Seymour Stein, Record Company Man Who Signed the Ramones and Madonna
It may be hard to believe, but it’s been 30 years since Madonna released her debut self-titled album. The man responsible for signing the then-unknown twenty-something singer is chairman and co-founder of Sire Records, Seymour Stein. If you’re into popular music, odds are that you’ve heard of him. Even before Madonna, he was responsible for signing the kind of bands that changed people’s lives, like The Ramones, Talking Heads, and The Pretenders. He is popularly believed to have coined the term New Wave as a musical genre and is credited for breaking British bands such as Depeche Mode and The Smiths into the U.S. market. He is even responsible for bringing the original Fleetwood Mac to America in the 1970s, so no wonder he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
It’s been 30 years since Madonna’s first album, which of course you were responsible for. How did that happen?
This wasn’t at the beginning of my career. I already had Sire Records, which was moderately successful. I already had some very important bands before I signed her—The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Pretenders. I had another company that had all the original Fleetwood Mac recordings, so Madonna wasn’t my first big artist. I got involved with her through a club DJ named Mark Kamins, who I liked and I thought had a lot of talent. I gave him some work remixing records. He wanted to be a producer and he wanted me to give him one of my artists to produce. I told him, “I don’t give my artists to anybody. Usually they pick the producer. I try to give my artists as much artistic freedom as possible, within reason. I couldn’t recommend you because you have no track record. If you want to be a producer you have to find an artist and bring him or her or it—if it’s a band—to me. Then if I like the artist you can produce them.” He brought me a couple of things that were very good but not good enough to sign. The third artist he brought me was Madonna. I was in the hospital at the time. I had to be there for a month, I had an infection. The Walkman had just recently come out, so I had the demo sent right over to me. I loved it and being a little naturally paranoid, in a very Jewish way, I said, “I want to see her right away, I want to sign her.” So, she came to the hospital, we agreed to make a record together and the rest is history.
Did you ever think she’d be calling herself Esther one day?
Esther meine schwester? Ahh … no. I believed she would be a star. People ask me, “Did you know then, in the hospital, that she would be one of the biggest female singers of the 20th century?” I would love to be able to say, “Of course I did!” But that’s not true and I couldn’t say that. But I always believed in her, because not only did she have talent, but she had a burning desire, drive, ambition, and a work ethic that is incredible. So, she had everything and I saw that in my hospital room.
Are you still in touch with her today?
Yes. I was at one of her gigs of the last tour. Warner Bros. bought my company and if it were up to me she’d still be where she was. But she couldn’t make a new deal with Warner on the terms that she wanted and she left. It had nothing to do with me. I don’t see her that much but I’m in close contact with her manager, Guy Oseary, who is Israeli and living in L.A. and a very smart young man. Well, he’s not that young anymore. He’s certainly quite young, but when I met him he was just out of high school. He wasn’t managing her then, but he became involved with her record company and he did an excellent job. It’s been a very good working relationship between the two of them.
What do you think about Madonna’s interest in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism?
I think it’s tremendous. I learned a bit of Kabbalah when I was young, not very much, and I didn’t take to it that well. But Kabbalah is not just for Jews. I think Madonna has done a lot for Kabbalah because she’s a spokesperson for it and I find it wonderful.
You don’t find it a bit strange?
Not at all. She was in it before the trend. She didn’t do it because it was trendy, just like she doesn’t help little children in Africa because it’s a trendy thing to do. She does it because she wants to. She’s not very interested in her own religion, the Catholic religion. I shouldn’t say this because I don’t really know, but from knowing her and being close with her my interpretation is that a lot of it had to do with her schooling at Catholic school and also with the fact that both of her parents were very religious Catholic and her mother was taken away from her at such an early age. Her mother died of cancer and she never got over it. That’s it. And then she just found the Kabbalah. I have several Jewish friends who have found Buddhism. Is that any less strange?
by Dana Kessler