The Rock Star You Never Heard Of

I love the stories behind the stories of the music of our lives.

Seymour Stein was one of those stories.

When he died Monday just shy of his 81st birthday, we lost a man with one of the great “ears” for popular music.

The founder of Sire Records, and top record exec for decades, he signed artists ranging from Madonna to The Ramones, for which he made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

He never played an instrument, set foot on a stage or wrote a note.

But he worked at a record store in his youth, delving into all genres of music that they sold, and was told he had “shellac in his veins”. He did, it turned out.

Though it was not his preferred musical style, he developed a knack for picking out acts that would be considered “new wave” (he even coined the term, since previously such music was labelled “punk” and that sounded negative to him).

The Talking Heads, the Pretenders, Richard Hell, Echo and The Bunnymen and many more made their name on Stein’s Sire Records label, which eventually became part of the Warner Bros. conglomerate.

One day, in 1982, Stein was lying in a hospital bed, bored stiff. He asked his assistant to bring him tapes, so at least he could do some work. One of the tapes was a young singer from Michigan named Madonna Louise Ciccone, trying to get a deal and a break.

Her song “Everybody” so impressed Seymour Stein that he signed her deal with Sire from his hospital room telephone. “Madonna” did pretty well.

Nowadays, artists can and often do “drop” their music directly to fans via social media.

Once upon a time, though, it was men and women with that rare “ear for music”, like Seymour Stein, who connected us to music we would come to love.

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