Seymour Stein: 'Shellac in His Veins'

Seymour Stein was helping create music industry history when he was only 14 years old.

That was in 1957, when he began working for Billboard as the assistant to Tommy Noonan, then head of Billboard charts. When Noonan decided that the music industry needed a speedier, more current hits chart, Stein helped him pull it together.

Today, 53 years later, that chart, the Billboard Hot 100, unveiled in August 1958, is still the industry's barometer.

Stein's tenure at Billboard-where he also was mentored by Paul Ackerman, the Billboard editor who's listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-lasted until 1961. But he soon took his first label job, working for industry legend Syd Nathan and King Records in Cincinnati. While that proved to be an amazing learning experience for Stein, he soon grew homesick and moved back to New York, eventually ending up at Red Bird Records, owned and run by three more industry legends, George Goldner and the songwriting/production team of Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber.

After nearly 10 years of being schooled by industry legends, Stein made the first move in creating his own: He began Sire Records with producer Richard Gottehrer.

Initially, Sire began as a production house but within 18 months the label emerged and distinguished itself by licensing European bands like the Climax Blues Band, Renaissance and Focus. Concurrently with growing Sire, Stein helped Mike Vernon build the Blue Horizon label in the United Kingdom, which was issuing albums by Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack. That turned into an ownership stake for Sire and helped strengthen Stein's U.K. connection.

In the mid-'70s Stein hit his stride, signing the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Dead Boys, which launched the CBGB scene onto the national stage. Soon, Sire was also the leader in issuing the hottest punk and new wave bands coming out of Europe and beyond as it issued records by the Rezillos, the Undertones, the Pretenders, Madness, Secret Affair, English Beat, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, Plastic Betrand, the Saints, M/Robin Scott, Yaz, Modern English and Aztec Camera, among others.

As if that wasn't enough to cement his legacy, Stein also signed Madonna.

In the '90s Sire shuffled among various Warner Music Group labels, but it always retained its cachet. When the Hives were coming to Warner Bros. Records, they insisted that their albums be issued with the Sire imprint. Today, other Warner bands also make that same request as the Sire roster currently includes Mastodon, Avenged Sevenfold, My Chemical Romance, the Veronicas, Tegan & Sara and Regina Spektor.

Stein turns 70 on April 18, but he isn't resting on his laurels. Together with his former partner and friend Richard Gottehrer, they've revived the Blue Horizon label, which is about to issue its third album. And Stein, who just re-upped with WMG for four more years, is about to sign his first band in a while for Warner: Delta Rae from Durham, N.C.

In recognition of his lifelong achievements and vision in moving the music industry forward, Stein will be the first recipient of the Billboard Icon Award. Given his long relationship with international labels, and his fervent interest in promoting music from India and China, it is apt that the award will be presented to him at MIDEM in Cannes on Jan. 29.

A beloved executive known within the industry not only as a great record man but an irrepressible storyteller, Stein recently reminisced about his career-and future goals.

What's the most important thing you learned during your time at Billboard that helped you in your career?

When I first started working at Billboard, more hits were coming out of Germany, France and Italy than the U.K. So I became aware of music from around the world and would become curious about songs that were hits there that were not known here. When I got into the business on my own, one of the first sources of repertoire I would look at is music from other territories.

Who were your mentors when you began?

Tommy Noonan was the first. My father was so religious. He and my father got along so well because Tommy was a very religious Catholic and my father was a very religious Jewish guy, and they loved each other. So Tommy took me under his wing and, since I was allowed to work at Billboard, I soon got to know Paul Ackerman and [music editor] Bob Rolontz, who were both wonderful to me. I met Jerry Wexler, [the pioneering record producer], who started his career at Billboard, and Ahmet Ertegun [co-founder of Atlantic Records], who used to come up to Billboard. And both helped guide my career over the years. But my most important mentor was Syd Nathan from King Records.

You then went to work for Nathan. How did that come about?

I was 15 years old and Billboard was nice enough to have me work there and were paying me a little money. I knew Syd because he came into the office. And one time he said to me, "I know you work here at Billboard. I think you can learn more if you come with me to Cincinnati for the summer and stay at my house with my wife, me and my daughter. I want to teach you the record business from the bottom up."

So I told my parents and my father didn't know what to think, so he called up Paul Ackerman. Paul told him, "I can tell you this man [Nathan] is genuine and you don't have to worry. But he has an office here in New York and comes in once a month. Why don't you go meet him for yourself?"

I was humiliated, I was crying, but my father set it up.

So my father said, "Mr. Nathan, I appreciate you taking the time to see me and I appreciate your interest in my son, but I have a few questions I would like to ask you."

But Syd said, "I just have one question to ask you. Would you mind if I ask it first? It might save us much time. How much money do you have?"

I couldn't believe it. My father answered, "I work in the garment center and my children never want for anything."

But Syd asked again. "But how much money do you have? Do you have enough money to buy your son a newspaper route?"

My father answered, "What do you mean?"

Syd answered, "Your son has shellac in his veins [referring to the material once used to stamp records]. Your son is good for one thing and one thing only, and that's being in the record business. If you don't let him in the music business, he will wind up delivering newspapers for the rest of your life. If you don't want that on your conscience, you will let him come with me for the summer."

This was in April [1957] and I was supposed to go out there to Cincinnati in June. When we got home that night, my parents were packing my bag already. That's how Syd worked his magic.

How did you get from King to Red Bird Records?

I was working for Syd and was very happy, except I missed New York. Herb Abramson, another legend [and one of the founders of Atlantic Records], came out to Cincy and was starting a new label with Syd, and he asked me to come back to New York and work for him. He hit me up at the wrong time. I was very lonely, so I told him I would do it. Syd told me I made a very big mistake and he was right. Within three months the label imploded and I was out of work.

It was the worst period in my life. But a friend's father, Warren Troub, who represented [early rock'n'roll DJ] Alan Freed, [Roulette Records founder] Morris Levy and [record promoter] George Goldner, told me that Leiber & Stoller were going back into the record label business. They had the Tiger and Daisy label with [indie label pioneer] Sam Weiss but that didn't go anywhere. So they were going back in the record label business with George Goldner, and Goldner hired me as his assistant in 1964. In those days record label employees did everything.

So after Red Bird, you started Sire as a production company?

Richard [Gottehrer] and I met going up and down in the Brill Building. We became very good friends, and I also became friends with his partners. At the time, they were just going through growing pains and two of them-Richard and Jerry Goldstein-wanted to go on their own, and I think [their partner] Bob Feldman wanted to hold it together as long as possible. [The three were a production team with a company under the name of FGG Productions.] They both asked me if I wanted to start a company with them. Red Bird was as hot as a pistol and I was getting more credit than I deserved. In fact, I didn't deserve any.

Did they approach you for your A&R abilities?

In those days, people did everything. Sure, I had good taste. I gave the McCoys [who FGG produced] "Come On, Let's Go," which I always thought was Richie Valens' best song, to do. I also gave it to the Ramones to do a few years later and they did it too, with the Paley Brothers singing because Joey had lost his voice at that time.

So when you started Sire was it the three of you?

It was just me and Richard. At that time, King Records had just been sold and its New York office was closed. So we rented the space at 165 West 54th Street. It was a great location, right opposite Allen & Dick's Steakhouse and next door to La Scala. It was an amazing space-the whole parlor floor of the brownstone-for $235 a month. I immediately [sublet] a big room for $150 to the Riffkind brothers, who were starting up their own agency and their own label, Spring Records. As we were starting up, Tommy Noonan, who by then was running Date Records for Columbia, gave us a $50,000 advance for a production deal for Date. This was in 1966, and then we started the label in late 1967 toward 1968. All the while, the records we made for Columbia kept us going.

What was the first act you signed?

Steven Tallarico, who later became Steve Tyler from Aerosmith. He was in a group called Chain Reaction, which we produced for Date.

What was the first record you put out on the Sire label?

After we left Date, our first distribution deal was with London Records. I think [the first record] was Ptooff! by the Deviants, with Mick Farren. It did fairly well. I was putting out a lot of English stuff. There was a lot of great records coming out of there and nobody wanted them. I could get them for nothing. The EMI stuff I got for nothing, or just about.

How did you and Richard handle responsibilities?

At [Date/Columbia], Richard was making records and he made them at Sire, too. But I got very involved in A&R then, but because I am not a producer, I was picking up mostly finished product and in some cases finding bands, which came a bit later. But it kept us afloat, although it was a struggle.

Richard left for personal reasons about 1974 or 1975, right before the Ramones and Blondie were getting attention. We both landed on our feet. I found the Ramones and the Talking Heads, he found Blondie.

So as Richard is leaving, punk is just about to happen. How did you get down to CBGB ahead of everyone else?

I was almost a little late. I was doing so well picking up the English bands. I went down a few times-they had a lot of shit bands too-but I never stopped going. [CBGB owner] Hilly [Kristal] was special. He gave everyone a shot.

[Veteran music writers] Lisa Robinson and Danny Fields were the first people to tell me about the Ramones. When they were playing next, I got deathly ill from flying home that day, so I sent my wife, Linda, down and she loved them. So I took them into a studio the next day. I rented a studio for an hour. They played about 18 songs in 20 minutes and I signed them right away.

Then came the Talking Heads and Richard Hell & the Voidoids, who Richard Gottehrer brought me. He had signed Hell to a production contract.

How did Arista get to Patti Smith ahead of you and put out the first album from the CBGB scene?

Bob Feiden of Arista got there first. I am not so sure I would have signed her. Live she was either great or off. The same thing with the Replacements. I saw them on a day when they were great. The Ramones were never terrible live. The Talking Heads were perfect live. I liked Television but I never got to sign them.

You signed Madonna from a hospital bed. Were you actively involved in her records?

I signed her because I believed in Mark Kamins, who I thought was the greatest DJ, and he wanted to be a producer. So I gave him some money to bring me an artist and the third or fourth thing he brought me was Madonna. And yes, I was very involved in the beginning. Then I realized, "This woman is smarter than all of us. Just get out of her way."

By then Sire was owned by Warner Music Group. How did Madonna move from Sire to Warner?

In the past, Mo Ostin had tried to stop me from signing artists. Sometimes he was right when he stopped me from making a deal, often he was wrong. Nesuhi Ertegun was heading up Warner International, so I called him up and told him about wanting to sign Madonna but was having trouble getting the money to do the deal. He said, "My brother [Ahmet] tells me you are in the hospital. Just listen to the doctors and I'll give you what you need to sign her. He gave me the money to sign Madonna. I remained very involved with Madonna until events at Warner Music Group in the mid-1990s saw me wind up as president of Elektra, working with Sylvia Rhone.

So what's going on with you now?

I just signed a new deal with WMG for four years. I am still at Warner Bros. and there are these new people running the label. I've signed the first band I have signed on my own in a long time.

You have an affinity for the music scenes in India and China. Are you signing artists there?

About 40% of the world's population live in India and China, and we need them.

When I came into the music business, North America was about 70% of the music industry's volume. Now it's about 30%. So the whole equation has flipped over. Sure, there is a lot of piracy in India and China, but I remember what the piracy was [once] like in Europe. Italy was once almost completely a pirate market. Hong Kong was totally pirate, and now there is no piracy. It will be easier to get a handle on piracy in India because it's a democracy.

India has great, talented producers, who also are artists and songwriters. I liken it to the scene in Sweden, but only a hundred times bigger. India has 1.1 billion people and 450 million of them live over the poverty line. It also has the world's largest English-language newspaper, the Times of India, which has it own record company, which is a power to be reckoned with.

In China, they are thieves when it comes to music-however, give them a reason not to be thieves and they will stop. If some Chinese artist starts to make it globally, they will stop. The Chinese are very proud people and they have some artists who have the ability to make it internationally. If that happens, it will change things.

One day India and China will become an important part of the record business and I hope I live to see it. So will Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and places all over the globe. Music is the common denominator all throughout the world.••••

An extended version of this interview is available on