Page last updated at 11:19 GMT, Thursday, 9 October 2008 12:19 UK

The man who signed Madonna

By Ian Youngs
Music reporter, BBC News

As the man who signed Madonna, The Ramones and Talking Heads, he is one of the most influential record executives and talent spotters of the last 40 years.

Madonna at the 1984 MTV awards
Seymour Stein says Madonna had a "desire to succeed"
Now 66, Seymour Stein says he will keep seeking new stars until the day he dies.

It was 1955, when rock 'n' roll was beginning to bubble up, that a young boy from Brooklyn decided he had to make a start in the music industry.

Seymour Stein was just 13 and obsessed with music when he persuaded industry paper Billboard to let him have a desk in their office.

He would go there after school, copying all their charts from the previous 20 years into a notebook and educating himself by working his way through bound back issues.

At school, he listened to music on a portable radio in class, convincing teachers it was a hearing aid and he was slightly deaf.

"When rock 'n' roll came in, I was part of it right at the ground floor," Stein says. "I was blown away and it took over my life."

Fifty-three years later, his industry has seen numerous revolutions in both music and technology.

But Seymour Stein is still there, regarded as one of the last old-school record men left in the industry, and with one of the most respected careers in the business.

He has acquired a gentle, grandfatherly demeanour, but has kept the sharp business brain and shrewd eye for talent.

Seymour Stein
Stein was looking for talent at Manchester's In The City festival
After choosing a job with Billboard over university, Stein joined King Records - which launched James Brown's career - before working for songwriters and producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in the Brill Building, the hub of the New York music industry.

Golden age

Stein fondly recalls a golden age of record labels, bosses, writers, singers and managers who have been long forgotten by the wider world, but who shaped music in the 1950s and '60s.

He started his own label, Sire, with songwriter Richard Gottehrer, in 1966. With its tennis ball "S" logo, Sire made its name in the 1970s after Stein signed the group that are widely regarded as the first punk band, The Ramones.

Stein had arranged to see them in 1975, but fell "deathly ill", so sent his wife Linda, a teacher, instead.

"She came back raving," he says. "I just drank so much chicken soup that I was able to go down the next day and hire a little studio for an hour to hear them perform.

"In 15 minutes, it was all over. They must have played about 15 or 18 songs in that short space of time. Everyone was awed by their demeanour, but to me it was the songs. I heard great melodies."

Seymour signed them and Linda became their co-manager. "They were the closest I ever got to a band because they were in my house night and day and they knew my every movement," he says.

New wave

It was at a Ramones gig that Stein chanced upon another great New York band, Talking Heads. It took 11-and-a-half months to win them over, but Stein eventually signed them in 1977.

Stein himself claims to have coined the term "new wave", which came to encompass the alternative pop acts like Talking Heads and Blondie that were emerging from New York at that time.

She worked harder than anybody. I just saw her perform in Berlin, and she still works harder than anybody
Seymour Stein on Madonna
"Punk was a great thing to some people, but punk was also a bad word to certain other people," he says.

"New York was the hub when I was a boy, and this was the new stuff coming from New York. It's so good, New York is back on the map, and that's what I meant."

But his greatest coup came in 1982, when a DJ called Mark Kamins suggested he listen to a new singer called Madonna.

Stein was recovering from a heart infection at the time. "I was in the hospital, I had her come see me in the hospital," he says. "We talked a deal in the hospital and we did the deal in the hospital.

"Within days, even before I got out of the hospital, she was starting to record what became her first single, Everybody, and we were off and running."

Madonna's desire to succeed "clinched it" with Stein, he says.

"I saw her staunch determination and I knew she would work as hard as I did and much harder, in fact. And that's what you need in an artist.

"She worked harder than anybody. I just saw her perform in Berlin, and she still works harder than anybody."

Sire became part of Warner Bros Records, where Madonna stayed until this year, when she signed a radical deal rumoured to be worth $120m (59m) with touring giant Live Nation.

"Being an Italian-American girl, she was made an offer she couldn't refuse," Stein says.

'Young at heart'

Today, Stein is still enthusiastic about his new signings. There are two sets of twins - Tegan and Sara from Canada, and The Veronicas, who he says are "the biggest act in Australia right now".

There is another Canadian singer, Meaghan Smith ("you're going to hear a lot from her") and a New York duo called Dangerous Muse.

Alex Kapranos
Ones who got away: Stein is a fan of Franz Ferdinand
"Musically they remind me a lot of Depeche Mode, and in terms of determination to make it, they remind me a great deal of Madonna," he says.

He has just been casting an eye over Britain's unsigned talent at the In the City music conference in Manchester, and still tries to get to as many gigs as he can.

"It's great to see things on the internet, it's great to get CDs in. But nothing can totally replace that live experience.

"I'm young at heart, and I hope to be able to do this until the day I die."

And he still looks for the same thing in a new act as he did 40 years ago, he says, with 80% of his decision based on the songs.

He has missed out on some signings - naming Glasvegas and Franz Ferdinand as recent ones that got away - but says he has very few regrets.

"This has been such a wonderful ride to me.

"To be a kid of 13 and love music so much and want to be a part of it, to have done this all my life and still doing it, how could I have any regrets about anything?"

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