Obit Seymour Stein

Seymour Stein at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2005. Julie Jacobson/Associated Press, file

Seymour Stein, a powerhouse music executive who co-founded Sire Records, helped popularize the punk and new wave movements and inked Madonna’s first record deal, summoning the singer to his hospital bedside to make sure a rival didn’t sign her first, died April 2 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 80.

The cause was cancer, said his daughter, Mandy Stein.

Across a six-decade career in the music industry, Stein flitted between genres and continents, always searching for the next big sound. “What I really am,” he once said, “is an extremist,” the kind of music-industry fanatic happy to spend $8,000 to book a last-minute Concorde flight to London to hear a hot new band called Depeche Mode. Upon his arrival, he found “four teenagers poking synths in a dump in the English suburbs” and signed them to a record deal.

Although he had grown up listening to pop standards, memorizing lyrics to Patti Page and Tony Bennett songs that his older sister played on her record player, Stein had wide-ranging taste. In the 1970s, he helped popularize a raw new sound emerging out of the New York nightclub CBGB, where he discovered bands including the leather-wearing, eardrum-bursting Ramones and their onetime opener, Talking Heads.

He went on to sign punk and new wave groups including the Pretenders and the Replacements; introduced American listeners to English bands including Echo & the Bunnymen, the Cure, the Smiths and Modern English; and responded – and in some cases anticipated – musical trends by signing artists ranging from the British singer Seal to the gangsta rap pioneer Ice-T.

Whatever the genre, all of the musicians on his roster seemed to share at least one quality. “They all had an edge,” Ice-T said in 2005 while inducting Stein into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “That’s what Seymour was into.”

Stein’s biggest commercial success was the 1982 signing of a struggling singer who went by a single name, Madonna, and had recorded a demo track called “Everybody.” He was in a New York City hospital, recovering from a heart infection with penicillin dripping through his body, when he first heard the song on his Sony Walkman. “I’m sure I was going nuts in that little room, but I immediately felt an excitement,” he wrote in his 2018 memoir, “Siren Song,” with co-author Gareth Murphy.

To ward off competitors, he called the track’s producer, Mark Kamins, and arranged for Madonna to come to the hospital that evening. “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 recalled. “She wasn’t even interested in hearing me explain how much I liked her demo. ‘The thing to do now,’ she said, ‘is sign me to a record deal.’ She then opened her arms and laughed. ‘Take me, I’m yours!'”

Stein arranged a modest initial deal that included an advance of $15,000 for each of Madonna’s first three singles, plus an option for an album. The next year, she released her self-titled debut, which sold more than 5 million copies in the United States and was followed by some of the top-selling albums of all time.

“Not only did Seymour hear me,” Madonna wrote in an Instagram post after his death, “but he Saw me and my Potential! For this I will be eternally grateful! I am weeping as I write this down. Words cannot describe how I felt at this moment after years of grinding and being broke and getting every door slammed in my face.”

Ever since he was a boy, Stein had been possessed by music. He memorized song lyrics – a common hobby – but he also memorized the pop charts, running home from synagogue on Saturday to listen to the Top 25 countdown on the radio and record the playlist in his notebook.

In his memoir he described the sound of new songs, and the snippets of gossip and industry news shared by the show’s host, Martin Block, as “life’s honey seeping through airwaves.”

By all accounts, he had a photographic memory, and would often quote song lyrics and reference old hooks and choruses in his meetings with artists. Yet he also cultivated a reputation for letting musicians do their own thing, even when it broke with tradition.

“He never ever said, ‘No you can’t,'” Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth told Billboard in 2012. Another member of the band, keyboardist and guitarist Jerry Harrison, wrote on Facebook on Sunday that Stein “had the good sense and confidence to let artists make their own decisions.”

Still, there were always exceptions. When Stein was working with the Ramones on their 1976 self-titled debut, he objected to the line “I’m a Nazi, baby” in their song “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World,” leading the group to tweak the lyrics.

“It was shocking to me, I’m sorry,” he explained to the New York Times four decades later. “I’m a Jewish kid from Brooklyn.”

Seymour Steinbigle, a grandson of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, was born in Brooklyn on April 18, 1942. His father worked in the garment trade in Manhattan, and his mother helped out at her family’s grocery store on Coney Island, a few miles south of Stein’s childhood home in the Bensonhurst neighborhood.

At age 13, Stein persuaded a Billboard magazine editor to let him access the publication’s archives, enabling him to kick off a two-year project in which he transcribed and studied nearly two decades of pop music charts. The project led him to start writing for the magazine, which became a full-time job after he graduated from high school in 1959.

Two years later, he moved to Cincinnati to work at King Records, where he had interned in high school. The label’s executive, Syd Nathan, became his first mentor, encouraging him to shorten his last name from Steinbigle – “If you’re serious about the music business, you need a name,” he said – and sending him out on the road with one of the label’s burgeoning stars, James Brown.

Stein returned to New York in 1963 to join Red Bird Records, which found success with hits including the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack,” before co-founding Sire in 1966 with producer and songwriter Richard Gottehrer. The company took its name from the first two letters of their given names, which were rearranged to form a courtly word – “sire” – that paid subtle homage to King, where Stein had gotten his start.

The label initially looked overseas for clients, signing British groups including Climax Blues Band, Renaissance and Barclay James Harvest. In 1973, it cracked the Top 10 with the single “Hocus Pocus” by the Dutch band Focus, which Stein joked was “probably the only ever perfectly rhyming number-one title and artist.”

Two years later, Stein’s wife, the former Linda Adler, suggested he check out the Ramones, introducing him to a band – and a musical sensibility – that transformed his label. “It was like sticking my hand in a live electric light socket,” he said.

Deciding that the “punk” label would turn away potential listeners, Stein embraced “new wave” to describe some of the CBGB mainstays, including Talking Heads. The term stuck, in part through a new slogan that he adopted at Sire, “Don’t Call it Punk,” to promote now-canonical albums by bands including Richard Hell and the Voidoids.

By then, the company had signed a distribution deal with Warner Bros. Records, where Stein became a vice president. The label was acquired by Warner Music Group in 1980.

Over the next decade, Stein expanded his label’s roster to include established artists such as Lou Reed and Brian Wilson. He later turned toward indie rock and pop, and he was still looking for new artists when the Scottish band Belle and Sebastian released a song named after him in 1998, concluding with the lines: “Seymour Stein, sorry I missed you / Have a nice flight home / It’s a good day for flying.”

He retired in 2018. That same year, he published his memoir, which touched on his sexuality – he knew he was gay ever since he was young, he wrote, but “believed that if I ignored it long enough, it might go away, like the hiccups or a door-to-door salesman” – and his tumultuous marriage to Linda, which ended in divorce in the late 1970s.

Linda Stein, a co-manager of the Ramones, became a real estate agent for celebrities before she was murdered by her personal assistant in 2007. She and Stein had two daughters: Samantha Jacobs, who died of brain cancer in 2013 at age 40, and Mandy, a filmmaker.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include a sister and three grandchildren.

Looking back on his career in 2018, Stein told the New Yorker that whatever genre he was working in, he simply tried to put out “a great record.” Asked what made an album “great,” he replied, “a great song,” thus raising the question: What made a song great?

To answer, he reached back through pop music history and, as he did so often, quoted from a song, this time selecting lyrics from the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune “Some Enchanted Evening.” “Fools give you reasons,” he said, “wise men never try.”

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