Seymour Stein was recently virtually presented the 2020 A2IM Lifetime Achievement Award for his trailblazing co-founding of Sire Records, where he signed such acts as the Talking Heads, the Ramones, the Pretenders, and Depeche Mode before going on to sign artists like Madonna and Ice-T when he was affiliated with Warner Music.
Earlier in his career, he worked at such legendary indie labels as Syd Nathan’s King Records, which put out James Brown’s first records; as well as Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and George Goldner’s Red Bird Records, which brought the world the Shangri-Las and the Dixie Cups among others.
In a video before presenting the award, Sire co-founder Richard Gottehrer cited Stein as bridging the “music industry that grew up in the 40’s all the way to today,” while Talking Heads drummer Chris Franz said the band signed with Sire because Stein understood them best.
Meanwhile, Ice-T talked about his trepidation of meeting Stein, who he expected was an ominous, wizard-of-Oz-like record executive — but in the end, Sire “lets you be the artist.” In another clip, the late Tommy Erdelyi of the Ramones said, “one of the things that made Sire great was they knew when they had something good and tried very hard not to mess with it.“
Guy Oseary, Madonna’s manager, said the superstar is very fond of Stein, who signed her while in a hospital bed. Oseary said that Stein also signed two of his favorite bands, the Smiths and Depeche Mode. Likewise marveling at Stein’s A&R acumen, Ice-T asks, “How do you A&R Ice-T, then the Ramones, then Ministry, then the Talking Heads,” he asked. “How do you do it?”
Lyor Cohen, the head of music at YouTube, presented Stein with the Lifetime Achievement Award, declaring “aside from being my friend, Seymour Stein is one of the most important music people that ever did this. Not only does he understand songs and artists, but he is the one who goes to the shows. He is the most curious music man I have ever met. He has spent more miles on a plane than all of us put together. He is thirsty to find the next most important act.”
“[Stein] is humble and I so appreciate what you have done for this industry,” Cohen continued. “I wanted to say thank you for trailblazing for us and showing us the way; for staying curious; and believing in the possibilities of our artist. Thank you so much.”
Read Stein’s full speech below:
I was a sickly child, born in Brooklyn with a hole in my heart on April 18, 1942 — the day General Doolittle bombed Tokyo in retaliation for Pearl Harbor months earlier.
I couldn’t play sports, but fortunately got hooked on music early on, listening to my elder sister Ann’s radio in the bedroom we shared.
Among the early records I heard and enjoyed were “Rose, Rose I Love You” by Yah Lee in Chinese and “Aufweidersehn Sweetheart” a German tune sung by English songstress Vera Lynn in English.
It made me believe that great pop music could come from anywhere, something I never forgot.
As I got healthier and went to public school, I saved all my money to buy records. All of my favorite records and artists were on indie labels, like Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis on Imperial, Little Richard and Larry Williams on Specialty, Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, Joe Turner, Ray Charles, LaVerne Baker on Atlantic, Jerry Butler, Dee Clark on Vee Jay, James Brown, Hank Ballard, and Little Willie John on King and many other great indie artists.
Elvis was my favorite artist on a major, RCA Victor, but it must be remembered that Elvis’ first six singles were on Sam Phillip’s Sun label in Memphis and also home to Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison.
It is my strong belief that these and other great indie labels should be honored by A2IM, for their pioneering efforts that blazed the trail for all of us.
Atlantic is the last of these labels and one of the two or three most successful in today’s market. I’m sure the Craig Kallman who started there at a very young age, learned much from Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler.
When I was 15, I went up to the Billboard offices to do some research on the music business in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Billboard chart manager Tom Noonan was very kind and supplied me with a desk and access to the bound volumes that they still have. I made many notes. I also met Paul Ackerman, the music editor, and reporter, Bob Rolantz, a former A&R man at RCA’s Groove label. Paul and Bob invited me to attend the weekly meetings where the reporters would choose the Spotlight records of the week. Other reporters included Ren Grevatt and June Bundy, whose husband Charlie Grean was one of the most powerful music execs at the time. The panel often gave me the opportunity to voice my opinion.
I noted that almost all the guests at this event were indie label execs, including Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, Leonard Chess, George Goldner at Gone/End, Jerry Blaine at Jubilee, Herman Lubinsky at Savoy and many others, but most important to my future, Syd Nathan at King Records.
When I graduated high school, Tom Noonan offered me a full time job at Billboard as his assistant in the chart department. I helped him put together his idea to start a Top 100 singles chart, since renamed the Hot 100, which was of great service to music dealers and radio stations.
One day, Syd Nathan asked me, if I wanted to be a journalist or a record man and invited me to move to Cincinnati and be his assistant. I jumped at the opportunity and stayed at King for several years. But I missed New York and eventually moved back. Soon after that, George Goldner reached out to me. He informed me that he had just started Red Bird Records with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in the Brill Building. Once again I jumped at the opportunity. In the Brill Building, I met Richard Gottehrer, whose office was also there. We became friends and decided to work together.
When I started Sire with Richard Gottehrer, most of our early signings came from CBGB’s on the Bowery, including Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Tom Tom Club, Dead Boys and the Paley Brothers.
I never lost my belief that great music could come from anywhere in the world and headed for London. I eventually bought a flat to work and live from and was offered the opportunity to buy 50% interest in Blue Horizon Records by ace producer Mike Vernon. The label boasted the talents of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack, featuring Christine Perfect, who later married John McVie and joined Fleetwood Mac, and several other blues acts.
It was quite easy traveling to Europe, where I signed Dutch band Focus, whose album Moving Waves sold over 650,000 in the U.S. and contained the single, “Hocus Pocus,” which sold well over 1,000,000 in the U.S. We had world rights everywhere except Benelux and the album did well all over the world.
With the success of Focus, we were able to buy two connecting brownstones on West 74th Street and hire a good staff. Sire’s first office was in a brownstone at 146 West 54th Street, Syd Nathan rented the floor for $325.00 a month.
With a much larger office and a really good staff, we were able to build a studio with air conditioning. I took advantage of this by spending much more time in UK and Europe.
I had already signed the Pretenders and Climax Blues Band. Among the other UK bands signed to Sire were the Smiths, Depeche Mode, the Cure, Erasure, Echo & the Bunnymen, Soft Cell, the Cult, Spacehog, Yaz(oo), Mark-Almond, Ride, Rezillos, the Farm, Everything But the Girl, Modern English, Morcheeba, Aphex Twin, Ride, the Undertones, James. Hopefully, I got them all.
As previously mentioned Focus from Holland, the Undertones from Ireland, HIM from Finland, Plastic Bertrand from Belgium, Ofra Haza from Israel, k.d. lang and Barenaked Ladies from Canada, David Rudder from Trinidad and The Saints and Radio Birdman, the first two bands to be inducted to Australia’s Rock Hall of Fame.
Back in the USA, I signed two longtime friends Cyndi Lauper and Debbie Harry, who had gone solo. Also, Andy Paley produced a great album by Jerry Lee Lewis.
On a hunch, I journeyed to LA and San Francisco, since all of the hot rappers thus far had come from the East Coast or Midwest. I discovered Ice-T and his brilliant young manager, Jorge Hinojosa. I signed Ice, who became the first successful rapper for Warner Bros., Sire’s distributor. Back in the States, I also signed the Replacements in Minneapolis. Also, Ministry in Chicago and Dinosaur Jr. in Massachusetts.
I was perhaps most proud then for the opportunity to sign Lou Reed back then. We released the amazing New York album, a world-wide hit — platinum in USA and gold in France, UK, and I believe Canada, as well.
I am currently unemployed, having left Sire and Warner’s behind two years ago. At present I am reactivating Blue Horizon with the help and support of Matthew Johnson at Fat Possum. He’s someone you should really consider for A2IM induction. He’s an indie all the way and a great one.
If I have any regrets and I do, it’s that I did not have enough time to spend with my daughter, Samantha, who sadly passed away; and Mandy. Hopefully, when Mandy and my three granddaughters hear this, they will understand me better and forgive me.
Again, many, many thanks for the award. I have been inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and in 2018 was presented with a special, Lifetime Achievement Grammy. That said, this A2IM award strikes closer to home. Many thanks!!
Also very special thanks to Lyor Cohen. I could not think of anyone better and more special to induct me!!!