In an intimate conversation with music aficionado Vicki Wickham, co-founder of Sire Records Seymour Stein talks about his career in the music business, and about the artists he discovered, and plays the songs that made them famous.
As Sire Records celebrates its 50th Anniversary, 74 year old Seymour Stein talks about his long career, in which he has helped launch artists such as Madonna and Talking Heads, and shepherded wayward luminaries like Brian Wilson. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who established his reputation by consistently selling listeners on the next idea of cool - The Ramones, Ice-T, K D Lang, and Depeche Mode — in the case of each of these diverse Sire acts, Stein knew what people wanted before they knew for themselves.
Stein entered the music business as a teenager at Billboard magazine. Jobs followed with independent labels including King (known for records by James Brown) and Red Bird (the Shangri-Las) before Stein founded Sire in 1967 with Richard Gottehrer. Two years later, Stein heard about a band called the Ramones following a gig at the infamous CBGBs and signed the hugely influential New York punk band. After that Stein seemed to predict where music was headed, from punk to new wave to synth-pop to metal.
Music Running Order – Episode 1
Madonna - Holiday
Freddie King - Hideaway
James Brown from Live at the Apollo – Night Train
Hank Ballard – Finger Poppin’ Time
Hank Ballard – The Twist
Little Willie John – Fever
Patti Page – Tennessee Waltz
Kay Starr – Bonaparte’s Retreat
The Crows – Gee
Otis Williams & the Tramps – Hearts of Stone
Elvis Presley – That’s All Right
Bobby Lewis – Tossin’ & Turnin’
Machito – Mambo America
Martha Velez – I’m Gonna Leave You
Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles – I Sold My Heart to the Junkman
Aerosmith – Walk This Way
Climax Blues Band – Couldn’t Get It Right
Fleetwood Mac – Albatross
Jethro Tull – Living in the Past (Live)
Focus – Janis
Focus – Hocus Pocus
Duane Eddy – Along the Navajo Trail
Blondie – X-Offender
The Ramones – Blitzkrieg Bop
Talking Heads – Building on Fire
Talking Heads – Psycho Killer
Thursday 31 May 2018
Born in Brooklyn, Seymour Stein’s passion for music took hold during his early days as an intern at Billboard magazine while still in High School. Following graduation in 1959 Stein worked in the chart department for over two years before moving to Cincinnati to get a grass roots education of the music business at King Records from his greatest mentor Syd Nathan where he worked with R’n’B artists including James Brown and Hank Ballard. He was able to notice that changes were happening in music with country music crosses into the pop charts and he witnessed the birth of Doo-Wop with hits like Gee by The Crows, and Hearts of Stone by Otis Williams and The Tramps. This all led to the birth of Rock’n’Roll and Elvis Presley and Seymour was there to experience it all.
Stein left Nathan to work for Herb Abramson who was setting up his own label which proved a disaster and he was out of work within 3 months. He returned to New York in 1964 to work with George Goldner, who had just joined forces with legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to form Red Bird Records headquartered in the Brill Building. Stein said this was a sheer delight and Goldner was great to work for and was an expert on music; he had introduced Latin Music to the United States before the emergence of doo-wop. However Goldner was a gambler and this ultimately led to the demise of Red Bird Records. While working in the Brill Building Seymour met and became good friends with Richard Gottehrer and in 1967 they went into partnership and founded Sire Productions.
Sire began by licensing & releasing albums by British progressive-rock acts like Climax Blues Band, Renaissance and Barclay James Harvest as well as Focus from Holland, whose album, Moving Waves was Sire’s first platinum album back in 1973 and their track Hocus Pocus was their first million selling single. Seymour was a believer in the English rock scene since the late 1950’s – long before the British invasion of the US. In London in the late 1960’s, he had met Mike Vernon, who worked for British Decca, where he produced Eric Clapton, John Mayal’s Blues Breakers, Ten Years After, and Savoy Brown Blues Band. Stein and Richard Gottehrer helped Mike Vernon start his own label Blue Horizon, the company that launched the careers of the original Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and also Chicken Shack, featuring Christine McVie. One of Sire’s first artists was Martha Velez and she recorded a blues album produced by Mike Vernon which featured many of the artists on his Blue Horizon label.
Vicki Wickham had met Seymour back in the 70s and was introduced to him by her friend & Brill Building song-writer Ellie Greenwich, and at the time she was just changing the image of female singing group Labelle, and Seymour, of course knew them from the 60s when they were Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles. In fact he had worked with them and recorded an album called ‘Live at the Apollo’.
During the 70s & beginning of the 80s Stein concentrated on licensing music from the UK to release in the US on Sire including Best of British Blues compilation albums and also artists who had been on more than one label including Duane Eddy and Paul Anka.
He noticed how the music scene in New York was under-going a transformation and this was helped by clubs like CBGBs and Max’s. He met Hilly Krystal who managed CBGBs and he had an open mic policy at his club, and so many new acts could test the water there. Richard Gottehrer decided he wanted to get back into record producing so he left Sire and he discovered Blondie at CBGBs and made their first records with them. Seymour carried on with Sire, and after his wife Linda and friend Danny Field had heard a group called The Ramones at CBGBs – he signed them and got them in the studio within a week to record an album and they were a new sensation. Heralding in the era of punk the Ramones were soon joined on Stein’s roster by Talking Heads who also got his attention appearing at CBGBs.
Ramones – Do You Remember Rock’n’Roll Radio?
Talking Heads – Burning Down the House
Madonna – Everybody
Madonna – Borderline
Pretenders – Stop Your Sobbing (Live version)
Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
Brian Wilson – Love & Mercy
Talking Heads – Road to Nowhere
Ramones – I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend
Martha Velez – It Takes a Lot to Laugh
Soft Cell – Tainted Love
M – Pop Musik
The Normal – Warm Leatherette
Depeche Mode – New Life
The Smiths – Hand in Glove
Adele – Someone Like You
KD Lang – Angel With a Lariat
Ice T – That’s How I’m Livin’
Mighty Sparrow – Jean & Dinah
Lord Kitchener – If You’re Not White, You’re Black
Ice T – I Must Stand
Sonny Thompson – Long Gone Pt 1
The Sugar Men – Local Freaks
Moon Mullican – Piano Breakdown
Madonna – Living for Love
Ofra Haza – Open Your Heart
Thursday 7 June
Seymour Stein talks about the importance of independent record companies, how they have always been innovative and how he became friends with a new wave of British indies including Geoff Travis at Rough Trade, Daniel Miller at Mute, Martin Mills at Beggars and Alan McGee at Creation.
Vicki asks Seymour where he first saw Madonna and what he saw in her, and he tells the story of how he didn’t see her but he heard a recording of hers. He had faith in a young DJ and producer called Mark Kamins and so he gave him $18,000 to put together a bunch of demos on artists he was working with. The third or fourth one turned out to be Madonna singing the song ‘Everybody’, and Seymour fell in love with it and wanted to sign her. He wanted to sign her immediately even though he was in hospital on a drip but because he’s a small indie he’s always paranoid that a bigger company will get in before him. Anyway she came to the hospital, he thought she’d have gone to a cemetery – she was so eager to sign a deal. She was never hard to work with, in the beginning she really wanted success and she fought for what she wanted but she wasn’t unreasonable. He thinks it was the fourth single that really broke her ‘Borderline’ after that he knew there would be no going back. Soon as she started to break he re-did the deal with her as he did with several of his artists including the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Pretenders.
In fact he first heard Chrissie Hynde in London when they were just called the Chrissie Hynde Band. Dave Hill who he’d known from way back at ABC Records, and who always had ‘good ears’, called him and said you’re going to love this band, and so he went to see them in a small club in West Hampstead which was originally called Klux’s Clique and was round the corner from the old Decca studio. He thought the first song was wonderful and it just got better and better, and they agreed to do the deal that night in the club, and what a success the Pretenders became.
Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys was asked to induct Lieber & Stoller into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame – it was at this ceremony that Seymour met and chatted to Brian backstage and said he should do a solo album. Brian said yes I want to do one right now – and asked if he had anyone in mind for him to work with, Seymour thought for a moment and said one of his artists was Brian’s biggest fans, Andy Paley and he would be great to work with Brian. The album was called Love & Mercy which was also the title of the film about Brian and the Beach Boys. Seymour said that during the recording of the album Dr Eugene Landy (Brian’s psycho-therapist) was a complete nightmare to work with – controlling Brian & making him so crazy. Luckily Melinda who later became his wife had come on the scene and that eased some of the friction and also both Brian’s brothers were very supportive.
Seymour talks about what is needed to make it in the music industry today and while stage presence and musicality play their part, the most important element is having a great song. He goes on to recall some of his favourite Sire songs – anything by Talking Heads or the Ramones, Martha Velez, Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, M’s Pop Musik.
Seymour had been great friends with Daniel Miller at Mute Records in the UK and he could see great potential in him, he had released some of his early songs which were really Daniel under different names. So Seymour wakes up really early in New York and reads in NME ‘Daniel Miller signs new band and they were playing that night in their hometown.’ So he called the airline and bought an $8,000 ticket and arrived for the gig in Basildon to see Depeche Mode and fell in love with them. He shook hands with Daniel that night in the club and the deal was done. A few months later Geoff Travis called him and said ‘Oh Seymour there’s this great band called the Smiths & this guy Morrissey is fantastic, and when you see them you’re going to love them even more than me. But they’re playing in 3 days time’ and Seymour said I’ll be there. Geoff was surprised but Seymour told him this is nothing I saw Depeche Mode the same night!
He also flew up to Canada on hearing a demo of a singer called K D Lang after a friend had sent it to him and he loved that she sounded like Country Music singers Patti Page and Patsy Cline. He saw her live and talked to her after the gig, and she agreed to sign with Sire, which was good because Seymour later found out that RCA were also trying to sign her. He doesn’t like getting into bidding wars over artists because ultimately he feels it doesn’t do anyone any good. He is prepared to allow an artist to develop over a couple of albums, and have room to grow which is rare in music industry today.
Seymour had missed out on the explosion of rap music and he shouldn’t have because of his background in r’n’b so for the first time in his life he did research and discovered that most of the rap was from the east side of the States, he couldn’t find anything west of the Mississippi, in California or even Texas. Then he found Ice T – and he came to meet Seymour with the possibility of signing to Sire, but he wanted to know what Seymour saw in him. Seymour explained about his background and his research and also explained that he loved calypso music which had a similarity with rap in that its message was like ‘a talking newspaper’ on events that were happening right now. So he played him a couple of his favourite calypso songs from Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener, and it made Ice T smile and he agreed to sign with Sire.
Seymour Stein was one of the founders of the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 along with Ahmet Ertegun, Jann Wenner, Jerry Wexler and Allen Grubman. It seeks to honour artists who have had a career of over 25 years in music. Stein is still signing artists to Sire but it is a smaller operation now although he is still CEO of the company which is now under the wing of Warner Music. He has two bands from England that are new signings the Lottery Winners and Sugar Men, and he’s also looking at a band from Israel – he feels that great music can come from anywhere in the world, we don’t have an exclusive in the US or UK.
So Sire is 50 years old and Seymour has been in the business for 60 years – what more does he want to achieve? He’s writing a book about his life that he keeps adding to, it’s the first and definitely the last book he’ll ever write! He also wants to hear more great music and that is his passion. He wants to say to anyone who wants to get into the music business that it can be done, and he has been very fortunate to have had a fantastic career in music and learnt from his mentors along the way and he is incredibly grateful. He definitely does not see himself as Last of the Great Record Men and he says he knows several people who are in it because they love music and they love bringing music to the people.