Seymour Stein on Songwriters Hall of Fame Honor, How He Signed the Ramones, Madonna & More

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
“I like music from all ages,” says Stein, 74. “That’s why this honor means so much to me.”

Seymour Stein is the kind of legend the music industry hadn’t seen before and will might not ever see again. Driven by his entrepreneurial spirit and, above all, his love of a great song, the Sire Records co-founder -- whose first industry job was as a clerk at Billboard in 1958 -- counts among his signees the Ramones, Pretenders, Talking Heads, Replacements and a then-fledgling artist named Madonna, whom he was so taken with he signed her while he was recuperating in a hospital bed.

On Thursday night (June 9) at the Songwriters Hall of Fame gala, Stein will receive the Howie Richmond Hitmaker award, named after one of the SHOF’s founders and tailored for a "star maker" who recognizes the genuine significance of the song and songwriter. Previous Hitmaker honorees included Clive Davis, Phil Ramone, Whitney Houston, Diana Ross, Doug Morris, Gloria Estefan, Garth Brooks and Sir Tom Jones.

Stein looks back over select career highlights in this exclusive Billboard interview.

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“It’s all about the song”: “It always has been and it always will be. People think of me, because of the Ramones, as punk rock, and that’s all well and good. I love the Ramones, but I like music from all ages. When I hear a great song, it’s an emotional experience for me. I could be brought to tears, tears of joy, when I hear a great song. There are some people who won’t sign a band if they don’t like the musicianship, and that is so ridiculous in my mind because you can always improve the musicianship. But the thing is, it’s the songs. And that’s why this honor means so much to me.”

Lucky star: “When I signed Madonna, I was in the hospital and there was only one song, that’s all she had at the time; ‘Everybody’ it was called. It barely hit the charts, but I heard something there and heard something in her -- she was not just a singer, she had the ability to write, because it was a very good song. Thank God I signed her. That’s what I’m most famous for -- Madonna -- and she’s just so unlike anyone else I’ve ever signed.”

Independent-minded: “I always feel a sense of urgency. Sire was an independent label. Back in those days, there were seven major labels, and by the time I signed Madonna, we had a strong hookup with Warners, but for the first 10 or 13 years, I always felt the urgency to sign very quickly if I liked something, because if a major label swooped in, they could outbid me so easily. In fact, some of the indies could outbid me. I always felt I had to make a quick decision. I have no regrets about that. I think that I’ve been wrong, like anyone else, but I never look back.”

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Ramones: "This was around the mid-'70s, and I had been traveling quite a bit and I went to England quite regularly. We signed a lot of bands in the U.K. I had heard about the Ramones, but I’d never seen them live. I got back from London especially to see them, but I got back with the flu so I couldn’t go. My wife was a schoolteacher and I sent her to see them and it blew her mind. She came back raving about them, so the next day I rented a studio for an hour and asked them to come in. They did their set in about 20 minutes, maybe 15 or 18 songs in rapid succession, and I said, ‘Look, I’ve heard enough... I definitely want to sign you,’ and they said, 'We want to sign with Sire,' and we discussed the terms and they were in the studio two days later because they wanted to get a record out very fast. [That day in the studio…] I heard great songs like I’d never heard before, just in rapid succession. I liked that they started every song saying, ‘One, two, three, four.’ Johnny’s guitar work was amazing, Joey’s voice was so totally unique. And they all were so different from each other. They dressed exactly alike, but they were so different. And I just loved talking to them. I’m from Brooklyn, they were from Queens, and I could see we were alike. They made up their minds quickly they wanted to be with me. And if I like something, as I told you, I like to sign as quickly as possible. The shortness of the songs, right to the point, they didn’t mess around. And there are all different kinds of songs. ‘I Want to Be Your Boyfriend,’ that was a love song and slow but still, it smacked of the Ramones style. You could always tell a Ramones song instantaneously, there was no doubt about it."

Talking Heads: "It’s really thanks to Johnny Ramone. Johnny wanted me to hear some of their new songs and he said, rather than come to your office, we booked a date. So I went to see them. It was at CBGBs, and I checked with Hilly and the opening band was [supposed to be] a band I had seen and I didn’t particularly like them. So I was outside with Lenny K from Patti Smith’s band and was just standing there when the opening band went on. It wasn’t the band it was supposed to be. It was the Talking Heads, and I didn’t know it. And when I heard this music it was mesmerizing, it drew me into the room, it was just incredible. And when they finished I rushed them and started talking to them. David said, ‘Look, Seymour, we know who you are and we’re fans. Not now, but we have a studio flat where we live. Come and see us tomorrow.’ And he wrote down the address for me. It took me 11 and a half months to sign that band. It was the opposite of the Ramones. I lost so much sleep because I knew this band was so great that somebody was going to sign them. They weren’t holding out. The main thing was they believed very early on in video and they were making videos and experimenting with that. They and another band I wanted to sign but I didn’t -- Devo -- were the early pioneers with video. And they had no manager. I remember the very first song, because that was the song that mesmerized me and sucked me into that room. ‘Building on Fire.’ They did ‘Psycho Killer’ too, but I heard that first song and wanted to sign them.”

Pretenders: “Before we were at Warners, we had other distributors, and the last one before Warners was ABC Records. ABC had a label over in England called Anchor Records, which they owned. It was not a very good label, they weren’t totally international, say the way Capitol or RCA was. But they had a very good A&R man in spite of it, a guy called Dave Hill. We used to go out together and look at things and maybe could sign them together for world rights. Anchor went out of business, and he became a manager and called me and said, ‘I know your taste. I’m managing this band, they’re called the Chrisse Hynde Band, and I think you would love them.’ He gave me the name of the club in London, and I arrived there and got a very good feeling because I remembered the nightclub from years before and had a lot of good memories about it. I walked in and heard the band and said, ‘Dave, let’s shake on this, I really want to sign the band,' and we did. The night Chrissie decided, she said, 'Let’s come up with a name.' She didn’t want to call it the Chrisse Hynde Band. That’s the night they decided to call themselves the Pretenders. One of my favorite songs as a kid was ‘The Great Pretender’ by the Platters. I love the Platters, such a great style voice.”

Favorite Replacements song: “There are so many songs. This is probably not their best, but it means a lot to me because of who it’s dedicated to. It’s called ‘Alex Chilton.’ So it’s not always the most popular song, but it means a lot to me personally.”

Vive la France: “One of my favorite songs, and I don’t care what people think… I’m a very patriotic American and I love England, but one of my favorite songs is 'La Marseillaise,’ the national anthem of France. It was written during the Revolution, and when I heard this song, I wanted to just jump on a horse and could imagine what it must have been like during the French Revolution. It’s so stirring. The songs that stick with you the most are the songs you hear when you’re about 13. I always ask people, ‘What’s your favorite song?’ And it’s usually when they were about 13, give or take two years in each direction. For me it was a little earlier. I was very fortunate. I grew up in Brooklyn in a small two-bedroom apartment and I shared a room with my older sister and she was into music, and so I was listening to music when I was 6 years old. Another song I love, and I was 13 when I heard it, as well as the singer was 13 -- Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love.’ So many songs from the mid-'50s, the early, early days of rock ’n’ roll are some of my favorites. You don’t have to know why you like it. In ‘Some Enchanted Evening,’ there’s a line: ‘Fools give you reasons and wise men never try.’ Not that I’m saying I’m a wise man, but if you love something, you just love it. Why look for reasons? See, I’m not all rock ’n’ roll. That’s Rodgers & Hammerstein.”