The Grammy Museum in Downtown Los Angeles kicked off their very busy Grammy Week Monday night (Feb. 6) with a look back at 50 years of Sire Records, the label launched by one-time Billboard clerk turned industry titan, Seymour Stein.
Stein was the guest of honor and, for much of the time, the only interviewee on stage before being joined halfway through the hour-long conversation by a panel of his friends, including director Brett Ratner, the Cult’s Billy Duffy and Beggars founder Martin Mills.
The night, moderated by the Grammy Foundation’s Scott Goldman, began with a video retrospective celebrating the remarkable history of the label, which has been the home to Madonna, Depeche Mode, the Talking Heads, the Ramones, The Smiths, the Pretenders, The Cure, Ice-T, — who told a funny story in the video about how the first time he met Stein the industry mogul told T, “You have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen” — Seal and more.
Stein began by recounting how his older sister by six years, who was in the audience, got him into music like doo-wop, R&B and country pre rock and roll. He then went into his early days at Billboard, where he just showed up looking for work, knowing he wanted to work in the music industry, though he knew nothing about the business.
Following his early days at Billboard, Stein moved to Cincinnati to work for King Records. It was there he learned his first major lesson about music he recalled. “The song is everything,” he said. “A great song can last forever.”
It’s easy to listen to Stein, who mirrors the last 60 years of music, talk all night. He told tales about ending up working in the famed Brill Building, about flying to England to sign Depeche Mode without ever having heard a note of their music, about meeting boxing champ Jack Dempsey and more.
He told a great story about signing a young Steven Tyler, the album tanking and Tyler’s father coming down to the label with a gun, demanding Tyler being given another chance. Stein gladly just gave the father the contract instead.
Stein also doesn’t hold back in his tales, as he recounted how music great Dick Clark, who wasn’t as straight and narrow as everyone believed, helped get The Beatles, who were first turned down by Capitol three times, signed by breaking them in Philadelphia, where Clark owned a piece of “every label.”
Nor did he hold back in his opinions, referencing the failed HBO series Vinyl, which he called “a disgrace to the music industry,” drawing cheers and laughs. When the stories turned to Stein’s famed relationships with bands he was equally as engaging and impassioned, recalling how he booked a rehearsal room for an hour to hear the Ramones, who played 18 songs in “like 20 or 25 minutes.” So they spent the rest of the time negotiating the deal.
Another great yarn was how he was pointed out to the Smiths, who were playing in London two days later. Told that was probably too sign to get out there to see and meet them Stein laughed, recalling how he flew out same day to see Depeche Mode and two days was plenty of time.
Ratner, Duffy and Mills were then brought on to tell their tales of meeting Stein, all told with great love and respect, kind of like a tribute. But really the night was all about paying respect to one of music’s great label men, who, about to turn 75, has no intention of slowing it down. “I’m still signing people,” he said proudly. So fittingly, the night wrapped with a solo piano performance from one of Stein’s new signings: Ethan Gruska.