Seymour Stein is indisputably one of the greatest A&R men in music-business history: As chief of Sire Records, which he cofounded with Richard Gottehrer in 1966, he presided over a label that for decades had not only massive hits - from Madonna, Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, Seal and others - but also acts that may not have had multiplatinum sales but shaped the sound of the last quarter of the 20th century: the Ramones, Lou Reed, the Pretenders, the Smiths, the Cure, the Replacements, Aphex Twin and so many more. A well-curated mixtape of Sire releases from the ‘80s and ‘90s is like the soundtrack to an era.
Yet Stein’s career stretches back to the 1950s: He began at Billboard and soon moved over to Syd Nathan’s King Records - home of James Brown - and several other gigs before cofounding Sire. And he’s still at it: He remains Sire’s chairman and on any given day is jetting across the globe to speak at conferences and find talent (he’s big on China and India these days), or he’s in the office, fielding calls from his mind-boggling circle of friends.
Stein (pictured below with Madonna and, far left, David Byrne) has had an astonishing life, and he’s finally penned an autobiography (with cowriter Gareth Murphy), which publishes today, called 'Siren Song: My Life in Music.' Variety is honored to present a lightly edited excerpt from the chapter where he meets Madonna for the first time.
I was blowtorching the candle at both ends, and in mid-1982, I started getting pains in my chest. I thought I was getting a heart attack, so I didn’t waste any time seeing a doc. An EKG showed that the hole between the left and right ventricles was infected. My rare condition had a name: subacute endocarditis. The good news, however, was that it was fixable with open-heart surgery. I was checked straight into Lenox Hill Hospital for four weeks of penicillin to clear up the infection before they decided what to do about the deformation. And right there, feeling sorry for myself in that ass-numbing bed, was where the record man’s equivalent of Florence Nightingale walked in. Yes, you guessed it, she wasn’t really a nurse, though sometimes I do wonder if singers are types of faith healers.
The series of events that brought Madonna to my hospital bed began months earlier when Mark Kamins started dropping hints. Danceteria was still the number-one downtown club, and Mark was arguably New York’s hottest deejay. Unfortunately, he wasn’t making enough money and knew he had to broaden his professional horizons while he was in such demand. We’d asked him to remix a David Byrne solo track called 'Big Business,' but Mark was dreaming of becoming a real-deal producer and asked me for help. I told him flat out that no big artist would ever risk working with an unproven producer, even if he was New York’s hippest deejay. Like everyone else, he’d have to earn his stripes by finding nobodies and making them sound like stars.
One night in Danceteria, he had been approached by this dancing beauty who introduced herself. Madonna charmed the pants off him, literally, and played him a self-made demo of a song she wrote called 'Everybody,' which she’d made with a guy called Steve Bray. Mark then reworked and revamped the whole tune from scratch in a better studio with better musicians. He even had the sense to test his mix on the dance floor before shopping it around. The crowd seemed to respond enthusiastically, so he made copies and went hustling.
I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t been played this demo yet, so I arranged for my secretary to send the cassette into Lenox Hill Hospital, where I duly slotted it into my Sony Walkman. As penicillin dripped into my heart, I lay there and listened to Mark’s first find. I’m sure I was going nuts in that little room, but I immediately felt an excitement. I liked the hook, I liked Madonna’s voice, I liked the feel, and I liked the name Madonna. I liked it all and played it again. I never overanalyze or suck the life out of whatever I instinctively enjoy. I reached over and called up Mark. 'Can I meet you and Madonna?'
He called back saying they’d drop by the hospital that evening. 'What?'
'I know. I told her you were sick, but she really wants this.'
I just said, 'Okay, see you this evening,' and hit all the panic buttons. 'Get me a pair of pajamas,' I told my secretary. 'Oh, and send me in a hairdresser as quickly as you can.' I then pushed the buzzer for nurse assistance. 'Someone important is coming in. I need to wash. Can you unplug this drip while I have a shower?'
From Variety Via Yahoo! News