Seymour Stein, the legendary music executive who cofounded Sire Records where he signed the Ramones, Madonna, and Talking Heads, died Sunday in Los Angeles after a long battle with cancer, a spokesperson for his family confirmed to Variety. He was 80.
Stein cofounded the Sire imprint in 1966, where he also signed the Pretenders, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Soft Cell. Artists including Depeche Mode, Ice-T, the Cure, the Replacements, Everything But the Girl, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and more released some of their greatest work on Sire. In 1983, he helped form the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, which led to the Rock Hall, where he was inducted in 2005 as a non-performer.
“Seymour was looking for somebody who had something to say. When you take Mighty Lemon Drops, you take the Ramones, Madonna, you take Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, Ministry, Ice-T — put them together, it doesn’t seem like they go together, but they do. They all had an edge,” Ice-T said of Stein’s eclectic, yet hit-finding tastes.
Beyond championing then-underground artists that became chartmakers, Stein also encouraged rock acts to continue creating later in their careers. In the Eighties, he signed Brian Wilson to release his first solo album, and Lou Reed, who dropped 1989’s New York on the label.
Born Seymour Steinbigle on April 18, 1942, he first became involved in the music business as a teenager who showed up at Billboard magazine’s offices and asked to copy, by hand, every chart the trade publication had for every week tracing back to his birth. The editors acquiesced and Stein completed the project. After he graduated from high school, he worked at Billboard.
In the early Sixties, he worked at a short-lived label called King and Red Bird. (By the mid-Sixties, the label met its demise.) Stein partnered with producer-songwriter Richard Gottehrer (who worked on the 1963 hit “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels), and they formed Sire — an amalgam of their first names.
Sire’s early years were lean, though they did carry the stateside releases of Fleetwood Mac’s early blues material. The label’s first hit was in 1973 via Dutch band Focus’ “Hocus Pocus,” which peaked at Number Nine. Gottehrer left the label two years later. That same year, Stein’s then-wife, Linda, had just seen a band called the Ramones at a dive bar called CBGB and told Stein about them. The next day, he auditioned the band, and in 1976, Sire released their self-titled debut; Linda went on to manage them and the Ramones released 11 albums on Sire. Talking Heads were another discovery at CBGB as was Richard Hell & the Voidoids.
Sire was distributed by Warner Bros. from 1977 and acquired by the company in 1978. Sire’s juggernaut came by way of Madonna, whose success powered the label through the Eighties. Later acts signed to the label include Regina Spektor and Tegan & Sara. Stein continued at Warner Music, with the Sire imprint moving between divisions before becoming inactive. In 2012, he received an Icon Award from Billboard and retired in 2018.
Stein’s later years were also marked by tragedy: his ex-wife Linda was murdered by her personal assistant in 2007. In 2013, their daughter, Samantha Jacobs, succumbed to brain cancer.
Forty some years into the industry, he spoke to Rolling Stone about if he’d approach starting a label differently now versus in the Sixties. When it came to music, he said, one thing remained the same: “I still think it’s about the same thing that it’s always been about: the songs.”