NEW YORK — Seymour Stein, the brash, prescient and highly successful founder of Sire Records who helped launch the careers of Madonna, Talking Heads and many others, died Sunday at age 80.
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 a statement from his family.
Stein was born in New York City in 1942. As a teenager he 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.
He was obsessed with the Billboard music charts from childhood and was known for his deep knowledge and appreciation of music. He would prove an astute judge of talent during the 1970s era of New Wave, a term he helped popularize, 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 hospitalized with a heart infection when he first learned 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. Sidney Stein and his wife divorced in the 1970s and years later he came out as gay.
“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.