It may be hard to believe, but it’s been 30 years since Madonna released her debut self-titled album. The man responsible for signing the then-unknown twenty-something singer is chairman and co-founder of Sire Records, Seymour Stein. If you’re into popular music, odds are that you’ve heard of him. Even before Madonna, he was responsible for signing the kind of bands that changed people’s lives, like The Ramones, Talking Heads, and The Pretenders. He is popularly believed to have coined the term New Wave as a musical genre and is credited for breaking British bands such as Depeche Mode and The Smiths into the U.S. market. He is even responsible for bringing the original Fleetwood Mac to America in the 1970s, so no wonder he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
Born Seymour Steinbigle in 1942, Stein shortened his name at the request of his mentor Syd Nathan, founder of King Records (“He said, it’s Stein or Bigle or back to NY!”), who whisked the young Brooklynite away to Cincinnati, Ohio, to indoctrinate him in the record business while still a teenager, albeit one with some experience working in the chart department of Billboard magazine. In 1966 Stein founded his own label, Sire, together with Richard Gottehrer—a songwriter and producer who by that time had already co-written and co-produced unforgettable ’60s pop-hits like My Boyfriend’s Back and I Want Candy. From that moment on Stein was well on his way to becoming the record mogul that he is today.
Stein has known his share of tragedy in the past few years. In 2007 Linda Stein, his ex-wife and the mother of his two daughters—known in the tabloids as “realtor to the stars”—was murdered by her personal assistant, and last February their elder daughter, Samantha Jacobs, died of brain cancer at the age of 40.
With a 55-year career behind him, and a walking cane in one hand, Stein looked tired, but he’s not one to rest. I recently met him for coffee in the lobby of a Tel Aviv beach-front hotel, where he was attending a Warner Music international conference, held for the very first time in Israel, after flying from Glastonbury. Although he’s not so young anymore, and music has clearly changed, Stein is still interested and listening. As the chairman of Sire Records and vice president of Warner Bros. Records, he was eager to hear the Russian representatives at the conference (he believes the Russian, Indian, and Chinese markets are the ones to look to nowadays in terms of music) and to get back to his hotel-room because he hadn’t answered any of his emails for two days. But first, he wanted to talk about his faith in God and his deep connection to Judaism.
I assume this isn’t your first time in Israel.
No, I’ve been here many times. The first time I was here was in 1967, two months before the war, I think it was. And I’ve been here many times since, probably six or seven times.
Business or pleasure?
Very little business, although I did record Ofra Haza. I put out two singles by her and an album, and both of the singles went to No. 1 on the Dance charts. I love Israel. I’m very Jewish, I’m very proud of it. I wear it like a badge. I’m not really Orthodox but I’m a very strong believer in Judaism and Jewish tradition. It’s deep, deep in my heart. I believe very strongly in God.
How does this go with the rock business?
I think it goes perfect. But you know, I don’t look for approval and I don’t look for disapproval. I do what I do.
It’s been 30 years since Madonna’s first album, which of course you were responsible for. How did that happen?
This wasn’t at the beginning of my career. I already had Sire Records, which was moderately successful. I already had some very important bands before I signed her—The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Pretenders. I had another company that had all the original Fleetwood Mac recordings, so Madonna wasn’t my first big artist. I got involved with her through a club DJ named Mark Kamins, who I liked and I thought had a lot of talent. I gave him some work remixing records. He wanted to be a producer and he wanted me to give him one of my artists to produce. I told him, “I don’t give my artists to anybody. Usually they pick the producer. I try to give my artists as much artistic freedom as possible, within reason. I couldn’t recommend you because you have no track record. If you want to be a producer you have to find an artist and bring him or her or it—if it’s a band—to me. Then if I like the artist you can produce them.” He brought me a couple of things that were very good but not good enough to sign. The third artist he brought me was Madonna. I was in the hospital at the time. I had to be there for a month, I had an infection. The Walkman had just recently come out, so I had the demo sent right over to me. I loved it and being a little naturally paranoid, in a very Jewish way, I said, “I want to see her right away, I want to sign her.” So, she came to the hospital, we agreed to make a record together and the rest is history.
Did you ever think she’d be calling herself Esther one day?
Esther meine schwester? Ahh … no. I believed she would be a star. People ask me, “Did you know then, in the hospital, that she would be one of the biggest female singers of the 20th century?” I would love to be able to say, “Of course I did!” But that’s not true and I couldn’t say that. But I always believed in her, because not only did she have talent, but she had a burning desire, drive, ambition, and a work ethic that is incredible. So, she had everything and I saw that in my hospital room.
Are you still in touch with her today?
Yes. I was at one of her gigs of the last tour. Warner Bros. bought my company and if it were up to me she’d still be where she was. But she couldn’t make a new deal with Warner on the terms that she wanted and she left. It had nothing to do with me. I don’t see her that much but I’m in close contact with her manager, Guy Oseary, who is Israeli and living in L.A. and a very smart young man. Well, he’s not that young anymore. He’s certainly quite young, but when I met him he was just out of high school. He wasn’t managing her then, but he became involved with her record company and he did an excellent job. It’s been a very good working relationship between the two of them.
What do you think about Madonna’s interest in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism?
I think it’s tremendous. I learned a bit of Kabbalah when I was young, not very much, and I didn’t take to it that well. But Kabbalah is not just for Jews. I think Madonna has done a lot for Kabbalah because she’s a spokesperson for it and I find it wonderful.
You don’t find it a bit strange?
Not at all. She was in it before the trend. She didn’t do it because it was trendy, just like she doesn’t help little children in Africa because it’s a trendy thing to do. She does it because she wants to. She’s not very interested in her own religion, the Catholic religion. I shouldn’t say this because I don’t really know, but from knowing her and being close with her my interpretation is that a lot of it had to do with her schooling at Catholic school and also with the fact that both of her parents were very religious Catholic and her mother was taken away from her at such an early age. Her mother died of cancer and she never got over it. That’s it. And then she just found the Kabbalah. I have several Jewish friends who have found Buddhism. Is that any less strange?
While Madonna is coming closer to Judaism, another one of your biggest stars was actually Jewish.
Yes, Joey Ramone. He was Jewish, of course. His name was Jeffrey Hyman—how could he not be? I knew his mother, she was a lovely woman, and I knew his brother. But we never discussed the fact that we were both Jewish.
Joey Ramone was the quintessential outsider. Do you think the fact that he was Jewish had anything to do with that?
No matter what religion he would have been he was an outsider. He was a sickly kid, he was a bit strange looking. He would have been an outsider if he was a Catholic living in Vatican City. But he was a lovely giving human being. Two weeks before he died he sent me a CD of a new band, as he did quite often. He was always trying to help people.
Do you remember what band it was?
No, I don’t remember. They weren’t very good. But Joey was always very giving of himself to young artists. I was also very close with Johnny Ramone and with Dee Dee, and in some ways the one I was closest with most of all was the original drummer, Tommy Ramone. He is a Hungarian Jew, but I never explored that with him. He’s a lovely, lovely man. I love the Ramones and I was very close with them. My ex-wife Linda was even closer with them, she was their co-manager for a long time.
Did they really sniff glue all day?
Not at all. The antithesis of that. Dee Dee had a drug problem but none of the others did at all. They were very clean. They didn’t want to go on the first Sex Pistols tour, although the Sex Pistols begged them to go, because they didn’t want to be spat at. In those days that’s what people did as a show of appreciation. They said, “We don’t get all this shit” and refused to go.
Let’s go back to your roots.
Both my parents were born in the U.S. My mother was born in Brooklyn, and my father was born on the Lower East Side, which was a big Jewish ghetto. They were very different. My mother’s parents, both Jewish, were not very religious. They were in the Italian food business, although they weren’t Italian. They were from Galicia, which was part of Poland, although my grandmother never liked to think of it as Poland. She thought of it as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which at some point it was. It kept going back and forth. My mother’s family wasn’t kosher or anything like that. But my father was Orthodox and my mother did all of it because that’s what my father wanted. And they had a very nice marriage. I also have an older sister. We lived in a very small apartment, and I imagine one of the reasons I got into music so early is because my sister is six years older than me and she was listening to it, so I couldn’t help but hear it.
I was born in Brooklyn, in Bensonhurst, which is an Italian and Jewish neighborhood. I had as many, if not more, Italian friends than Jewish friends. I went to public school, I didn’t go to yeshiva, but my father was quite Orthodox. The synagogue I went to was Shaare Tefilah, which was on Quentin Road and West 1st St. My father was the vice president of the synagogue, the rabbi was Rabbi Yechezkel Kahane, who was the father of Meir Kahane—the founder of the Jewish Defense League—and my teacher was Rabbi Rosenfeld—the man responsible for reviving the Bratslav sect of the Jewish religion. There must have been only 200-300 of them left after World War II and he revived the sect with trips to Uman in the Ukraine to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nachman. Thirty-thousand go for Rosh Hashanah every year. I went there twice, early on, in the 1990s. If I’m well and healthy I hope to go again, one more time.
Rabbi Nachman is like the rock star of Judaism.
Yes, he is. And you know, that’s me. Rock ’n’ roll is my life, so it makes sense.
Whenever I see young Bratslaver Hasidim, they are in a state of ecstasy, much like fans going to a rock concert. Is it like that for you too? Do you feel it’s like being a rock fan?
No, I just feel an attachment. I feel a strong attachment to Nachman’s teachings. If I had more time on this visit to Israel I would visit the man who’s carrying on the cause these days in Jerusalem, Rabbi Chaim Kramer. He lives in Mea Shearim, and I see him whenever he comes to New York.
What did you experience on your trips to Uman?
It was a wonderful experience. It’s hard to put into words. I hung out mostly with Rabbi Kramer. I was with really super-religious people, which was overwhelming for me because I can hardly even read Hebrew anymore. What I know I know from memory. I love the songs. This morning at the conference I sang Hatikvah to open up the meeting, which is different, it’s a nonreligious song, but I love that too. And I like all the prayers. The ones that I remember I remember very well, like the grace after meals. My favorite Holiday is Pesach because it has the most songs.
As a music lover, it seems your connection to Judaism is also through music.
Well, that’s certainly one of the aspects, but it’s not just that. It’s a connection to my father most of all. He was a great influence on me and a very religious man. On Saturday mornings when I came back from the synagogue I used to listen to Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom, hiding the radio under my pillow so my father wouldn’t hear. He wanted me to keep Shabbos. My father was quite strict in his own way, but I lived my own life. I knew from a very early age that the only thing that would make me happy is being in the music business and I was very fortunate. My dream came true.
Do you practice Judaism in your everyday 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.
Everybody has a soundtrack to their lives
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”?
How could I not know it? It was written about me. I’m very happy that they chose to write a song about me. The story behind the song is that Belle and Sebastian were a band I really believed in and wanted to sign. At the time I was very unhappy with where I was. I was at Elektra records and I was put into a position where I was working with someone I didn’t want to be working with. A woman named Sylvia Rhone. The same weekend that I saw Belle and Sebastian up in Scotland I had made up my mind that I had to get away. Even if it meant that I wouldn’t be in the music business anymore I had to get away, I just couldn’t stand working there with her. Fortunately that didn’t happen but I told the band, “I love you, I think you’re wonderful, but for personal reasons, and personal reasons only, I’m not going to sign you at this moment, and I’m sure you’ll get signed by someone else very quickly, before I get settled again.” And that’s what happened. And they wrote this song about me, about flying home from Scotland to the United States. It’s a good song, it’s a very good song.
Do you think it’s a song about disappointment?
I don’t know. There are many interpretations to the song. But I look at it in a good way. I know in my heart that I did the right thing and they didn’t suffer by it. They’re still around. I’m very dedicated to my artists and too many of them have short careers.
Did you ever make music yourself?
No, I never did. There was a time that I so badly wanted to be able to play a musical instrument. It got at its worst level when I met Richard Gottehrer who I started Sire record with. He was such a talented musician, and we’re still best friends. Being around him I just felt that I wasn’t contributing enough. In actuality I was contributing more, and I think he would agree to that. But the fact that I couldn’t play an instrument used to bug the hell out of me. For a long time that was my complex, and that complex was broken by a strange event.
On my early trips to the U.K. I met a guy called Mike Vernon. He was a producer at Decca Records and a very very very talented man. He was producing artists like Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, John Mayall, Eric Clapton. So, Mike Vernon says to me, “My brother and I want to start a record company, would you help us?” I said, “I’m struggling myself. Sure, I’ll help you in any way I can but you have to know this is like the blind leading the blind.” This is 1966 or 1967, I just started my company about a year ago and we’re really struggling, but I helped him and he was really grateful. So he asked me and Richard if we wanted to become partners with him and his brother in their company, Blue Horizon Records. They were doing very well already. They took off immediately because the first band he signed he put together and it was Fleetwood Mac. So I’m in England and he wanted me to come with him and his engineer, Gus Dudgeon, to a music festival to see new bands and maybe we’ll find something to sign.
So I went. I was sitting in the middle—Gus on one side, Mike on the other—and an unbelievably great band came on. I was blown away! I turn to Mike and say, “Hey, this band is great! We should sign them up to Blue Horizon immediately!” He says, “Seymour, I don’t want any bands with flautists in them.” I didn’t know what he meant. I didn’t know what a flautist was, I thought that maybe they were drug addicts or perverts. It sounds like someone who likes to get whipped. I didn’t know what a flautist was because we call them flute players.
Anyway, I turn to Gus and say, “This band is great! What is he talking about?” So Gus says, “I think that band is terrible. Can I ask you a question? Do you play a musical instrument?” I say, “What on earth has that anything to do with this band?” He says, “Well, if you played a musical instrument you would have heard all of the bad notes that this band hit when they were playing. They were so annoying to me, they were awful!” I said, “Let me tell you something. I always wanted to play a musical instrument and now I’m so glad that I don’t.”
Was the band Jethro Tull?
Yes. And that story got me so over wanting to play a musical instrument. I never thought about it again. I just think about that story and remember how lucky I am that I don’t play an instrument.
Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.