Seymour Stein, record executive who signed Madonna, dies aged 80

The New York-born founder of Sire Records helped found Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation

Record executive Seymour Stein was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. AP Photo
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Seymour Stein, the founder of Sire Records who helped launched the careers of Madonna, Talking Heads and many others, died aged 80 on Sunday.

Stein, who helped found the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation and was himself inducted into the Rock Hall in 2005, died of cancer in Los Angeles, according to his family.

Born in 1942, Stein was a New York City native who as a teenager worked summers at James Brown's label King Records in Cincinnati. By his mid-20s he had co-founded Sire Productions, which was renamed 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 popularise, signing record deals with 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.

His most lucrative discovery happened in the early 1980s, when he heard the demo tape of a little known singer-dancer from the downtown New York club scene, Madonna.

“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 Siren Song, published in 2018, the same year he retired. Stein was hospitalised with a heart infection when he first learnt of Madonna, but was so eager to meet that he had her brought to his room.

“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.’”

Sire artists also included Ice T, the Smiths, Depeche Mode, the Replacements and Echo and the Bunnymen, along with the more established Lou Reed and Brian Wilson, who recorded with Sire later in their careers.

Stein was married briefly to record promoter and real estate executive Linda Adler, with whom he had two children — filmmaker Mandy Stein and Samantha Lee Jacobs, who died of brain cancer in 2013.

“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 on Sunday.

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Updated: April 03, 2023, 7:08 AM