The great ones age, but they never get old.
Now 71, the venerable Seymour Stein may walk with a cane, but he’s still the last one standing as a pure “record man,” with all the experience and knowledge of the record business that that now archaic term connotes.
The Brooklyn-born co-founder (with Richard Gottehrer) of Sire Records—home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame likes of The Ramones, Talking Heads and Madonna—is himself a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. He began his career in the record business as a teenager when he was hired by Billboard magazine, and was honored last year by the record business “bible” with its inaugural Billboard Icon Award presented at the international MIDEM music industry confab in Cannes. The award recognizes lifetime achievements of industry executives, and no industry exec has more achievements than Stein.
Fittingly, Stein will now receive the inaugural CBGB Icon Award at a special presentation tomorrow as part of the CBGB Film and Music Festival 2013. No other label exec was more closely associated with the legendary New York rock club than Stein, who was close friends with its late proprietor Hilly Kristal.
Stein recently took on additional responsibilities at Warner Music Group (WMG), under whose umbrella Sire now resides. As senior label A&R executive for independent music, he works with WMG’s independent label service company Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA) in developing its indie label roster.
Known, among many other things, for his vast knowledge of popular music (he can sing virtually any song—in any language—that comes up in casual conversation), Stein continues to tirelessly travel the world constantly in search of new music, and while he has experienced great sadness in recent years with the deaths of his ex-wife Linda Stein (who co-managed The Ramones) and daughter Samantha, his upbeat nature remains intact.
Indeed, Seymour Stein is one of the most beloved characters in the record business, and busy as he is, he recently made time to look back at his career from his office full of memorabilia and Billboard chart books.
So how does it feel being an icon?
Please, CBGB’s is the icon, but it’s especially good to be honored by CBGB’s. Not only was it one of the most important parts of my career, it was one of the most fun as well.
What made it so special?
It was a family affair. Linda got involved in the management of The Ramones. When [daughter] Mandy grew up, she became a video director, and one of her favorite projects was a documentary of the last days of CBGB [Burning Down The House: The Story Of CBGB (2009)], which will be shown at the Festival. Mandy worked closely with Hilly when in he was in failing health and they became very, very, very close.
How does this icon award compare with Billboard’s? The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
I got the Icon Award from Billboard a little less than two years ago. It meant a lot to me, because that’s where I started my career. The award was presented at MIDEM, where I signed many artists and did many deals back in the day. Being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was monumental because rock 'n' roll kind of gave me a life and a road map for my career. All three mean a great deal to me. I saw great bands, and some of the worst bands--and that was all due to Hilly Kristal because he had the most open door and open-minded policy. He’d give anyone a shot, and that’s obvious from what CBGB stands for and where his musical heart lay—country, bluegrass and blues--all of which I love, too.
Most people know you because of the punk bands you put out at Sire, like The Ramones and Dead Boys—and Madonna. But country music?
I just ate lunch--I rarely go to lunch!—and I was with a label. I can’t give you the name of it because the deal’s not done yet, but I’m hoping to bring it into ADA, and it’s Austin-based, so naturally we talked a lot about country music and some of my favorite country artists like Hank Thompson, from Texas, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers.
So what does all this recognition mean to you?
Let’s be honest. Real honest. I have no talent! I’m a fan in the truest sense of the word—fanatical. When I was a kid, especially. Just to be part of the music business—which I wanted to be in since I was nine-years-old, when I had no idea what being part of the music business meant.
An extraordinary achievement for you, then. What else can you say about CBGB?
Aside from all the great music and all the horrible music I heard there, to me it was a club in the truest and most old-fashioned sense of the word club. I’d run into Danny Fields, Lisa Robinson--people like that, and others who sadly aren’t around anymore, like Bob Feiden from Arista, who signed Patti Smith, and Arturo Vega, who I regard as the fifth Ramone. Some months I was there almost every night, and it was like [1940s radio sitcom] Duffy’s Tavern, “where the elite meet to eat”—only we were there for the music; sort of a punk rock Friar’s Club! I can close my eyes and still see [the Paley Brothers’] Jonathan Paley playing pinball—and of course, Hilly Kristal sipping his little Fresca and vodka cocktail throughout the night, holding court. It was great, and I loved it.
Did you have any kind of plan?
“Nothing is planned,” my father always said. Man plans, God laughs. I just went where the music led me, and at that period of my life, it was CBGB.
What about the other periods?
The other most colorful period was during the second wave of the great English independent labels. They were similar. Just like virtually no one from any of the major labels paid any attention to CBGB, they paid little or no attention to this “second wave,” as I call it, of British indies. Shame on them, because by this time—after the first wave in 1974, ’75, ’76, when Island, Chrysalis and Virgin had already established strong beachheads in the U.S.--they should have realized that the British indies were here to stay, and thankfully still are.
We caught them [the British] off guard with rock ‘n’ roll in the beginning, which took them completely by surprise. They did have Lonnie Donegan and skiffle, Cliff Richards and The Shadows, and [Shadows guitarist] Hank Marvin surely influenced many young Brits to pick up the guitar—including John Lennon, who told me this himself.
But I went over to England all the time and had a label, Blue Horizon Records, which brought me there. The founders of the company were Mike Vernon and his brother Richard. They had Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack--with Christine Perfect, who later became Christine McVie. Also, I was able to license great music from EMI like Climax Blues Band and Renaissance, because Capitol, foolishly, didn’t want to put it out. No surprise, Capitol rejected The Beatles not once, but twice!
So I was in Britain almost as much as New York and heard about Rough Trade. I met Geoff Travis of Rough Trade through the [label’s] store, and I met Daniel Miller of Mute in the store, also Martin Mills of Beggars Banquet, Ivo Watts-Russell of 4AD, and later people like Alan McGee of Creation Records, Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera of Stiff, Stevo of Some Bizarre, Iain McNay of Cherry Red, Chris Parry of Fiction and Rob Mitchell of Warp —and I just couldn’t believe it! It was a secret, and I was wise enough to make sure it stayed a secret! Same with CBGB. There are a lot of comparisons there. So many great artists came Sire’s way from UK indies – Depeche Mode, Erasure, The Cure, The Cult, Madness, Everything But The Girl, The Smiths, Modern English, Morcheeba, Primal Scream, Aztec Camera, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Yaz(oo), The Farm, Aphex Twin – and on my own, for the world, we signed The Pretenders, Echo and The Bunnymen, The Rezillos, The Mighty Lemon Drops, The Undertones, and others.
Of course, so much of your reputation remains with those CBGB bands like The Ramones and Talking Heads.
I saw the Talking Heads by accident! Linda was managing The Ramones with Danny, and obviously The Ramones, and Johnny Ramone in particular, knew my every move. I got home from a trip on a Sunday and 10 minutes later—I hadn’t unpacked—the phone rang and it was Johnny. “I just got in,” I said. “We know. We got some new songs.” I said, “You know, I’d love to hear them. Monday’s my first day back.” “We know you’re not doing anything Wednesday night, so we booked ourselves into CBGB.” I said, “Great. See you there. By the way, who’s opening?” “You know The Shirts?”
The Shirts was Hilly’s band. I’d seen them many times and didn’t feel they were right for me. It was a beautiful November night, so I stayed outside, and who was standing with me but [Patti Smith’s guitarist] Lenny Kaye, a wonderful man. We were talking, and all of a sudden I heard this music [he sings the opening of Talking Heads' first single “Love Goes To Building On Fire”]: “When my love/Stands next to your love,” and I know it’s not The Shirts, and I swear to you, the music moved me like a snake charmer--and Lenny was following me! “This isn’t The Shirts,” I said. “No. Hilly’s got them a paying job!” said Lenny. I said, “Who are they?” “Talking Heads.”
I rushed the stage as soon as they finished! They were a three-piece then, and I made such a fool of myself! “I’ve been wanting to see you for such a long time! I’ve got to have you on Sire Records!” I was being a complete blithering idiot, and David [Byrne] turns and says, “We got this loft”—on Chrystie or Allen Street—“come see us tomorrow,” and I did. I didn’t sign them: They wouldn’t sign with me until Nov. 1 the following year. I thought some big label would swoop in and take them away before I could. I was almost disappointed nobody saw how f**king wonderful they were. But thank God they didn’t.
What about the Dead Boys?
I loved [late frontman] Stiv Bators [who died in Paris after being hit by a taxi]. If only he’d gone to a doctor!
Stiv took me down to the toilet at CBs and said, “Seymour. Look what somebody wrote here: 'Seymour Stein, you finally signed a great band—The Dead Boys,'” scrawled across the wall. “Somebody?” I said. “I wonder who that somebody was!” “Not me,” Stiv said.
Anyone else from that era stand out?
Richard Hell and The Voidoids also came out of CB's, and they were on Sire. But Joey Ramone and Debbie Harry were the nicest people to come out of that period. They both had hearts of gold: Joey was always sending memos about bands he was trying to help, even a couple weeks before he died. My whole family came to his funeral [a tearful pause] and I was sitting with Debbie. She nursed her husband [Blondie’s Chris Stein] for years when he was sick.
Fast-forward to the present.
I’m going off to England this week and then the Polar Awards in Stockholm. I think it’s bad to slow down. I’ve been to India and Korea, and I’m heading back to both places—same with Brazil. There’s an artist down there I’m very interested in.
I don’t think I’ll make it to China this year, but India, China and Korea are very much in my sights. If you look at just India and China alone, that’s nearly 40 percent of the world’s population—and growing. There are close to 500 million Indians legitimately classified as middle class—and they love music. India is one of the earliest places that music came out of.
If we can bring these people in to the world of pop music then we can almost go back to rescuing ourselves in terms of recorded music, period. And then there’s Korea: I’m ashamed to say it—and you can say this--my first trip to Korea was just last year. But I’m going back again this year, in about a month for [global music conference] MU:CON. It’s a big festival, and you can learn a lot going to these festivals. But I like going to check out new and unsigned artists.
Some of the best festivals are in England: Liverpool Sound City, promoted by the incredible Dave Pichilingi, and The Great Escape in Brighton. Then there’s Canadian Music Week, run by Neill Dixon in Toronto, which used to be 80 percent Canadian artists and now they’re from everywhere.
Jasper Donat of Music Matters does events in Singapore and Mumbai and is a real trailblazer. These are all places where you learn a lot and meet people, same with Sat Bisla and Musexpo in L.A. And of course MIDEM: I signed some of the most important Sire artists at MIDEM, like Focus, whose album Moving Waves, featuring “Hocus Pocus,” was my first million-selling album. I also picked up Juluka’s Scatterlings—one of the things I’m proudest of putting out.
And what about Sire today?
I’m always looking. We have a great roster of new artists: About a year-and-a-half ago I signed Delta Rae, a band from North Carolina that’s on the verge of breaking big. We’ve also signed Kill It Kid, a blues band from England, singer/songwriter Ben Fields, and Cold Fronts, from Philadelphia. And we still have artists like Tegan and Sara and Regina Spektor.
And what about ADA?
We want to find new labels and help people start labels and hook them up with ADA. One of first labels I signed was Dave Pichilingi’s Baltic Records out of Liverpool. So much good stuff comes out of the north of England—which has always been the case: Factory Records is a prime example of that--30 miles away from Liverpool in Manchester. There’s also Leeds and Sheffield, so he’s got that covered, and access to great talent through Liverpool Sound City. And we’re working on several labels here in the U.S. as well. It’s A&R, but instead of signing artists, we’re bringing labels and indie entrepreneurs into the fold.
[He takes a call from Andy Paley.]
With all the success, you’ve also had to deal with a lot of personal tragedy.
Linda and I divorced and for the first five years we were barely on speaking terms. But after that we became closer than when we were married. When you have two children—especially daughters—they’re harder and more vulnerable. It hasn’t been easy. Thank God I’ve got my work. I kind of always drown myself in it. The pain’s still there, and will be there till the day I die--I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I’m just very happy that I’m still able to function in this business that in some ways has changed so dramatically. The main ingredient is the music, and thank God I kept to my standards and don’t look for categories or trends, because once there is a trend, it’s over. In reality, the only two categories that count are “good” and “bad.”
You’ve certainly become a revered and beloved figure in the music business.
I have no idea why. I’m not all that lovely! But I’ve had a great run, thank God. I have no talent, but a good ear, I guess. I never thought you could earn a living with it, but I’ve done more than that.
And you started out at Billboard!
I went up to Billboard at 13-years-old to copy down the charts and read all the stories way back to 1940. That was in 1956. I’m 71 now. Tommy Noonan, the chart editor, was the person who allowed me to do this. Soon after, I met Billboard’s legendary music editor, Paul Ackerman. About a year later, I got hired to work at Billboard after school, and met everybody: Ahmet [Ertegun, head of Atlantic Records] and [legendary producer and partner at Atlantic] Jerry Wexler and [Chess Records’] Leonard Chess, George Goldner who I later worked for at Red Bird Records, and my greatest mentor, Syd Nathan of King Records.
Syd Nathan actually brought me to Cincinnati for two summers, my junior and senior years of high school. It was basic training for me. King was self-contained with their own art department, pressing plant, recording studio; the works. I owe him so much. He even had me go on the road with James Brown when he performed at theaters like The Apollo, The Uptown in Philadelphia, The Royal in Baltimore, The Regal in Chicago, The Howard in D.C., and others. When I graduated high school, I went to work for Billboard for three years, but then moved to Cincinnati to complete my education.
I’ve had ups and downs. It’s like a dream that I’ve never woken up from, that I always wanted to do. I didn’t know what being in the record business was. When I was eight- or nine-years-old I came home from synagogue on Saturday and because my father didn’t like me listening to radio or TV on Sabbath, snuck off to listen to [pioneering Make Believe Ballroom disc jockey] Martin Block. This was before rock ‘n’ roll, when Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz” was No. 1 for 13 weeks on the Billboard charts. He said “How’s that for stability?” I didn’t even know what "stability" meant!
Those early charts are in my brain. They had only 20, 25 positions on the charts back then.
I lived in an Italian neighborhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Every Sunday we’d go to my maternal grandmother’s house in Coney Island. Just about the whole family were in the Italian food business. She’d make spaghetti or we’d bring up pizza from Totonno’s, just next door on Neptune Avenue. That Sunday, my great-uncle Morris, who was very successful importing olive oil, asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said, “I just love music.” He said, “My advice to you is to go into something with stability,” and I immediately made it mean what I wanted it to mean. It was the first time I ever thought of being in the music business.
Anyone else besides great-uncle Morris?
I have to talk about Richard Gottehrer! It’s an acknowledged fact that without Richard—my partner at Sire for seven or eight years—there might never have been a Sire Records! Richard and I met in an elevator at the Brill Building: I was working at Red Bird Records, for George Goldner and [label owners and famed Brill Building songwriters Jerry] Leiber and [Mike] Stoller. The Brill Building was an amazing shrine, first to Tin Pan Alley and pop music and later to rock ‘n’ roll.
Our office was catty-corner to Bobby Darin’s TM Music publishing company, which had some of the best writers under contract including Rudy Clark ["It's in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)," “Good Lovin’”]. He was a great writer. Richard’s office was FGG Productions—Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer. We got to know each other, and just as I saw that Red Bird was about to disintegrate because George couldn’t get along with Leiber & Stoller, Richard’s partnership with Feldman and Goldstein was coming to an end. We decided to start Sire Records. Certainly it was one of the best--if not the best thing--that ever happened for me. It gave us both a kickstart. It broke up amicably because he wanted to go back to more producing, and oddly enough our paths never stopped crossing to this day. I signed The Ramones and Talking Heads about the same time Richard signed Blondie. He also signed Richard Hell and produced him for Sire.
I’d like to acknowledge and note that Richard was every bit as big a fan of CBGB and Hilly and that whole crowd as I was. I love Richard: He has a good, good heart, and is immensely talented and smart. He was the co-founder of Sire and then [independent entertainment digital distribution company] The Orchard, a great musician and songwriter—he wrote and produced “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy”—the latter was a hit for his group The Strangeloves. He also produced “Hang On Sloopy” by The McCoys, and wrote “Sorrow”, which was a hit for David Bowie.
Okay. You must say something about the incredible décor of your office. There are pictures of Bing Crosby, Tino Rossi…
I can’t have any pictures of my artists in the office because there are so many and I don’t want to slight anybody! I do have one picture of Madonna, but it’s a business picture from the night we started Maverick Records and went out to look at a band. There’s a lovely note from k.d. lang, too. But mostly memorabilia: Rudy Vallee, an Alan Freed Rock, Rock, Rock movie poster. Tino Rossi, who was a Corsican singer who teamed up with the great songwriter Vincente Scotto. Vaudevillians Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson, French singers Edith Piaf, Mistinguett.
There’s a signed picture of Jac Holtzman celebrating Elektra’s 50th anniversary, a Phil Spector Christmas poster. I love Phil! Lots of memorabilia: a very rare promotional Ramones End Of The Century standup. Old His Master’s Voice posters from many countries, 78 r.p.m. Victor and Columbia store fixtures. A picture of Roy Acuff, Caruso outside on the steps of Victor Records. Old maps of the world and Africa.
I believe music has no boundaries. There’s even a Japanese Polydor phonograph poster from the ‘40s, a “Memories Of CBGB” article from The Daily News, a silk scarf of the sheet music for “Keep The Home Fires Burning” written by Ivor Novello, an MGM Records wall thermometer, and framed letters from Johnny Ramone, Eddie Vedder, and John Frusciante all endorsing Cat Stevens’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’m a huge fan as well, and still working on getting Cat inducted.
It’s been a great run!
But you’re still running!
I’m not running, but I’m still in the race.
[A former longtime Billboard contributor and editor, the Examiner wrote the first book on the Ramones, Ramones--An American Band.]
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