As the co-founder (with Richard Gottehrer) of Sire Records in 1966, Seymour Stein reshaped the direction of popular music with his signing and tireless support of acts like the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Pretenders, The Smiths, The Cure, Ice-T, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Replacements and Madonna.
By Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
Until his retirement in July 2018, Seymour Stein was the President of Sire Records and Vice President of Warner Bros. Records. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 14, 2005, under the lifetime-achievement category. On June 9, 2016, he received the Richmond Hitmaker Award at the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
This interview took place at the house of Seymour’s daughter, film director Mandy Stein, in the Hollywood Hills. The interview was done in part for our website and in part for our upcoming book, Sixty-Nine, which is about, among other things, the record industry in Los Angeles in the late ‘60s. And, finally, we wanted to celebrate the release of Seymour’s autobiography, Siren Song: My Life in Music.
L: Legs McNeil
S: Seymour Stein
G: Gillian McCain
M: Mandy Stein
L: So, I heard you’ve been spending time in India.
S: Well, I’m trying to get things started there. I think there’s a great market there. It’s the second-most important music market as it is because of Bollywood. And these Bollywood writers are very talented– but they’re writing to make a living, and they make a great living. They’re writing for the movies … which is great for the movies, but they could be writing hits. China’s also coming along, too.
L: Yeah, I hear that China has these punk rock groups that go to their cities with 10 million people that you’ve never even heard of, and they’ve got …
S: They do, they do. China’s going to displace the United States at some point, as the number-one country in the world. And India may displace China as the most populous very soon, because they don’t have a ban on how many children you can have, and India already has a bigger population if you include what was divided up. You know, Pakistan and Bangladesh. So these are two important powers to reckon with. I think it’s good. I mean, I don’t think it’s bad at all.
“The, the truth is what I am is a song man, you know? I don’t look so much at the musicianship, because I expect the musicianship to always get better. To me, it’s the songs.”
L: Okay, so you’re 15 years old, and this gentleman wants to take you under his wing. Can you start with that story?
S: It’s not that simple. I mean, that happened, but that’s not where it started. Here’s where it started: My sister is six years older than I am—and my family lived in a two-bedroom apartment, so we shared a bedroom, and I’m grateful to that because she had a radio. So, at 5 or 6 years old, I was listening to the radio. And since I was about 8 or 9, I used to listen to the Hot One Hundred; the Billboard Top 25; that’s what Marvin Bloch played every Saturday on the radio. And later on, he even started playing the Top 5 Country and the Top 5 R&B. So I got really hooked on music.
And even as a kid, I noticed changes in the early ’50s– you know, when I first heard Fats Domino. He was probably the first rhythm & blues artist I heard and he remains my favorite to this day. And then I started listening to the country music that was going pop, most importantly “Tennessee Waltz” by Patti Page, because it was 13 weeks Number One on the top of the Billboard charts. Thirteen weeks, which was unprecedented back in those days. She was on Mercury Records.
So country started taking hold. Then I saw doo-wop breaking through. And I just followed it as a kid. I mean, it was my hobby. I regretted I never played any sports, that’s probably why I’m in the shape I’m in right now, ha ha ha.
When I was 15, actually, no, I was younger than that— I went up to Billboard magazine, because I had written down in my books all the charts, and I wanted to go backwards, and see what was going on before ’50, ’51, around then. And the guy who was the chart editor, Tom Noonan, was very nice. He fixed me up in a seat, and I became an oddity there. People started talking to me, and Paul Ackerman saw something in me, and so did Tom. Paul Ackerman introduced me to the other reviewers and he even invited me to some of the listening sessions when they would pick the spotlights of the week. A good review in Billboard in those days could mean automatically the sale of anywhere from 40,000 to 75,000 records for jukeboxes because the charts were so slow then, that the jukeboxes couldn’t wait until the records hit the chart … to do that.
Now, a lot of the indie guys would come in, because this was their life, you know. And some of the major labels’ A&R people would come to the meetings. So that’s where I met, for the first time, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler – who was very tight with Billboard because he had started his music career there as a reporter. And Leonard Chess would come by; and Lew Chudd from Imperial, whenever they had something, because it meant that much. I got to know them, but particularly Syd Nathan. Syd Nathan couldn’t believe that a little kid like me knew so much about music. And he got to know me and… I just want to tell you that. I’ve told these stories before, so you won’t be getting any exclusives here.
S: It’s just the way it is. It’s my life. So anyway, at one point, Syd said to me, “Look, you’re learning about music here, but if you want to be in the record business, Billboard is not the place to do it.” He said, “If you come out to Cincinnati, you could stay with my wife and my family, and I’ll teach you the business.”
So my father right away called Paul Ackerman and said, “Why is this man wanting to take Seymour out there?” Paul started telling him what a great guy Syd was, and because this was coming from Paul, he said, “Look, your father asked me these questions, as he well should; he’s a father. But,” he said, “I can’t answer to him. So what I suggested, I said, ‘Look – Syd Nathan comes to New York once a month. He’s got an office here. Well, why don’t you meet him yourself?’” So I said, “Oh my God,” you know.
But they had a great meeting, and my father, who was a great man, very humble, said, “Look, I don’t want to take up too much of your time. I know you’re busy, you came in from Cincinnati. I’ve got just two quick questions to ask you.” Syd says, “[raspy voice] Look” – that’s the way he spoke – he said, “Look – I’ve just got one question: Can I go first?” He said, “How much money do you have?” I was aghast. Now why would he talk to my father like that? So my father said, “Well, look, I work in the garment district. I don’t own a company. I make a good living. Seymour and his sister haven’t wanted for anything.”
I was falling off the chair and he said, “Seymour has been to summer camp when he was a kid” and whatever. My face was so red. And Syd said, “Well, wait – let me phrase it a different way: Do you have enough money, when the time comes, to buy Seymour a newspaper route?” That was even a crazier question!
My father said, “Newspaper route? Seymour doesn’t need a newspaper route!” So Syd says, “Well,” he said, “I hate to tell you this, but Seymour’s gotta be in the music business. If he isn’t in the music business, he will amount to nothing. And he’ll wind up with a job like delivering newspapers.”
So when I came home that night – this was in April, and I was supposed to leave at the end of June – my father – my mother was already packing, ha ha ha, what I was gonna bring to Cincinnati.
So I went out to Cincinnati, and I learned so much from him. He was my greatest mentor. My book is dedicated mostly to him.
G: Can I interrupt? Is he the one who said, [G and L together] “He has shellac in his veins?”S: Oh, yeah. That’s what he said to my father. He says, “Seymour’s got shellac in his veins.” Yeah, that’s what he said, to my father, and it made an impression on him.
But then Syd said, “Look, if this is what you want to do for the rest of your life, it’s fine. But if you want to move to Cincinnati, I’ll give you a job at King,” and I worked there for about two and a half years and he helped me find an apartment in the same building where his best friend and his wife lived. They looked after me, and it was close enough to walk to the King factory every day [Syd Nathan founded the independent label, King Records, in 1943].
What was great about King was King was all-inclusive. They had their own distributors all over the country, they had their own pressing plant, they had a first-class studio where James Brown and many others recorded. I mean, it wasn’t like you walked into an office and there were record players, you know, and, you might have had an audition room. This was a building. I mean, it really was very important to Cincinnati. Cincinnati even has a King Records Month every year.
L: So where do you go from King?
S: Well, Syd invited Herb Abramson – I don’t know if that name is familiar to you – to come to, to Cincinnati. He was one of the founders of Atlantic Records, and in fact, Ahmet [Ertegun] learned from him. And he wasn’t doing very well. Before that, he worked for a company in Chicago, and he had many, many hit discoveries. But he was a … I wouldn’t call him a junkie, but pretty close.
And he had started a label, and Syd was distributing other labels by then, but the most important one was Beltone Records, which had one of the biggest hits of all time, “Tossin’ and Turnin’” by Bobby Lewis.
And “My True Story” [The Jive Five, 1961] and things like that. But anyway, Syd tried to help Herb get a label started. And Herb – I’m not saying he did anything wrong – but Herb, you know, got to know me through that, although I had met him before at Billboard.
He said, “Why don’t you come back and work for me in New York?” And by that time, you know, I mean, Cincinnati, it’s a nice city, but I’m a New Yorker.
S: And I told Syd and he said, “You’re very wrong to go…not because of me, but because of yourself.” He said, “You’ll be out of work in six months.” But he was wrong – I was out of work in three months.
L & G: ha ha ha
S: I mean, the guy was a dentist, Herb Abramson, so he could write prescriptions back in those days for cocaine. And he was snorting away and all that, and it was terrible. But he was a great genius. I mean, he really was.
So then I bounced around a little bit. Because of my years at Billboard, people wanted to hire me to promote their records to Billboard. I barely made a living there. And then this may be eight, nine months, maybe a year at the most after I was back in New York, I had become very friendly with this guy who wanted to be in the music business whose father was Warren Traub, one of the biggest lawyers in New York at the time. The boy’s name was Teddy –Teddy Traub. And he represented Alan Freed, George Goldner, and a lot of other people. But when Alan Freed was finally forced out of New York, a few of his friends had a luncheon for him. I was just a kid. And they invited me: George Goldner and Morris Levy, and Warren Traub… Alan Freed was so misjudged.
L: Were you friends with him?
S: I wouldn’t say friends. I was a little boy! Ha ha ha. No, he was very nice to me, and I’m very friendly with his son…
G: How was he misjudged?
S: Well, I mean, sure he took payola. I guess. Everybody was taking payola… whereas Alan must have been making a decent salary. But most of the black disc jockeys were getting paid a pittance. So what do you expect? And Alan told me he never took money and never played a record he didn’t believe in, so…
L: Do you think they used him as a scapegoat?
S: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Payola was rampant and he’s the only one who ever really suffered greatly.
L: Didn’t Big Daddy Tom Donahue in Philly get thrown out …
S: I don’t know. But Tom Donahue, when he was a disc jockey, also had had his own label …
L: Autumn, right?
S: Autumn. [sings Beau Brummels badly] Laugh, laugh, I thought I’d laugh …
L: [joins in, also badly] I thought I’d laugh …
S: The Beau Brummels.…
L: And they were on The Flintstones as The Beau Brummelstones.
L: Yes. I don’t know how he managed to get them there, but he did. I think it was The Byrds and The Beau Brummels were the only competition coming into the whole folk rock thing later on in ’65.
S: The Byrds were great. I mean, and of course they had Dylan songs – but they were good on their own. They had great records.
S: So, in any case, he got me introduced to George [Goldner], and I was his assistant, for two years in the Brill Building.
L: Oh, wow.
S: That’s where I met Richard Gottehrer, and his partners, FGG Productions.
L: What was Richard doing at that time?
S: Oh, he was hot! He had…
L: “My Boyfriend’s Back”?
S: Well, that was a little after “My Boyfriend’s Back.” But he had “Hang On, Sloopy” by the McCoys, and he had his own group, you know, “I Want Candy” …
L: Yeah …
S: …by The Strangeloves. But the partnership was not working out that well and it looked destined that they were all gonna go their own ways, you know. And at Red Bird, Leiber and Stoller were red-hot. They had started a label prior to that that did nothing, with Sam Weiss and, and, so they loved it in the beginning with The Dixie Cups and then The Shangri-Las and all of that.
But George was having these people coming up to the office that they didn’t want in the office, obviously, like Mafia types. So I could see Red Bird was soon to fade away. Richard [Gottehrer] and I had become very friendly. He said, “Why don’t we start a production company together?” By that time, Tom Noonan was working over at Columbia, and he had his own label, Date, and he got us a production deal, but we didn’t really have much success over there. It was very hard, we were just a small company. But afterwards I was able to get backing to start Sire…
L: What year did you start Sire?
S: Well, as a production company, late in ’66, but as a label it was more like ’67, I think. And then, slowly, the company – you know, it was rough going in the beginning. But I saw, that there were a lot of independent labels emerging in the U.K. I also saw that the majors were not as intent as picking up British stuff as they were back around ’64 to ’66. Also, EMI, first of all, was the biggest label. By far. Almost 50 percent of the British market. And in the beginning, Capitol was turning down all the artists, including The Beatles …Not once, but twice they turned The Beatles down. But now they were frightened. They were picking up everything. The second-biggest record company was Decca. British Decca. And they had their own label in America that they had started. So EMI owned Capitol, but Capitol had a lot of their own independents and, they were able to reject things.
“So the next night, I rent a rehearsal studio for an hour, maybe [The Ramones] played 20, 25 minutes, the most. Probably 18 songs in that period. I fall in love with them. And we start discussing the deal; we made the deal right there”
L: So in ’66, you started production with Sire Production, and then in ’67, you started releasing stuff. So what did you release first?
S: God, I can’t remember. I think Martha Velez was among the first records we released on the Sire label. She’s a great girl, and, by that time, I had also just bought a half-interest in a label called Blue Horizon. I had become friendly with the owner of the label, a guy called Mike Vernon, a great producer. He could produce anything. He produced David Bowie’s first album, which was on Decca, under the name of David Jones, which is his real name.
L: Okay. Let’s jump forward. Danny [Fields] wants you to come see the Ramones at CBGB. How do you meet Danny?
S: It was more her mother, Linda [Stein], through Danny … to give myself a little credit, I wanted to go see them, too, but I was spending so much time in England I was always missing them. But then Danny comes raving to Linda, and so I get back from England, and they’re playing at …
M: Near Richard and Lisa Robinson.
S: Oh, the Robinsons were also telling me about the Ramones, too. I have to give them credit. So I got back from England. I was so sick with the flu, so I couldn’t go. Linda comes back raving, so I rent a studio to hear them the next day for an hour.
M: She didn’t see them at CBGB. She went to Mother’s.
L: Mother’s, on 23rd.
S: Yeah, it was Mother’s.
M: I don’t know how precise you want to be.
G: We like precise.
S: Good. So the next night, I rent a rehearsal studio for an hour, maybe they played 20, 25 minutes, the most. Probably 18 songs in that period. I fall in love with them. And we start discussing the deal; we made the deal right there in, you know …
G: And Danny was there.
S: Oh, Danny and Linda were both there. So the band were in the studio that same week, they finished the record a week later, and, like they say, the rest is history.
S: But I got a lot of complaints from people, saying, “How can you sign this band? They’re the worst!” I said, “Screw you.”
L: Richard Hell and the Dead Boys.
S: No, that, I did on my own.
S: But I had been going to those places before …
L: I remember, Seymour. I was there, too.
S: So the Talking Heads, and also the Dead Boys– Hilly [Kristal] turned me on to, because he was managing them. I really liked Hilly a lot … he was a good guy. Anyway, Linda was managing the band so the Ramones knew every move I made. I was back in New York, I had just walked in the door, and the phone rings. It’s Johnny [Ramone].
He says, “Oh, you know, we’ve got some new songs we want to play you.”
I said, “Look, why don’t you come in in a couple of days and I’ll give you as much time as you need. I’d love to –”
He says, “No. We know you’re not doing anything Wednesday …”
L & G: [laugh]
S: So, of course, they knew. They knew everything. We booked ourselves into CBGB. I was very happy. I called up to see what the opening act was, and it was one of Hilly’s bands …
M: The Shirts …
S: The Shirts, who I had turned down. Not that they were a bad band. So it was the middle of November, but it was a warm night. I’m standing out there with Lenny Kaye; I didn’t want to go inside and see The Shirts. All of a sudden, I hear [sings; L joins in] “When my love stands next to your love …” And, I mean it, I was moved, like, by a snake charmer almost.
The music was so intoxicating, I said, “Lenny, this ain’t The Shirts!” He said, “Oh, no; Hilly was able to get them a paying job in Brooklyn. This is the Talking Heads.” I said, “Oh, I’ve heard a lot about ’em, but they were always up in Rhode Island.” So it was just love at first sight. And when they finished the set, I tried to help Tina down. They had no crew … it was only three-piece then … and David Byrne sees me. [chuckle] He says, “Look, we know who you are. If you – ” he didn’t say it in a bad way; that’s just the way he talked – “We know who you are.” He said, “If you want to talk, this isn’t the place,” and he wrote down their address. They were staying at a loft nearby on Allen Street, and he said, “Come see us tomorrow.” And it took 11 ½ months before they signed the deal.
L: Why? Because of David?
S: I wouldn’t say it was just David. They were experimenting. They were so ahead of everybody– they were experimenting with video— I think they were still making trips back to Rhode Island …and all of that. And I said, “My God, I’m never gonna sign this band. One of the majors is gonna see what I’m seeing, and I couldn’t offer them … I offered them more money than I ever offered any band until that date.
L: How much?
S: I’d rather not say.
[G or M laughs]
S: But believe me, it was a lot more than I signed Madonna for; let’s put it that way.
S: Yes. Yes.
S: Well, Madonna was no money. It was $15,000 for singles. And then an option to pick up an album. But eleven and a half months later, on the first of November, they [Talking Heads] signed the contract. Ahhhh! I had so many sleepless nights…
L: That’s November of ’76, right?
S: Yes. Yes.
L And the album comes out in ’77.
S: Yes. So that’s about it. You got enough?
G: I wouldn’t mind going back to the late ’60s. We kind of skipped over that.
L: Yeah. Did you know what Jac Holzman was doing at Elektra?
S: Look – let me tell you something about Jac Holzman. You know, I had a hard time getting him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because they think of him as a folk man.
S: And he was! But he signed– through Danny Fields– some of the greatest rock bands ever. And I was so embarrassed – and I mean this sincerely – that I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame years before he was inducted. It’s a shame. I mean, he was a predecessor, and with all due respect to Ahmet and Jerry and Nesuhi, who were at least as, maybe greater than Jac Holzman, the thing is, it’s a lot easier getting into rock & roll through rhythm & blues … than it is through folk.
S: And I’d like you to keep that in there …because Jac Holzman is great!
L: Were you friends with him at the time?
S: Not really. I mean, I have a good relationship with him, but we didn’t pal around or anything. Ahmet, you know, I was quite friendly with. And Jerry took me under his wing. I was very friendly with Jerry.
L: Seymour, why weren’t you paying more attention to what was going on on the West Coast in the 60s? Or were you?
S: Well, by the time I got to Warner Bros. … first of all, I saw that that’s where they focused much of their attention. And, I didn’t ignore it …but as long as Mo [Ostin] and Michael [Maitland] were so interested in the West Coast, and they were in, and they licensed things that I could never have afforded to license, from like, Chrysalis and Virgin, and companies like that. I was happy that I had the rest of the world. I had everything in, you know, east of the Mississippi.
L: Were you looking at Love and The Doors and stuff like that at the time? Or no?
S: No. The Doors was already gone.
G: Can you talk a little bit about … so many people we’ve talked to, it’s like … a band gets a song, they record it that next week, it’s on the radio the week after that … How does that happen?
L: Like “For What It’s Worth” by the Buffalo Springfield … and songs like that.
S: I wish I knew…[all laugh] It never happened to me… certainly not in the beginning, by the time Madonna broke big…
M: How long did that take?
S: That took a long time. The first three records were singles, and then I picked the fourth single, which was “Borderline,” and…
G: That’s one of my faves.
S: … and then it really started moving. But to be fair, with me or without me, without anybody, Madonna was destined to… But a lot of people turned her down, including one of my heroes, Chris Blackwell…
L: Seymour, why didn’t you drop the Ramones? They were selling less than a hundred thousand copies.
S: I loved them! I mean, they were part of our family!
L: I know. But still, business-wise, and you’re a businessman, they weren’t selling.
S: I believed in them all the way. I never stopped believing.
M: And you were right.
S: If they had come to me and said, “Look, I think we can do better somewhere else,” I probably would have worked something out, but that never happened, even when Gary Kurfirst took them over. They were loyal to me and I was loyal to them. Very loyal.
L: Was Linda devastated when they fired her and Danny as managers?
S: Yeah, she was …
M: She was really heartbroken.
M: She really felt…
M: Betrayed. And she also was disappointed that the Talking Heads didn’t – you know that, right? She wanted to manage Talking Heads, too.
S: I didn’t really know that.
M: I remember. But yeah, she was heartbroken. I mean, I’m not offended, but she always said that those five years were the best years of her life. Probably besides … having children.
M: Or not, ha ha ha.
G: You said earlier that Chris Blackwell was your hero?
S: Well, I think more admirer, but he is a hero, because look what he’s done? He built Island up from nothing. Also he kind of helped, in the beginning, the folks from Chrysalis and the folks from Island, get their feet off the ground, and I mean, if you want to, check with them. I don’t know if Branson will give anybody credit, but I’m sure that the others will. But Chris, I just like him. He’s a very interesting man, and a good music man.
L: Seymour, who didn’t you sign that you wanted – who did –who did you let get away?