Seymour Stein, Record Company Man Who Signed the Ramones and Madonna
The music mogul and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer talks about his faith in God, rockstar Kabbalah, and the soundtracks of life
I go to synagogue for the High Holy Days and for Pesach. I say Yizkor as much as I can for my mother and father and I’m going to start doing it even more because I recently had a tragedy. I had two daughters. My older daughter Samantha passed away earlier this year. She was diagnosed with brain cancer and she lived with it for 21 months. She left behind a daughter. I have three granddaughters. My other daughter, who lives in L.A., has two girls.
You keep repeating that you believe in God. Do you think that this tragedy has brought you closer to Judaism?
I don’t think it brought me closer but it didn’t bring me further away either, which is another option. It’s just another reason for me to say Yizkor. My parents both lived, not exceptionally long lives, but long lives. My mother was almost 80, and my father was over 80 when they died. So, it’s a decent life. But my poor daughter was only 40 years old. It’s horrible, but it hasn’t turned me against religion.
Why did you come to Israel the first time, in 1967?
I’ve always wanted to go, and I was spending a lot of time in England at that time and I had an opportunity to go to Israel. I don’t remember what the opportunity was, it was so many years ago, but I came and it was everything I thought it would be and more.
What did you expect?
A Jewish homeland—that’s what I expected. And it was beautiful. Tel Aviv was growing and growing right in front of my eyes. Jerusalem was exactly what I expected it to be, and I even managed to make it to Haifa and Eilat, which I enjoyed very much. So, I did the whole thing. I must have been here for a week or 10 days. When I came here for the first time I really understood that Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people, a place where if no one else will accept you and you’re Jewish, is a safe haven. It should always be kept that way and guarded and protected.
Living here it sometimes doesn’t feel like much of a safe haven.
Because you’re under constant threat?
Yes, of course you are. But so are we, in America. Look what happened in Boston a few months ago. Where are you safe? You never know what’s going to happen, but at least in Israel if something happens you’re free to react to it. This is your country. When you look at the pictures and the films of the Jews boarding the trains in Germany, like sheep going to slaughter—that will never happen again. Ever. And that’s what I mean by it. It’s in our hands.
You say Israel was exactly like you expected. Did anything here surprise you?
The food. I didn’t know what to expect, and I found that it was more Middle-Eastern than it was Jewish. It’s a much healthier diet than the one I grew up with. I grew up with traditional Ashkenazi food, which is close to what Polish people eat, so the food in Israel is much healthier. I like it.
You went into the music business at a very early age, at the end of the 1950s. Did you ever feel that being Jewish in the music industry is an advantage or a disadvantage?
Let’s put it this way: I never felt that it was an advantage, but I think you get judged by your talent or by your capability. I have no real talent, I have capability. My artists have talent. But I would say there are so many professions, especially back then, where being Jewish was a bit of a handicap. And there was no handicap in the music business. If you watch that show Mad Men on television, even the advertising business in the ’50s and ’60s is not a good place to be Jewish. Certainly the stock market. But all that changed. Now there are certainly no obstacles for young Jewish men and women going into it.
The entertainment business was always a good place for Jews, which of course isn’t the reason I went into it. There have always been a lot of Jews in entertainment: in television, in motion pictures, in music. And yes, there were always many Jews in the American popular music business. You can certainly say that Tin Pan Alley songwriters were dominated by Jews, like Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern. Even in the early days of rock ’n’ roll the greatest writing teams were Jewish, like Leiber and Stoller, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Howard Greenfield and Neil Sedaka. Jeff Barry was also Jewish, Ellie Greenwich was half-Jewish. Jews are great songwriters, they’re great entertainers.
Why do you think that is?
Because they couldn’t get into other fields. It’s amazing now that so many doctors and lawyers are Jewish. Jews in America weren’t allowed in those professions 120 years ago. Music is something Jews were good at and they could do. All immigrants into America tried their hand at show-business. The first wave of really good songwriters were the Irish. And there were great Italian songwriters too. I don’t think the Jews had any exclusivity in terms of musical talent. My favorite artists are black. I was weaned on rhythm and blues: Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, James Brown—who I wound up working with—Sam Cook, Ray Charles. The doo-wop groups like The Moonglows, The Flamingos and The Drifters, and also country music. Hank Williams was a genius. These are the people who influenced me most as a kid. I believe that the music that stays with you all your life and influences you is the music you hear around the age of 13. For some people who are more advanced, and I probably was because I started listening to music so early, it might be the music you hear when you’re 11 or 10. And for others, who aren’t exposed to music at such an early age, maybe even 15 or 16. But everybody has a soundtrack to their lives.
Do you know the Belle and Sebastian song, “Seymour Stein”?
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