Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein was indisputably one of the greatest music executives of all time, with a career that spanned six decades and a rare ear for talent that led Madonna, Talking Heads, Lou Reed, Ice-T, Depeche Mode, the Pretenders, the Smiths, and many others to his label. Stein, who died on April 2 at the age of 80, is remembered here by Chris Frantz, drummer of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, who, with Tina Weymouth (now his wife), Jerry Harrison and of course David Byrne, signed with the label late in 1976.
Seymour told this story many times. His first visit to CBGB’s on the Bowery was to see the Ramones. His wife Linda insisted that he see them because they were something new and fabulous and she thought he should sign them, which he did. He was standing outside the club on the sidewalk speaking with [Patti Smith’s longtime guitarist] Lenny Kaye, waiting for Ramones to go on when he heard the support band begin to play. “When my love stands next to your love….”
Something clicked in Seymour’s head and he said to Lenny, “Who’s that?” “Oh, that’s Talking Heads.” To hear Seymour tell it, the music attracted him like a snake charmer and he felt a surge of excitement and hurried inside and rushed down the length of the club to stand in front of the stage. He felt mesmerized. As he watched the young trio play their half hour set he fell absolutely in love. He offered to help Tina take her gear off the stage and told us we had he’d to be on his label, Sire Records.
We asked Seymour to call us the following day, he did and we set up a meeting at our Chrystie Street loft where Tina, David and I lived and rehearsed. We explained to Seymour that we didn’t feel ready to make a record yet. We had recorded a few demos and they were interesting, but didn’t hold up to repeated listening. Seymour was disappointed but we said we would keep in touch.
One and a half years later, still a trio, we finally felt the time was right to make a record. Seymour was ecstatic. We made a deal with him and he took us down to Patrissy’s, a classic Italian restaurant in Little Italy, where he regaled us with music business stories about his days at Billboard, working with James Brown at Syd Nathan’s King Records and how he had founded Sire with the great writer and producer Richard Gottehrer.
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Seymour was a good match for us. He understood us and accepted our eccentricities. He liked that we were smart and knew about art. Not very many record company guys understood or even cared about Talking Heads at that time, but Seymour believed in us from the beginning and his support never wavered.
Seymour was not only a great record man, he was a true musicologist. It seemed he remembered every song ever recorded and he would sing them out loud. His voice was something else: You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Seymour sing one of your own songs to you. Music was his true love.
Seymour was a collector of art and antiques. Some people say he was also a collector of bands. There is some truth to that. He loved the chase and traveled the world, particularly England, in search of new bands. He could recognize a diamond in the rough. That’s why he had a stable of such great bands on Sire. He discovered and signed them before anybody else had even heard of them.
There was some serious resistance on the part of American radio to play Punk music. Program directors would say, “Oh, we don’t play punk music. We only play good music,” and because we came out of CBGB and had a song called “Psycho Killer,” they assumed we were punk. Seymour had an idea. Inspired by French Nouvelle Vague cinema he coined the term “New Wave.” He said, “Talking Heads are not punk. Talking Heads are New Wave,” and the radio guys would say, “ Oh really? Well, I guess we could play New Wave.” Before you knew it our version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” was suddenly getting AM and FM airplay.
One of my favorite times with Seymour was when he, Linda and his right hand man Ken Kushnick came to our wedding in the tiny village of Old Washington, Kentucky. Seymour had a ball. Of course, he was able tie in a visit to his old stomping grounds at King Records in Cincinnati. Talking Heads had just returned from our historic tour of Europe and the UK supporting the Ramones. Our first album was not even out yet but the buzz was good. All of us, especially Seymour, were feeling good about the way things were going. Seymour came to the wedding in a white suit, white shirt, white tie and white shoes. He was a real dandy that day and Linda, also dressed in white, was lovely, too. At the reception, because we were in Kentucky and he’d had few mint juleps, Seymour was inspired to sing us his repertoire of country songs.
We had so much fun together back then and though we hadn’t seen each other very often of late, we remember the many good times we had with Seymour in New York, London, Paris and Hamburg. We also remember how much he lived and loved the music. He was our champion from the beginning to the end and for that, Seymour, we thank you.
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