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 above 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?”
By the time Madonna walked in with Mark Kamins that evening, I had been fully briefed and tidied up by a team of ladies. Not that she really cared about my predicament. She’d come to get a record deal before some old record guy croaked, along with his check-signing hand.
She was all dolled up in cheap punky gear, the kind of club kid who looked absurdly out of place in a cardiac ward. She wasn’t even interested in hearing me explain how much I liked her demo. “The thing to do now,” she said, “is sign me to a record deal.” She then opened her arms and laughed. “Take me, I’m yours!” She was goofing around doing a Lolita routine because I was twice her age. Or maybe I really was smiling back at her like a dirty old man, because she didn’t take long to cut through all the small talk and go straight for the kill. Peering into the back of my head with those Madonna eyes, she said, “And now, you give me the money.”
“What?” I snapped back, which was unusual for me. As a rule, I’m always careful around artists, but Madonna had bigger balls than the four men in the room put together.
“Look, just tell me what I have to do to get a f—ing record deal in this town!” she hit back, sounding deflated. “Don’t worry, you’ve got a deal,” I assured her.
And with that exchange, we finally met each other on level ground. Madonna had a power over men, a power over everyone that I think she was too young to control or even realize. For obvious reasons, her magic didn’t work the same way on me, which I think was a good thing for us both. I doubt she knew I was gay, and all I knew about her was the tape I’d heard. I had no idea she was stone broke and secretly hoping to leave the hospital with a check.
Lots of people have written about Madonna’s natural star power, and it’s absolutely true that even when she was still a complete unknown, she filled up every room and oozed a dazzling aura that even a hardened vet like me wasn’t immune to. I gave her my promise and told her to go find a lawyer, but I still had to get the money and all the passport stamps from Burbank, which, under the circumstances, was not a foregone conclusion. The deal we agreed to was modest: Madonna would get an advance of $15,000 per single, for a total of three singles, with an option for an album. On top of that, there was an additional publishing deal by which she’d get a $2,500 advance for every song she wrote. It was more of a test run than a full deal, but that’s all she needed, and under the circumstances, that’s about all I could offer.
Knowing what we know today, that tiny agreement looks rather comical. However, all she had right then was one clubby song that you couldn’t get on Top 40 radio. She wasn’t a musician, she didn’t have a band, all she really had was the name and sound of Mark Kamins behind her. He’d produced “Everybody” as a six-minute twelve-inch for clubs like Danceteria, so, in real terms, I was taking a small bet on Mark’s first studio production for the sheer interest of seeing where it would go. To be honest, I was doing him the good turn; there was no reason to believe I was looking at a female Elvis. The fact Madonna wasn’t even on the cover of her very first single tells you how much it all began as a downtown dance experiment. I would eventually see Madonna as a regular pop artist—we all would—but at that first meeting point, my job was to get both Mark Kamins and her in the net before anyone else. We’d get to the next bridge when we came to it.
I’d break out in a rash whenever I heard this nasty myth about how Madonna somehow screwed her way to the top. I could see she was the real deal. I certainly didn’t know then just how big she would be, but I did believe with all my heart she would be really big. I defy anyone to screw their way to number one and stay there for well over three decades. It can’t be done. But please, be my guest — have fun trying!
As for the men in her life, she did have something going with Mark Kamins when “Everybody” was made. However, both Mark and her next boyfriend, Jellybean Benitez, were just club deejays. She may have had other flings around that time, but trust me, no big shot picked her up and sprinkled her with stardust. Not Mark, not me, not Svengali, not the Wizard of Oz. She was just a very passionate young lady, living it, and who knows, maybe she thrived on falling in love. But hey, she was just twenty-four. It’s funny how we don’t cry foul when a twenty-four-year-old male rocker turns a trail of pretty women into a storyboard of high-voltage songs. Okay, now a girl was chasing her mojo through all these handsome, talented guys. Do you have any idea how much I would have loved to do that at her age?
The thing to remember about Madonna’s early days is that she was stone broke in New York City without any safety nets. Just look at her early photos; it’s all dime-store junk, wristbands, hair- spray, heavy makeup. She was certainly a looker, but I was not in- terested in her appearance, no more than I signed the Ramones because I liked their ripped jeans and All Star sneakers. The only reason so many young punks ran out and dressed up like the Ramones was because of the music, and it was the exact same for
Madonna. Her first believers were music geeks like Steve Bray, Mark Kamins, me, Michael Rosenblatt, Jellybean Benitez, and a few others. What we all heard was something in her voice.