Although contemporaries like Clive Davis, Berry Gordy, Chris Blackwell, Richard Gottehrer and Herb Alpert & Jerry Moss are still very much alive, the death of Seymour Stein at the age of 80 certainly feels like the end of an era. It was a time when larger-than-life music executives Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Mo Ostin, Walter Yetnikoff and his own mentor, King Records’ Syd Nathan – who helped introduce the world to James Brown from his home base of Cincinnati – roamed the record business landscape. Stein, who died Sunday (April 2) of cancer, left an indelible imprint on the modern record business.
As a young college graduate studying film criticism at Columbia University in 1974, I was drawn to the burgeoning indie-rock scene taking place at clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, writing for the alternative Soho Weekly News and New York Rocker. Seymour Stein’s early championing of groups like the Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Void-oids and the Dead Boys made him an early Godfather of that fledgling community, later going on to sign The Pretenders, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Cure, Soft Cell, The Replacements, and, most notably, from a hospital bed, Madonna.
“The thrilling years are gone,” Seymour told the L.A. Times in a 2017 interview. “There are people in the music business that are experts, but not experts in music.”
What Stein meant was that no one knew music like he did – he was a music history prodigy. He could effortlessly recite lyrics, B-sides and chart positions of early rock songs from rote memory. He would regale listeners with spot-on imitations of his one-time boss Nathan or tell stories of signing Madonna, delighting rapt listeners. He also helped resuscitate the careers of Lou Reed, releasing his acclaimed “New York” album, Brian Wilson, Jimmy Scott and Roky Erickson.
Seymour Stein’s passing unleashed a multitude of memories on social media, from one-time Warner publicist Bill Bentley’s wild trip with him to New Orleans to find tapes of the legendary pianist James Booker to former colleague Bob Merlis and Tom Vickers’ Old Man Dinners, where Seymour was an honorary member and frequent guest, regaling all with his tales and off-key warbling of the most obscure doo-wop or pop tune he gleaned from listening to Martin Block’s “Make-Believe Ballroom” as a kid on a radio under his pillow after returning from synagogue.
Like Jerry Wexler, he learned the history of the business by working on the Billboard charts under Tom Noonan before getting permission from his parents to join the bottle-glasses-wearing Nathan at King Records. It was while attending the very first Midem in Cannes, France that he met Mike Vernon, a London-based producer for Decca, who helped him start his very first label, Blue Horizon Records, signing Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack, with a young Christine McVie.
“Seymour’s taste in music was always a couple of years ahead of everybody else,” said the late Gary Kurfirst, who managed the Talking Heads.
Indeed, Seymour was one of the few – along with Ertegun, Blackwell, Herb & Jerry and later on, Rick Rubin – who signed acts to his label like the aesthetic curator he was, collecting talent the way he did antiques or explored culinary pleasures. Along with Ertegun, Jann Wenner and lawyer Allen Grubman, he famously started the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1983 over dinner at the New York Chinese restaurant Pearl’s. He then went on to cater the Nominating Committee meetings at the Rolling Stone offices with mile-high pastrami and tongue sandwiches from the Carnegie Deli, often packing up the remnants in doggy bags for participants to take home.
Working at the Brill Building for Red Bird Records’ Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and George Goldner, Stein met his future partner, now-Orchard chief Gottehrer, with whom he launched Sire Records, first as a production company in the mid-‘60s and early ‘70s, then as a label, with prog-rockers like Climax Blues Band, Renaissance, Barclay James Harvest and Focus, a Dutch band that gave the pair their first stateside hit, “Hocus Pocus” and platinum album, “Moving Waves.”
When Gottehrer left, signing Blondie to Larry Utall’s Private Stock Records, Stein forged ahead with Sire, striking a deal with Warner Music Group and breaking out of the local New York scene with the label signing such international acts from the U.K. and Australia as The Saints, Radio Birdman, Aztec Camera, Echo & the Bunnymen, Everything But the Girl, Dinosaur, Jr., My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream, Ofra Haza, k.d. lang, Aphex Twin and, most controversial of all, Ice-T’s Body Count, with its “Cop Killer.” Among the label’s left-field pop hits were Plastic Bertrand’s “Ce Plane Pour Moi,” M’s “Pop Muzik” and Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”
Stein’s signings truly reflected his ability to judge talent.
On hearing the Ramones for the first time: “It was like sticking my hand in a live electric light socket. The jolt went right through me.”
On Talking Heads: “I was riveted the whole time. It was amazing, and, of course, I signed them.”
Said The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde in 1986, “Without Seymour, I’d still be a cocktail waitress in Akron.”
In 1982, he signed an ambitious one-time dancer-turned-wannabe pop disco diva from Detroit named Madonna, giving her the go-ahead on doing a full album while in his hospital bed recovering from a heart infection.
“He’s more interested in the music than whether he’s going to get platinum records out of it,” said the Material Girl. “Every time he signs somebody, he’s taking a chance. And there aren’t many people in the entertainment industry who do that anymore.”
Stein’s life was not without tragedy. His ex-wife Linda Stein, a one-time real estate agent who co-managed the Ramones with Danny Fields, was murdered in 2007 by her assistant. His eldest daughter Samantha Lee Jacobs passed away in February 2013, from a battle with brain cancer. His last year was spent being cared for by his youngest, Mandy, a filmmaker who helmed the 2009 documentary, “Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB.”
Not everyone was universal in their acclaim of the legendary record man, though. His pecuniary ways led to some artists ruefully referring to his signing offers as “Seymour… pay less.” And some claimed his stories didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Interestingly, Warner Music Group let him go just two weeks after his 2018 biography, “Siren Song: My Life In Music,” written with Gareth Murphy, was published.
Of course, that was the minority viewpoint on a man whose legend will live large, per the famed line delivered by the editor to the reporter in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” In his later years, he began to build up a vocal resentment of Mo Ostin, whom he insisted prevented him from being even more successful with his own penny-pinching. But Warners was always steadfast in its commitment to Seymour, even bringing Sire back into the WMG fold in 2003, naming him Senior Label A&R Executive for Independent Music (where his duties included signing labels for indie distributor ADA). Ever the talent spotter, his latter discoveries included Regina Spektor, Tegan & Sara and Delta Rae. At the time of his death, he was in the midst of reviving the Blue Horizon label with help from archive specialist Jason Reynolds.
My own abiding memory of negotiating with Seymour Stein was his signing my late 20th century hebe-hop duo, M.O.T. (Members of the Tribe), to Sire with co-manager Bob Merlis (2Pac Shikker to my Meshugge Knight). The duo consisted of Andrew “Ice Berg” Rosenthal, (whom Seymour knew from his days in Sire act Martini Ranch with Bill Paxton) and Hillel “Dr. Dreidle” Tigay, now a cantor at the west L.A. IKAR congregation. We sealed the deal at the since-shuttered Rascal House on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, appropriately enough – with Seymour insisting I wrap up the complementary Danish in a napkin to take home. The album, “19.99,” represented Seymour Stein’s good humor and love of a good bargain.
As his daughter Mandy points out, Seymour Stein created a soundtrack that is untouchable. No one can take that away from him. Just make sure you wrap it to go.