Born in Brooklyn in 1942, Seymour Stein got his first job in the music industry at 13 at the precise moment rock ‘n’ roll exploded.
He has witnessed first hand the biggest post-war changes in popular music and the music business. Music Ally spoke to him during one of his frequent trips to London about his six decades in the business – from the early days of copying out the charts at Billboard to working for Chess Records. From there we cover the founding of Sire and the dizzying number of artists he has worked with.
He talks about the rise of the indies in the 1950s, the impact of the British Invasion, how Dutch prog rock set him up in business, how he proved to be the catalyst for New York punk (despite the smells), how he signed the biggest pop star in the world, why labels were wrong to abandon hip-hop at the first sign of controversy and what a lifetime in music has taught him about A&R and the sometimes fragile egos of pop stars.
How did you get into the music business?
I’ve been in the business, officially, since I was 14 years old. I went up to Billboard at the age of 13 to do a little bit of research from their bound volumes because, even by then, I knew I wanted to be in the music business.
Billboard was on 47th Street and 7th Avenue [in Manhattan] in the heart of what was the music business. It was a few blocks from the Brill Building, not too far from the Columbia Records offices and not that far from the other labels like Decca. All the indies were around there at that point.
This was a key time for the industry as it switched from songwriting teams controlling everything to the rise of the artist as writer.
The thing to me, whether it’s written by the artist or written by a songwriter who is not the artist, the song is the most important thing. Back in those days it was people like Leiber & Stoller, Jesse Stone, Otis Blackwell, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.
This was in 1956 – it was the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. Certainly the black artists, for the most part, were writing their own songs. People like Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Chuck Berry and Little Richard – but not all of them.
The country artists were not writing as much. Hank Williams was dead by then but most of them were dependent on outside writers.
That evolved later when it was bands [writing], then people like [Bob] Dylan came along and people like Paul Simon. Buddy Holly was ahead of his time [in terms of writing] but he had co-writers on some of that material. I think even Bobby Darin wrote one of the songs he did [‘Early In The Morning’].
I have as much respect, if not more in some cases, for the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hammerstein – the less famous ones but who were people who wrote great, great songs.
The song is everything; that is what memories are built on. That is what I was into. In some cases, the delivery was so fantastic that it couldn’t have been anyone else who could do it. That’s why I would cringe when I heard someone covering a Fats Domino record or a Chuck Berry record. It was just nonsense.
Had you wanted to be a journalist initially?
I wanted to be around music. On Saturdays, the Billboard chart was played over the radio by a guy called Martin Block. That was a national hook up on radio. It may have been at different times in different cities. It was the top 25. Later on they added the top 5 R&B and the top 5 county songs.
Billboard must have been the centre of the music business. I went up there but I am not sure what they made of me. They sat me down at a desk with the bound volumes and I wrote out by hand in my notebook what were the popular hits of the years before.
I had been keeping the books myself [as I progressed] but I wanted to go back even further. At some point they started inviting me to stay for the listening sessions when they picked the new songs. I had been speaking to Paul Ackerman, the music editor, and Tom Noonan, the chart editor. Either they thought I was crazy or… I don’t know what they thought, but they befriended me.
That is where I met the people who actually ran the record companies – mostly the indie record companies. People like Syd Nathan of King Records, Leonard Chess from Chess Records, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records.
The reason why that was such an important time was because the major labels in those early days when rock ‘n’ roll was just bubbling ignored it for the most part. Mitch Miller [at Columbia], who was a genius but who hated rock ‘n’ roll, was the last to get on board. He had such big artists like Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney.
I think he got in a little trouble in the late 1950s; but then he discovered Johnny Mathis and that bought him a few more years. It was the same thing at RCA – very little rock ‘n’ roll. It was all left to the rhythm & blues guys, the country guys and some of the smaller pop indies that were into rock ‘n’ roll to try and build it up.
Jac Holzman of Elektra said the indies surged at that time as the price of pressing records fell and, therefore, so did the barriers to entry. It was a particular economic moment that allowed the indies to flourish.
I don’t think the manufacturing costs had much to do with it. I think what had more to do with it was the speed change. It used to be all 78rpm records and there was breakage. Then you had the 45rpm single and the 33 1/3rpm LP and that helped a great deal. It made it easier for kids to get, buy and collect. All that was a factor.
There was also the economic regeneration after the war and the emergence of the teenager with disposable income.
With albums, there was more of a profit for the record companies. One album would be four or five times the price of a single. The music business was growing and there was a lot of music on television – which was still in its infancy. That helped it as well.
You worked for King Records after that time. How did that come about?
I got out of high school and by that time I had a job after school at Billboard, which I was getting paid for. After that, Billboard hired me full time and Syd Nathan [at King], who was the guy I was closest to, offered me a job.
It involved moving to Cincinnati, where I had been before. He had taken me there a couple of times and I spent long periods of time there over the summers to learn more about the business.
I told him I loved Billboard and I loved Paul Ackerman but he told me that I was a spectator there. “If you come to work for a record company,” he said, “then you’re a participant.” He told me he thought I had the potential to be a successful businessman – and he offered me a job.
I went out there [to Cincinnati] for about two and a half years and I learned so much. It was a crash course in everything. He was a tough guy. But he was my greatest mentor.
I got a contract about six months ago from Macmillan to write the story of my life. I am dedicating the book to Syd Nathan, although it will cover everyone that I can remember that really crossed my path and helped me in the business.
What did he do that shaped your vision?
He made me try every phase of the business. He even had me working the pressing machines as they had their own pressing plant. He kept me in the studio listening to stuff which, at first, I found quite boring.
But I loved it, don’t get me wrong. Meeting the producers and getting to realise the role that they played, the role that the engineers played and so on.
Did that shape how you set up Sire in 1966?
It didn’t go exactly like that. About a year before that, I was offered a job by a guy called Herb Abramson who was down on his luck by then but he was one of the original founders of Atlantic Records. It was him and Ahmet together who started it. I loved working at King but I missed New York and I found Cincinnati difficult.
Syd Nathan told me, “Whatever happens, you’ll always have a place here but I have to tell you that you are making a big mistake going with this man as he doesn’t have any money and you’ll be out of work in six months.”
It was only three months before I was out of work. It was much worse than that. I got little jobs here and there, doing publicity and promotion. It was very hard for me.
Then I learned that one of the people I knew from the Billboard days was starting a label with Leiber & Stoller called Red Bird Records. They offered me an assistant role and that was my way back into the business.
His name was George Goldner and he had a great career before that, but he kept losing his record labels. The first was Tico when he brought Latin music into America. Then he started Rama Records and Gee Records where he did doo-wop. He had one of the first two real rock ‘n’ roll records – ‘Gee’ by The Crows.
The other was ‘Sh-boom’ by The Chords which was on Atlantic. He had great groups like The Flamingos and The Chantels, but he was a bit of a gambler – a real gambler. He would always lose the labels.
But with Leiber & Stoller he thought it would be different. The first record they put out was a number 1 hit – ‘Chapel Of Love’ by The Dixie Cups and they followed that up with more hits by The Dixie Cups. Their biggest act was the Shangri-Las with ‘Leader Of The Pack’ and things like that.
The office was in the Brill Building – 1619 Broadway was the Ground Zero of the music business. It was a five-minute walk from Billboard. I was in the centre of it all – even when I was working at Billboard.
After a while, I could see that there was friction between George and Leiber & Stoller. I took note of it and I was concerned. I met, among other people in the Brill Building, a guy called Richard Gottehrer who had two partners and they were quite successful producers and songwriters. They wrote and produced ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’, they produced ‘Hang On Sloopy’ by The McCoys and they had their own group called The Strangeloves who did ‘I Want Candy’.
Richard and I talked about maybe going into business together as he was having differences with his partners. Unbeknownst to him I was worried about the future of Red Bird. Well Red Bird collapsed around the same time as his company, FGG, and so we went into business.
Tom Noonan, who had helped me at Billboard, had recently been installed as the head of a newly formed company set up by Columbia that was to act and look like an indie. It was called Date Records. He said he through we would be great producing for them and signing acts.
What we started was Sire Productions. ‘Sire’ was the first two letters of Seymour and Richard. We moved the letters around and it came up with ‘Rise’ but when it came up ‘Sire’ I thought of kings – my sire. So that’s what we called the label.
What kind of music did you want to put out?
They wanted us to be into rock ‘n’ roll as Columbia was very shallow in that market. In those days, the singles chart – not the albums chart – was about 80% controlled by the indie labels. There were so many of them and so many that were successful.
We signed a couple of R&B acts. They had nothing. There was some very good stuff but nothing that was all that big. We moved on from there and were distributed by other labels. They only wanted things that could be available for the world. Our next distributor, London Records, was part of British Decca. They didn’t care if we had acts for the world or not.
I had built up a relationship with EMI when I worked for King. EMI distributed King in most territories outside of America – or licensed the music. I met one of the heads of the company, LG Wood. He told me that if I ever needed anything I could always come to him.
The Beatles were turned down twice by Capitol. They would have been gone forever if it hadn’t been for EMI’s American lawyer who was very smart. Vee-Jay had it first and they had it for three or five years.
They put out ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me’. And they didn’t pay any royalties. There were very few royalties to pay but they didn’t pay them. When EMI heard ‘She Loves You’, the third record, they said this would be the smash that broke them.
Capitol, believe it or not, turned it down again even though ‘Please Please Me’ had been a hit in England – which ‘Love Me Do’ was not. Their lawyer, a guy called Paul Marshall, was one of the smartest men I ever knew and he told them to let him handle it. He took it away from VJ as they were bad and didn’t pay royalties.
He called up Dick Clark in Philadelphia who owned pieces of labels and had his own label called Swan Records. He said, “I’ll give you this record without an advance and a low royalty – but no follow ups. In exchange, you can break the band.” That’s exactly what happened. Capitol got them back from ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ onwards.
I knew LG Wood and went to him. I figured if The Beatles were not picked up, then neither were The Hollies. They [Capitol] didn’t pick up so many other bands. It was ridiculous. I was able to license – for America and in some cases America and Canada – great stuff which helped us keep our doors open.
The Climax Blues Band, Renaissance, Barclay James Harvest. Things like that. Stackridge, who were produced by George Martin who was by this time the hottest producer in the world – and Capital didn’t pick it up. That kept our doors open for a while.
We were licensing stuff in – mostly from England. We had so much music out from EMI that companies in France, Germany and Scandinavia contacted us.
There was one thing I liked very much – a guitar player called Jan Akkerman. When I called to find out about him I was told he had left the company and that I could have that record without an advance but there would be no follow ups. I asked where he had gone and was told he had started his own band called Focus.
I immediately jumped on a plane and went to the Netherlands and signed the band. That became our first million-selling album. The album was called Moving Waves [originally released as Focus II] but the big song was ‘Hocus Pocus’. Then we started rolling. Richard left the company soon after that as he wanted to go back to just being a producer. We are still best of friends.
The scene many will associate with Sire is CBGBs and New York punk. How did you get there first?
Richard and I were two of the very few people who noticed what was going on downtown in New York at CBGBs and Max’s [Kansas City] to a lesser extent. I signed The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Dead Boys, Richard Hell & The Voidoids. Richard signed and produced Blondie. That is when all hell started to break loose.
The Bowery was not a bad area or a dangerous area. Yes, you had to step over bodies at times but they weren’t dead bodies – they were drunks. I never had the slightest fear when I was going down to the Bowery and there was no reason to.
But the Bowery had a very bad reputation and that reputation far exceeded any dangers there might be there. It smelled. I don’t want to go into detail but you can imagine. What happens when people get too drunk? They vomit or they shit in their pants.
The toilet in GBGBs was not a very clean toilet. I felt bad for the women. The men could have a slash – fine. Hilly [Kristal] was a great master of ceremonies. I loved him. He could be cantankerous but the great thing about him was he didn’t like, as a label, any of the music that people played there.
CBGBs stood for country, bluegrass and blues. That’s was he liked. I can’t remember country, bluegrass or blues artists ever appearing there. He didn’t care if it was The Ramones or Talking Heads or Blondie – he was just giving people a shot and an opportunity.
I saw Television at CBGBs. I think Richard Hell had just left the band. I got on with the band but not with the leader of the band. I got in very well with Richard Lloyd, but Tom Verlaine I found very difficult. He kept putting me off.
Eventually they were signed by Karin Berg who worked for Warner Music. But I signed most of the other good bands. Richard signed Blondie. Richard also signed Ricard Hell to produce and I signed him for the records, so Richard and I worked together on that. The Ramones and The Dead Boys, they were all on Sire.
In those days, I was flying back and forth to England. It took me a while to see The Ramones and to see Talking Heads. I flew back from England and was supposed to see The Ramones the next night but I had the ‘flu and I couldn’t go. I sent my wife [Linda] and Danny Fields [writer] went with her.
She was so blown away that I said I didn’t care how sick I was, I wanted them in the studio the next day. They were so great. I booked it for an hour. They played for about 15 or 20 minutes and they must have done about 18 songs in that time. The rest of the time was spent discussing the contract.
I told them they had to go to a lawyer. We had agreed to the deal – a certain amount as an advance to buy instruments and a certain amount to record the record. They came back to me later that day and I had the contract drawn up very hastily. They signed it and within a matter of days the album was finished. That’s how fast they worked and how well they worked.
On the other hand, Talking Heads – I saw them later that year. The Ramones’ first record had come out and was critically acclaimed. It was the middle of November that year  and I was down there waiting to see The Ramones play me some new material for their second album.
I had asked Hilly earlier who the opening act was. It was one of his bands that I didn’t want to sign. He managed them. I had seen them before. I am waiting outside with Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band and all of a sudden I heard “When my love stands next to your love” [from ‘(Love Goes To) Building On Fire’] and I was mesmerised by the music.
I started moving without realising. It was like a snake charmer. I was sucked into the room. Lenny followed me. I asked him who it was and he told me it was Talking Heads. I ran up to them after the show – they were only a three-piece then – and said, “My God, I just love your band so much.” And Tina [Weymouth, bassist] was very friendly and started talking to me.
Then David [Byrne] said to me, “We know who you are, Seymour. Why didn’t you come and see us tomorrow at our loft?” Which is what I did. They said, “Look, we don’t know what we are going to do but we like what you have done for The Ramones.”
Eleven and a half months later they finally signed the contract. I lost sleep every night. I was worried that someone else was going to see in this band what was so obvious to me – just how different they were. Maybe it was because they were so different that people didn’t want to sign them as they were afraid.
That’s the worst way to do things. They’re already fucking there! A lot of people have done very well by doing that, but I don’t behave like that.
They were a very erudite band compared to the minimalism of The Ramones.
They were nothing like The Ramones. The Ramones signed two days after I saw them and the record was finished three or four days after that. It took Talking Heads eleven and a half months. I was afraid, and I got sick over it at some points, that somebody was going see them and see what I saw in them. What I saw in them was so obvious. But that never happened so I signed Talking Heads.
History claims you coined the term “new wave” as you didn’t like the term “punk”. Is that true?
I did. It’s not that I didn’t like the word “punk”. I didn’t care what word is used. But a lot of people didn’t like the term “punk”. I didn’t mind the word “punk” at all. I don’t mind any word. Unless it’s a really nasty word – which punk isn’t. Unless it’s a racial slur or a religious slur – I don’t care. You shit! I don’t care about those words.
By this time, I had just about signed Talking Heads and they weren’t punk – under any fucking definition. I thought and I thought about what we could do about this. Then I started thinking that what I loved most about New York at the time was that music was coming back to the city.
New York, when I was younger, was Ground Zero in the US – and that meant Ground Zero in the world. Then we started losing a lot to LA. We started losing a lot to Detroit. We started losing a lot to Memphis, Philadelphia and other places.
That was good as the more pockets you have the more great talent you are going to find. You don’t have to wait for someone to come all the way from Memphis to New York to make it. Philadelphia was an hour and a half away but not the others.
I thought that New York was back on top and there’s a new wave of music. That’s where I came up with the phrase “new wave”. It had been used before [like La Nouvelle Vague in French cinema]. I am sure they used it in fashion. I am sure they used it in everything.
I just didn’t want to use “punk”. I didn’t even want to use it where The Ramones were concerned because I think some of the Ramones’ songs are incredible if you really listen to them. The Ramones certainly didn’t care. That’s why I came up with the term “new wave”.
The Ramones had a huge influence on what became UK punk.
A lot of those bands were semi-pro [at the time]. I was there in 1976 when I brought The Ramones over. The Flamin’ Groovies helped me bring them over. They were unknown. I am indebted to the Flamin’ Groovies to this day.
I was taking about changing label distribution in England to go with Philips – or Phonogram as it was then. Michael Grainge came down and he brought his son who was about 13 or 14 at the time – who now heads Universal [Lucian]. He says that seeing The Ramones is what made him want to be in the business. The Ramones were very influential.
What do you think when you seen teenagers today wearing Ramones T-shirts? Or supermodels?
To this day they still wear them. A lot of that had to do with Arturo Vega who designed them. He was a genius of an artist. You have to give him credit. He was the fifth member of the band and he also looked after Dee Dee [bassist] and tried to keep him out of trouble.
Arturo had a lot to do with it but their music was great. Once people got over the fact that it was a bit noisy… it was more than just noise as there were great songs and great musicianship. Tommy [drummer and producer] was the greatest. He really was.
Soon after this, Sire was acquired by Warner Music. Warner was becoming a powerhouse at the time as it had bought Elektra and Atlantic and also helped start Asylum.
Asylum came later. David [Geffen] is one of the great geniuses of our business. Warner wanted to buy Sire but I didn’t really want to sell. I figured that I could do this for the rest of my life. I was seeing how great artists from five years ago had already faded into the dust. I didn’t want my artists to fade away. I knew that Warner could break them and Warner did.
Talking about breaking acts, in the 1980s Madonna arrived and had staggering commercial success.
Before that, I started spending a lot of time in the UK and signing up some great British bands who were very much influenced [by Sire acts] and who wanted to meet me because of The Ramones and Talking Heads. Acts like Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cult, The Cure and Depeche Mode but also the people who ran those indie labels.
They knew much more about music than the people who worked at major companies. Martin Mills [Beggars], Daniel Miller [Mute], Geoff Travis [Rough Trade], Alan McGee [Creation] a little later on. Tony Wilson [Factory] and I were very good friends but I never signed any of his acts but I used to go to In The City every year.
One of those acts was The Smiths. They could have been huge in the US but it never happened. Why?
It’s obvious what happened. You know and I know it.
Was it down to the “M” word? Morrissey?
It wasn’t the “M” word. It was the “F” word – friction. That’s the word. The friction between the two of them [Johnny Marr and Morrissey] was the reason.
I am very friendly with Johnny and I even have a relationship with Morrissey – which is not easy. I go out of my way to keep that relationship going because he is one of the very few artists – and I would put Johnny in the same category – who is a genius.
It’s a really great, great shame [they split]. They just couldn’t get along. I think Morrissey had a problem getting on with people. He said some terrible things to me and then sort of apologised. It doesn’t matter. We still speak. I love him and I love his taste in other music.
He is a big rockabilly fan and I love that stuff. It is very sad. But these things happen. It happened on a much bigger level. The Beatles should have stayed together. Their work on their own is very, very good but nothing like when it was The Beatles.
Madonna, however, went stratospheric.
Madonna, in a way, was an accident – to tell the truth. By that time dance music was getting stronger and the dance clubs were getting busier. I became very friendly with several DJs – one of them was a guy called Mark Kamins.
I had given him so work to do on edits on and remixes – but not production. He asked me to let him produce a record for me. I told him that I didn’t really make those decisions.
I would give a few names to acts as to who I thought might be the right producer and they had their own ideas. Together we would make a decision and I usually would go with what the band wants – unless I know the guy to be something else than what he professes to be.
I started giving him some money to do remixes and then I gave him some money to find and bring me artists. One of the artists he brought me was Madonna.
I was in the hospital when he brought me Madonna. I was so excited that he found her. Madonna came to the hospital to meet me as I knew I was going to be there for another two weeks and I was scared someone else might have signed her in those two weeks. We did the deal. We shook hands and she signed the contract when I was still in the hospital.
Did you think she’d be as big as she became?
No. She was very ambitious but I never had an artist – before or since – as big as Madonna. I couldn’t envisage her being as big as she eventually became. It’s not quite 35 years yet but she’s loving it. I think that it’s cost her. She certainly doesn’t have the most normal life but I think she has run a very good engine for herself over all that time and working with all those different people.
The controversy around Body Count’s ‘Cop Killer’ in 1992 proved to be a pivotal moment in Warner history where it gave up on hip-hop and lost its market dominance.
I think the powers that be at Warner at the time overreacted. They dropped Ice-T. But Ice-T and I, miraculously, have stayed friendly. Ice-T inducted me into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame several years later [in 2005]. I feel that I did, and that Warner’s did, him a disservice.
It was a different time and place. They had that whole label with Jimmy Iovine and Interscope. They let that go too. They panicked. There were these people standing outside the Warner building [in New York] taunting us. There was this one woman who knew who I was and she threw things at me.
These were people of all different races. It was the biggest mistake. We weren’t the only ones. The other major labels turned their backs on [hip-hop] but not as vehemently as Warner. Terrible.
It was a fantasy. If I signed someone, it’s because of their talent. I don’t go around telling them what to do. They are the talent; I’m the record company. That’s all. I thought it [the song] was a bit provocative but it’s not my place [to censor it]. I still believe that to this day.
I can’t, coming from Northern Ireland, not ask you about The Undertones. What was it about them that you liked?
I was driving in a car with my assistant down the motorway [in the UK] to see The Searchers of all people. I had promised someone I’d go see them and see if they were capable of making a new record. I did actually make a record with them.
It was John Peel’s show and I heard this fabulous record [‘Teenage Kicks’]. I thought to myself, “This record is unbelievable.” I wanted to know more about it. And then he played it again a few minutes later. “Oh my God – pull over the car!” I said, “I want this band.” That’s what it was really about. They just amazed me.
You found and signed The Ramones quickly and they had their record done almost immediately. Do acts and labels spend too long leading into albums today?
It was very fast [for The Ramones] but they didn’t enjoy their great success at all. It didn’t work in that sense. I still believe in my way. We have had records that we waited on. I just don’t like to try to force things. I am not saying I am right or wrong. I am not a marketing person.
So I don’t know if I am right or wrong about this. It’s not my area of expertise. It never was. And by this time it never will be. But I don’t like to force things on people. I have seen things that have grown over years – not only on my label but in other places.
There’s a lot of focus on data today and using that to predict if acts will work. How do you feel about that?
I don’t know whether they are right or wrong. I tell you that honestly. But Sire is still a relatively small company. I can’t wait that long. If I wait too long, some big company [will swoop in].
There are no longer seven majors; there are just three majors and sometimes I am competing with Warner Bros. I have to go in there as soon as I hear something I love. I have no choice. It’s the way I work.
I am not saying it’s the right way. I am not urging other people to do it. I am not saying it’s the wrong way. I haven’t changed.