Seymour Stein, the music executive who launched the careers of Madonna, Talking Heads and the Ramones, and introduced the Cure, Depeche Mode and the Smiths to America, has died aged 80.
Stein died on Sunday morning in Los Angeles after a long battle with cancer, a spokesperson for the family confirmed to Variety.
As the co-founder of label Sire Records, Stein nurtured talents spanning pop to punk to new wave, including Madonna, Talking Heads, Lou Reed, Depeche Mode, the Ramones, the Pretenders, the Smiths, the Cure, the Replacements, Aphex Twin and many more. Stein came to be known as the king of 80s pop, and continued to fly around the world hunting for new talent well into his 70s.
Born Seymour Steinbigle in Brooklyn in 1942, Stein entered the music business at the age of 13, writing reviews for Billboard magazine. In 1961 he left to work for label King Records, home of James Brown and other major R&B and country acts. He then headed to New York to work for Red Bird Records until 1966, when he co-founded Sire Records with producer-songwriter Richard Gottehrer in Manhattan.
Sire’s first releases included early blues tracks by Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack, the band fronted by singer Christine Perfect who would join Fleetwood Mac when she married the bassist John McVie.
Gottehrer left the label in 1974 to focus on producing, while Stein scoured New York clubs for talent. On his wife Linda’s recommendation, he saw the Ramones rehearse in 1975: Sire released their self-titled debut album the following year, as well as their next 10 albums, with Stein’s wife Linda becoming their manager. One of the Ramones’ support acts, a small band called Talking Heads, would also sign with Sire, becoming one of the label’s most popular acts, releasing nine platinum and gold albums over 11 years.
Sire was acquired by Warner Bros in 1978. Over the next two decades, the label signed a varied list of acts including the Replacements, Echo & the Bunnymen, Madness, the Undertones, the Smiths and lead singer Morrissey, Brian Wilson, kd lang, Seal, Wilco, Ice-T, Lou Reed, Everything But the Girl, My Bloody Valentine and Australian band the Saints.
But Stein’s biggest commercial success was Madonna, who was signed to Sire after he heard her demo for Everybody while recovering from open-heart surgery, and summoned her to his hospital bed.
“She was all dolled up in cheap punky gear, the kind of club kid who looked absurdly out of place in a cardiac ward,” Stein wrote in his 2018 memoir Siren Song: My Life in Music. “She wasn’t even interested in hearing me explain how much I liked her demo … she didn’t take long to cut through all the small talk and go straight for the kill. Peering into the back of my head with those Madonna eyes, she said, ‘And now, you give me the money.’
“‘What?’ I snapped back, which was unusual for me. As a rule, I’m always careful around artists, but Madonna had bigger balls than the four men in the room put together.
“‘Look, just tell me what I have to do to get a fucking record deal in this town!’ she hit back, sounding deflated. ‘Don’t worry, you’ve got a deal,’ I assured her.”
Stein signed the singer to a $45,000 contract for three singles, with an option for an album. Madonna went on to sell more than 64m albums in the US alone, with three No 1 albums, 10 No 1 singles and 23 top-10 hits with Sire before launching her own imprint in 1992.
In his later years, Stein signed more alternative acts including Regina Spektor and Tegan and Sara; in 1998, Scottish rock band Belle and Sebastian released Seymour Stein, a song about his decision to not to sign the group.
In his memoir, Stein revealed he had known he was gay since he was a teenager, but cultural pressure from his Jewish background led him to date women while secretly seeing men. He told his then-girlfriend Linda that he was gay, and she “fell into silent shock for about 10 minutes … then erupted into wails”; later that year they married and would go on to have two daughters.
“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 and Linda divorced amicably in the late 1970s. In 2007, Linda was murdered by her personal assistant, who was sentenced to 25 years to life for second-degree murder. Their daughter Samantha died of brain cancer in 2013.
Stein called himself “the world’s most absent father” in his memoir, telling the Times in an interview: “I could have been a better father. I could have been a better husband, but I had no choice. The main thing in my life was music and this came first.”
He is survived by his daughter, film director Mandy Stein, three grandchildren and his sister Ann Wiederkehr.
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