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Remembering legendary music executive Seymour Stein, co-founder of Sire Records

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Today we're remembering Seymour Stein, who died last Sunday at age 80. He was the co-founder of Sire Records, which he ran from 1966 until he stepped down in 2018. We're going to listen to two of our interviews with Stein. Over his long career, he signed a wide range of pioneering artists, from the Ramones and Madonna to Talking Heads, The Pretenders, k.d. lang and Ice-T. Here's a sampling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAT ON THE BRAT")

RAMONES: (Singing) Beat on the brat. Beat on the brat. Beat on the brat with a baseball bat, oh, yeah, oh, yeah, oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCKY STAR")

MADONNA: (Singing) You must be my lucky star 'cause you shine on me wherever you are. I just think of you, and I start to glow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE")

TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Watch out. You might get what you're after. Cool, babies - strange but not a stranger. I'm an ordinary guy burning down the house. Hold tight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "6 'N THE MORNIN'")

ICE-T: (Rapping) Six in the morning, police at my door, fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor. Out my back window I make my escape - didn't even get a chance to grab my old-school tape. Mad with no music but happy 'cause free, and the streets to a player is the place to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIRTY BLVD.")

LOU REED: (Singing) He's got nine brothers and sisters. They're brought up on their knees. It's hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs. Pedro dreams of being older and killing the old man, but that's a slim chance. He's going to the boulevard. He's going to end up on the dirty boulevard. He's going out to get the dirty boulevard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRASS IN POCKET")

THE PRETENDERS: (Singing) Going to use my arms, going to use my legs, going to use my style, going to use my sidestep, going to use my fingers, going to use my, my, my imagination 'cause I'm going to make you see.

BIANCULLI: Seymour Stein learned the record business at King Records. He was only 14 when he met Syd Nathan, that label's founder. At the time, the young teenager was working at Billboard magazine. Billboard used to host listening sessions where record company owners would play their new recordings and try to persuade Billboard to give them a good review. At one of those sessions, Stein met Syd Nathan. Seymour Stein recalled their first meeting in a conversation with Terry Gross in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SEYMOUR STEIN: I remember that session, you know, like it was yesterday, and it was over 50 years ago. Syd was there and another record man was there as well. What I remember very clearly was there were a large amount of records to listen to, and the last two or three were on the Jubilee label. And one of the reporters said, oh, I hear Jubilee Records is going out of business. Why should we even bother with these records? He said, I'm sure - you know, Syd is getting a little bored here. And Syd said - and the way he spoke, you know, he said, (imitating Syd Nathan) look; what if I wasn't here? Would you talk that way about me? Listen to these records.

And so the person said, boy, Jerry Blaine - who was the owner of Jubilee Records - he said he must be a good friend of yours. And he said (imitating Syd Nathan) oh, no, I'm suing the son of a b****.

TERRY GROSS: (Laughter).

STEIN: And he said, but what's right is right, you know? And one of the records actually became a hit. I can't remember - it might have been "White Silver Sands" by Don Rondo or something like that.

GROSS: So how did you get to work for Syd Nathan?

STEIN: He invited me out to spend the summer with him. I was still in high school. I was 15, and I said, yeah, wow. And my parents were a bit - you know, my father was an Orthodox Jew and, you know, just didn't understand all of this. And I'd brought them up to Billboard. And an appointment was made, which I didn't talk to my parents for a couple of weeks. I was so embarrassed that they would, you know, question something that was so wonderful.

And just as they walked into Syd's office, he put out his - my father - cheap cigar, and Sydney immediately reached into his pocket and gave him a Havana, which my father was not used to. And he had my father in his pocket. And he said, well - he said, Seymour here - he's got shellac in his veins. And what a compliment. It meant that, you know, I was a record man, you know, because shellac was the main ingredient in an old 78. And then he explained that to my father. He said, if you don't let him do what he wants to do, he's going to wind up doing nothing. And you'll have to buy him a newspaper route because that's all he'll be good for. And this was April, and my parents rushed home, and when I got home, everything was packed. I wasn't supposed to leave till the end of June when high school was up.

GROSS: So how old were you when you went to work with Syd Nathan at King Records full time?

STEIN: Full time was 1961, '62. So I would have been 19 or just turning 20.

GROSS: Now, one of the things that Syd Nathan did for you after you started working with him at King Records was tell you to change your name. Your real last name was...

STEIN: Oh, I was born with the name Steinbigle - Seymour Steinbigle.

GROSS: And what was wrong with that in Syd Nathan's eyes?

STEIN: It was too long. And he kept asking me to change it. And I didn't want to hurt my father's feelings. My father was the eldest son and both his brothers had changed their name, had shortened it, but he felt out of respect to his father, he should keep it.

GROSS: So - but you did change it.

STEIN: Well, yes. Not everybody had phones at King Records. People shared phones. As much as three or four people could share a phone at one time. But there was a paging system, and the switchboard operator had one microphone, and Syd had the other one on his desk. And I was being paged at an incoming call. Seymour Steinbigle, pick up the closest phone. Seymour Steinbigle, there's a call. And she was repeating it over and over again. And all of a sudden, Syd's voice came on and he said (imitating Syd Nathan) oh, no, it's Stein or Bigle or back to New York.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEIN: And I was so - I almost started to cry. I was so embarrassed. And I changed my name. And it - I'm very glad that I did.

GROSS: So you got started at Billboard magazine. Do you ever miss the importance of the charts, the days when, like, Top 40 really meant something?

STEIN: I miss it a lot.

GROSS: What do you miss about it?

STEIN: I miss all the the excitement. I mean, that's how I heard about Billboard. And there was this disc jockey long before rock 'n' roll, Martin Block.

GROSS: WNEW New York.

STEIN: Yes.

GROSS: Make Believe Ballroom.

STEIN: Exactly. (Singing) It's Make Believe Ballroom time and free to everyone.

Well, I would come back on Saturday mornings from the synagogue and and have my radio sort of under the pillow so my father couldn't hear it when he came home, listening to Martin Block play the Top 25 off of the Billboard chart, and later he started playing, in addition, the Top 5 R&B and the Top 5 country and western. And that's how I got introduced to Johnny Cash and Ray Price and Hank Williams on the one hand, and to some of the R&B records, to my idol, Fats Domino, as well. Radio was very important, and the charts, and they played the Billboard charts. That was what Martin Block played off of. And that's how I knew to go up to Billboard.

GROSS: Seymour Stein, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

STEIN: You're very welcome.

BIANCULLI: Seymour Stein speaking to Terry Gross in 2009. He died last Sunday at age 80. After a break, we'll hear another of their conversations. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE-T SONG, "NEW JACK HUSTLER (NINO'S THEME)")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening back to our interviews with Seymour Stein, the influential co-founder of Sire Records. He died Sunday. Terry Gross spoke with Stein again in 2018. He had just published his autobiography, called "Siren Song: My Life In Music."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Seymour Stein, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In your book, you write, I'm a hitman, a record business entrepreneur. What I'm not is a producer like Phil Spector or Quincy Jones. I can't play any instrument. I can't operate a studio. My exact job description is A&R, artist and repertoire, the old showbusiness term for talent hunting. How do you think not being a musician has been both a shortcoming and an advantage for you?

STEIN: Well, I think that for me it's been somewhat of an advantage because what I listen to first and foremost are the songs. And I always feel that an artist as a performer can always get better and usually does. The same thing with a musician - they usually get stronger, you know, as it goes along. But the songs have to be great from the very beginning, and that's what I've always looked for in all the different categories and fields of music that I've signed artists in. It's always been the songs.

GROSS: You started in the record business at age 15, when Syd Nathan, the founder of King Records, convinced your father to allow you to spend summers in Cincinnati at King's headquarters.

STEIN: Well, no, that's not exactly correct. I started really going up to Billboard when I was 15 years old just to copy down the charts because I had kept the charts religiously from around - when I was about 9 years old, I started writing them down. I would listen to a show called "Make Believe Ballroom," and they would play the Top 25 hits off of the Billboard chart. And I wanted to go backwards and go into the '40s and find out what was going on then. But that brought me to New York. That brought me to Billboard in the Palace Theater building, and that was the center of the music business there. And I saw everything that was going on.

GROSS: You were just really pivotal in the punk movement in America. You signed the Ramones, one of the first punk rock bands. How were you tipped off about them? How did you know to go hear them?

STEIN: I had heard about them from a number of people, but I think mostly from Danny Fields. And I had wanted to go see them a couple of times, but I was in England. And I came back particularly to see them. And I got sick when I was in England, and I couldn't go. So I sent my wife with Danny, and she came back raving.

So the next evening I bundled up, rented a rehearsal studio, and I rented it for an hour. But their set - they must have done, you know, about 18 songs in about 25 minutes. I may exaggerate a little bit, but they were just incredible. I was - it was like nothing else I had ever heard. I started talking to them immediately, and we came to an agreement, a deal right then and there. And two days later they were in the recording studio, and that was it, you know - one of the greatest signings for me and really a great thing for Sire Records.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite track from the Ramones among the records that you put out on Sire?

STEIN: I suppose, you know, what always comes to mind immediately is "Blitzkrieg Bop." There are so many of their songs that I like, but "Blitzkrieg Bop," I think, is my favorite.

GROSS: So let's hear "Blitzkrieg Bop" by the Ramones on an album released by Sire Records, which is the label co-created by my guest Seymour Stein, who still has Sire Records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLITZKRIEG BOP")

RAMONES: (Singing) Hey, ho. Let's go. Hey, ho. Let's go. Hey, ho. Let's go. Hey, ho. Let's go. They're forming in a straight line. They're going through a tight wind. The kids are losing their minds - the blitzkrieg bop. They're piling in the back seat. They're generating steam heat. Pulsating to the back beat - the blitzkrieg bop. Hey, ho. Let's go. Shoot them in the back now. What they want, I don't know. They're all revved up and ready to go. They're forming in a straight line. They're going through a tight wind.

GROSS: So that's the Ramones, one of the great bands signed by my guest, Seymour Stein of Sire Records. So - yeah, go ahead.

STEIN: Wait. One correction - I don't still have Sire Records. About a month ago, I left. And...

GROSS: Oh.

STEIN: You know - yes. I left Sire. And I left Warner Bros. And I'm now interested in pursuing new objectives.

GROSS: So let's get back to the Ramones. It was very hard for you to get any kind of radio play for the Ramones because why? And we're talking a time when there's - like, there's AM, and there's FM. And FM is more album-oriented then. And AM is still, like, singles. So at the risk of asking the obvious, why was it so hard to get the Ramones some airplay?

STEIN: I think they were kind of misunderstood and not fully appreciated. And that was in the United States. But when we finally got them out of the United States and, you know, touring in England, they were a sensation. In fact, the first gig that they did, a lot of English bands came to see them - the Sex Pistols and The Clash and others. And they were so enthralled with the Ramones that it made them convinced that they could make it, too. And it kind of turned the tide for them. They were also big in other parts of Europe and South America. And it's a shame. They would be playing big theaters in England and then coming back to America and playing, you know, small clubs. It kind of broke my heart. And I'm sure it broke their hearts, too.

GROSS: So one of the things you tried to do to get your bands airplay was to tell your promotion people, don't use the word punk. Use the word new wave. Why did you do that? And was it effective?

STEIN: Well, that really came about with the Talking Heads because they were describing them as punk, and they were the furthest thing from punk. I said, look; New York used to be the absolute center of the music business. And that was maybe 20, 25 years before that. And then, of course, LA came into prominence, San Francisco, Detroit with Motown, and Philadelphia with labels, you know, like Cameo and Parkway and later Philadelphia International. And Memphis and Nashville was growing. And it all took away from the importance of New York. And then I think that this music, which was predominantly coming from New York but not exclusively, was like a new wave for New York. And that's what I called it. And it didn't sound bad, like punk.

GROSS: So let's talk about Talking Heads. You heard them kind of accidentally the first time around. Correct me if I'm wrong. But you went to hear new songs by the Ramones at a club.

STEIN: Yes.

GROSS: Talking Heads was opening for them.

STEIN: Yeah.

GROSS: And that's how you heard them.

STEIN: And it was a surprise opening. They weren't supposed to be the opening act. But I had heard about Talking Heads. But they were not spending that much time in New York. They were very early involved in video. And they were working on that. And they were going back to Rhode Island, you know, which is where they went to school. And so they - I missed a lot of their gigs. And Johnny wanted me to hear some new songs live.

GROSS: Johnny Ramone.

STEIN: Johnny Ramone, yes. And so I came down. I investigated what the opening band was going to be. And they were a band called The Shirts, which I had seen and liked but not liked enough to sign. And so I was waiting outside of CBGBs. And all of a sudden, I hear this music. And, I mean, it, like, sucked me into the room. That's how incredibly good it was. I was standing outside with Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith band. And I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was so incredible. I said, this isn't The Shirts. He said, no, no. They got another gig. He said, this is Talking Heads. And, boy, I was just blown away.

GROSS: So I want to play a track from their first album that you released, "Talking Heads: 77." And this is "Psycho Killer," which is such a great track.

STEIN: Fabulous.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear Talking Heads. And this is "Psycho Killer."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PSYCHO KILLER")

TALKING HEADS: (Singing) I can't seem to face up to the facts. I'm tense and nervous, and I can't relax. I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire. Don't touch me. I'm a real live wire. Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est. (Vocalizing). Better run, run, run run, run, run, run away. Oh, oh, oh, psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est. (Vocalizing). Better run, run, run, run, run, run, run away. Oh, oh, oh, oh. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You start a conversation. You can't even finish it. You're talking a lot.

BIANCULLI: That was Talking Heads. Seymour Stein spoke to Terry Gross in 2018. He died last Sunday at age 80. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. Also, we'll hear from Joni Mitchell, who last month received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. And film critic Justin Chang reviews "Air," directed by Ben Affleck. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S BOOM TIC BOOM'S "WELCOME HOTEL")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, sitting in for Terry Gross. Let's return to Terry's 2018 interview with Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein, who died last Sunday at age 80. Among the many acts he discovered and signed include the Ramones, Ice-T, Talking Heads and a certain ultimately very famous material girl. He was in the hospital when he signed her.

STEIN: Well, let's go back a little before that. Mark Kamins was someone that I thought had a lot of potential as a producer, a scout and everything. And the third or fourth artist he brought me was Madonna. And he brought the record to me while I was in the hospital. This - I was there about a week and a half when he came to see me, and he played me this one track, "Everybody" by Madonna, and I was totally blown away. And so I said, look. I'd like to see her. I'm going to be here for another almost three weeks. Try to bring her down here so I can meet her and we can, you know, do a deal.

So he goes away and calls me up at 5 o'clock and says, Madonna and I are coming to see you at 8 o'clock. And here I was, you know, laying in this hospital uniform and a mess, you know, and I probably hadn't taken a shower in a few days and all that 'cause they had to take all the needles out of me. I freaked out. I had somebody come and shave me and cut my hair and look the best I could in 2.5 hours before she got there.

But when she came, when I saw her, I realized that the way she spoke - first, she's amazing. But she wanted a shot more than anything. And I wanted to give her that shot 'cause I totally believed in her. So we spoke about a deal, and we agreed on a deal for recordings. And she walked out of there very happy. And I went to bed very happy that night, and that was great. And later, I learned that she had been trying to get a deal for over two years. And people like Chris Blackwell, who was somebody that I have the greatest...

BIANCULLI: He ran Island Records.

STEIN: Yeah, he owned Island Records and ran it - had turned her down, and other people had turned her down. I couldn't believe it because to me, it was a no-brainer. And it was a great day in my life.

GROSS: So of the early tracks that you recorded with her, do you have a favorite?

STEIN: I think that the song I liked best and was really the song that became the one that launched her most was "Borderline." I loved it. But I liked everything that she did.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Borderline"? Seymour Stein, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for signing the bands that you signed.

STEIN: I appreciate it very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORDERLINE")

MADONNA: (Singing) Something in the way you love me won't let me be. I don't want to be your prisoner, so, baby, won't you set me free? Stop playing with my heart. Finish what you start when you make my love come down. If you want me, let me know. Baby, let it show. Honey, don't you fool around. Just try to understand I've given all I can 'cause you got the best of me. Borderline. Feels like I'm going to lose my mind. You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline.

BIANCULLI: That was Madonna. Seymour Stein spoke to Terry Gross in 2018. The co-founder of Sire Records died last Sunday at age 80. After a break, we listen to an archive interview with Joni Mitchell, who was recently honored by the Library of Congress for her songwriting. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FRED HERSCH TRIO'S "GRAVITY'S PULL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.