In the annals of music industry history, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone as hugely influential as Seymour Stein. Not unlike Woody Allen’s Leonard Zelig, Stein’s journey has found him being a part of major events and involved with significant artists. As the founder of Sire Records (alongside the equally influential Richard Gottehrer), Stein signed and championed countless acts, ranging from The Ramones, Talking Heads, Madonna and The Pretenders to Depeche Mode, The Cure, Ice-T, The Smiths and k.d. Lang. While July of this year found him stepping down as chairman after 51 years of heading up his label, the Brooklyn native also marked a number of milestones that included the release of Siren Song: My Life in Music, the memoir he co-authored with Gareth Murphy. A fascinating read that could easily serve as a historical primer on the evolution of the record business, the book traces Stein’s World War II Era childhood that found him going to synagogue and racing home to listen the sounds of ’50s pop and early rock and roll to following his ambitions and climbing the ladder with adventures at numerous stops that included working for Billboard, plugging songs at the Brill Building and chasing talent in London, Paris and New York City. It’s the kind of life story you wouldn’t believe if it was presented as a fictional screenplay. Yet, this is Stein’s journey in black and white. And for as eager as he was to pen it, the actual process wasn’t the most challenging part of writing this autobiography.
“When I was approached to write it, I jumped at the idea of doing it,” he said. “I’d always thought about it, but you know, when you’re running a small company, like Sire always was, you don’t really have the time for it. Finding the time was the most difficult part. Once I got started, it just kind of flowed. It was just getting the determination to do it and see it through. I did spend a lot of time on the book, but I’m glad that I did it. I really am.”
Having grown up sharing a bedroom with his older sister, the young Stein’s tastes were shaped by the music coming out of her radio—the country music of Hank Williams broadcast by AM stations broadcasting from hundreds of miles away. The pop of Patti Page, the doo-wop of early pioneers The Crows and Otis Williams and The Charms and the early R&B of Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man.” It was enough to get him to rush home from Saturday service to catch The Martin Block Show, where the program’s namesake played the Top 25 on the Billboard charts along with the top five R&B and country music hits. Stein’s zeal found him meticulously copying the charts into a notebook which eventually led to the young teen heading over to the magazine’s offices and asking to research their charts as part of a fictional school project. His self-created internship led to his getting hired as a clerk and the publication was his first gateway into befriending a number of present-day and future movers and shakers tha included editor in chief Paul Ackerman, Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, Leonard Chess and most importantly, Syd Nathan, the late founder of the hugely influential R&B, blues and country music imprint King Records, home to James Brown & the Fabulous Flames. Nathan wound up playing a major role in the young music fan’s life.
“Syd said I really had what it takes. He said he came into New York once a month [to visit Billboard] and the next time he came in, he wanted me to come into his office. He gave me a load of King Records and then we continued our conversations,” Stein recalled. “He said if I really wanted to really learn the record business, I wasn’t going to learn it at Billboard. He invited me to come out and stay with his wife and family for a few weeks in the summer, which I did. He was my greatest mentor of all by far and I’ve had a lot of great mentors.”
While Sire was founded in 1966, it wasn’t until the mid to late 1970s when Stein’s combination of savvy taste, encyclopedic knowledge of music, unbridled zeal and fantastic set of ears led to his consistently unearthing the kind of seminal talent major label rivals were routinely missing the boat on. It’s the kind of track record that not only led to his landing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the lifetime achievement category in 2005, but also being inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame earlier this month. WLIR stalwarts and longtime friends Larry the Duck and Denis McNamara were the initiates. Fellow iconoclast McNamara, who often criss-crossed paths and worked closely with Stein in breaking new artists counts his relationship with the record company icon as being one of his most treasured ones.
“Meeting Seymour Stein, who we met through the craziest and oddest occurrence was a major milestone for me. To befriend him and also realize that he and I were on the same wavelength at that point and time [in WLIR’s history] helped us immensely,” McNamara said. “I think that’s a big part of the reason Depeche Mode had the relationship they had with the radio station along with so many of his artists—Yaz, Erasure, Talking Heads, B-52s—he’s the man who signed The Ramones. I really want to acknowledge him more because Seymour has been tremendous and a friend. And also, a real good music guy to talk music with and hang out with and do stuff because Seymour is one of the originals. He’s like an Ahmet Ertegun.”
While his health has slowed him down somewhat, Stein remains musically active, having recently returned from a trip abroad to Israel, where he was promoting pop music. That said, Sire Records continues to be one of his proudest professional achievements.
“I think what’s most remarkable about Sire is that it’s such a small operation but the bands and the artists that came forth were just incredible,” he said.
“While I’m sure they weren’t all [successful], because we all make mistakes, I think the majority of them were and they’re still very, very much remembered and their music hasn’t faded away.”