one time or another, its roster included the Replacements (and later their front man Paul Westerberg), Echo & the Bunnymen, Madness, the Undertones, the Smiths (and lead singer Morrissey), Everything But the Girl, Aztec Camera, Erasure, the Flamin’ Groovies, My Bloody Valentine and Ride.
Madonna was the commercial turbine that drove Sire through the ’80s. Signed by Stein after the exec heard a demo of her song “Everybody” while recovering from open-heart surgery, the singer logged a solid-platinum track record for the company from 1983-90. Six of her albums attained multi-platinum status, and two — “Like a Virgin” (1984) and the comp “The Immaculate Collection” (1990) — received RIAA “diamond record” awards for sales of more than 10 million.
The label’s artistic diversity was reflected by such signings as former Beach Boys front man Brian Wilson, Canadian country/pop vocalist k.d. lang, British vocalist Seal, Illinois alt-country unit Uncle Tupelo and its rock successor Wilco, L.A. rapper Ice-T (and his controversial hard rock band Body Count), Israeli singer Ofra Haza and ex-Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed.
As Warner Bros.’ commercial fortunes began to wane from the ’90s on, Sire’s impact as a hitmaking imprint diminished, though Stein continued to ink developing talent; the label’s latter-day acts included Delta Rae and Residual Kid.
In 1998 the Scottish rock band Belle & Sebastian released the song “Seymour Stein” on their album “The Boy With the Arab Strap.” Though it resembles a love song in the Velvet Underground’s late style, it is about Stein’s decision not to sign the group.
The company continued into the 21st century, albeit at a slower pace, with such top A&R executives as Michael Goldstone and Rani Hancock taking senior posts alongside Stein until he retired in 2018. Its latter-day acts included Regina Spektor, Tegan & Sara, Cavetown, Bryce Vine and others, although it increasingly became a Warner Music imprint; Stein took on additional duties in 2013 as senior label A&R executive for the parent company. Though not a songwriter himself, he was honored by the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016 with the Howie Richmond Hitmaker award.
Billboard paid him tribute with its Icon Award in 2012 with this brief documentary video, featuring Ice-T, the Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, Ramones drummer Tommy Erdelyi, Sire co-founder Richard Gottehrer, Madonna manager Guy Oseary and Stein himself, among others.
However, his later years were marred by tragedy, as his ex-wife Linda was murdered by her personal assistant in 2007. Their daughter, Samantha Jacobs, succumbed to brain cancer in 2013.
Stein is survived by his daughter, film director and producer Mandy Stein, three grandchildren and his sister, Ann Wiederkehr.
Donations can be made in Seymour Stein’s name to MUSICARES: https://www.musicares.org/donations
Additional reporting by Jem Aswad.
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