Seymour Stein, Jewish record mogul who signed Madonna, Talking Heads, dies at 80

Music executive co-founded Sire Records, also inked deals with The Ramones and The Pretenders, said he felt pressured to stay in closet due to Judaism

Seymour Stein accepts his award during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, in New York, March 14, 2005. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson/File)
Seymour Stein accepts his award during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, in New York, March 14, 2005. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson/File)

Seymour Stein, one of the most influential music executives of the 20th century, who throughout his career frequently referred to his Jewish Brooklynite roots, died at 80 on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles.

The cause was an unspecified form of cancer, according to reports.

Born in 1942, Stein was a New York City native who as a teenager worked summers at Cincinnati-based King Records, James Brown’s label, and by his mid-20s had co-founded Sire Productions, soon to become Sire Records.

Obsessed with the Billboard music charts since childhood, he was known for his deep knowledge and appreciation of music, and would prove an astute judge of talent during the 1970s era of New Wave, a term he helped popularize, signing record deals with Madonna, Talking Heads, the Ramones, and the Pretenders.

“Seymour’s taste in music is always a couple of years ahead of everyone else’s,” Talking Heads manager Gary Kurfirst told the Rock Hall around the time of Stein’s induction.

As he details in his 2018 autobiography, Stein’s father became closer to Orthodox Judaism in his 30s and 40s, regularly bringing his family to a nearby synagogue, where he was a vice president. Stein wrote that his father stopped by the synagogue at 6 a.m. before working in Manhattan’s Garment District and then again after work on his way home every day.

He described the Jews of 1940s Brooklyn in detail in “Siren Song: My Life in Music.”

“We had every flavor of Ashkenazim — Russian, Polish, Baltic, Romanian, Austrian, Hungarian, German, and Czech Jews, including about 50,000 survivors from the concentration camps. We had lost tribes you didn’t even know existed — Syrian, Iraqi, Persian, Yemeni, Ethiopian, and even some Sephardic Jews whose family trees had curled through Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and South America…. [E]ach Jewish community was distinct, often with its own native food and language,” he wrote.

In 1966, Stein — who shortened his last name from Steinbigle on advice from an early mentor, the Jewish executive Syd Nathan — co-founded Sire Records, which would go on to sign and promote artists from a range of burgeoning genres in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s: British indie rockers like The Smiths and The Cure, electronic innovator Aphex Twin, the rapper Ice-T.

“He knows all the lyrics to every song you’ve ever heard,” said Chrissie Hynde, the famed leader of The Pretenders.

Along the way, Stein wrote and mentioned in interviews how he found camaraderie with other Jewish executives and stars, after having grown up in an era when Jews were implicitly banned from some professions in the United States, and found a haven in the entertainment industry. In his autobiography, for instance, he calls Lou Reed and New Wave electro-rocker Alan Vega “fellow Brooklyn Jews.”

“It’s amazing now that so many doctors and lawyers are Jewish,” he said in a 2013 interview with Tablet magazine. “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.”

Stein signed Madonna from his hospital bed, where he was recovering from an open-heart surgery in 1982. She would release three top-of-the-chart albums with Sire before creating her own imprint in 1992.

“I liked Madonna’s voice, I liked the feel, and I liked the name Madonna. I liked it all and played it again,” he wrote in his memoir.

“She was all dolled up in cheap punky gear, the kind of club kid who looked absurdly out of place in a cardiac ward,” he wrote. “She wasn’t even interested in hearing me explain how much I liked her demo. ‘The thing to do now,’ she said, ’is sign me to a record deal.’”

In 1975, his wife, Linda, encouraged him to look into The Ramones, a group of scrappy punks in ripped jeans from Queens (two of whom were Jewish). She would co-manage the band for a time, before becoming a real estate agent.

Stein, who later came out as gay, wrote that “the roles were a little confused” in his marriage and that he felt pressured to hide his attraction to men in part because of his traditional Jewish upbringing. “Just because I may have been gay didn’t mean I wasn’t Jewish,” he wrote. He and Linda had two children, and eventually divorced.

In the Tablet interview, Stein mentioned that he stayed observant, though not Orthodox, throughout his life. He visited Israel several times and worked with Israeli pop star Ofra Haza on multiple albums. In the 1990s, he visited the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine, a small town where thousands of Orthodox Jews gather each year on Rosh Hashanah.

“I feel a strong attachment to Nachman’s teachings,” he said.

Linda Stein was murdered by her assistant in 2007, and their daughter Samantha died in 2013 from brain cancer. Stein is survived by their other daughter, Mandy, a sister and three grandchildren.

“I am beyond grateful for every minute our family spent with him, and that the music he brought to the world impacted so many people’s lives in a positive way,” Mandy Stein said in a statement Sunday.

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