Seymour signed Madonna from his hospital bed

Simon Yaffe speaks to one of the biggest names in the music industry

IT is 1955, rock 'n' roll is about to explode and Seymour Stein wants to be part of it.

More than 50 years later, the native New Yorker is one of the most respected record executives in the business.

He is the man who signed Madonna, The Ramones, The Cure, Talking Heads and The Smiths, among many others.

Speaking to the Jewish Telegraph on a visit to Britain, the 67-year-old said: "I still actively participate in the music business. I am still out there, signing artists.

"Music is so important - it is the soundtrack to our lives."

Seymour is affable and chatty, but underneath it all his love for his job is obvious.

Now the vice-president of Warner Bros Records, Seymour's early zest for music meant that he risked his religious father's ire every Shabbat as he to listened to the radio, muffled by his pillow.

He said: "I would go to shul in the morning and come home, go to my room and listen to Martin Block's Make Believe Ballroom.

"My sister, Anne, is six years older than me, and I used to listen to her music too.

"By the time I was six I knew all the top 25 hits off the Billboard charts, I could not miss it."

Brought up in Brooklyn, his passion only intensified and, at 13, he persuaded industry paper Billboard to let him do odd jobs at their New York office.

Seymour recalled: "I asked them if I could sit in their library and read their bound volumes.

"They started giving me little jobs to do, I wrote a few reviews and they gave me cheques. I could not believe it."

He could have gone to study journalism at college, but Billboard offered him a full-time job and he stayed there until 1961, when, aged 19, he joined Cincinnati-based label King Records, set up in the 1940s by Syd Nathan.

The 1960s were a golden age for music with most of the head honchos Jewish.

Seymour recalled: "There was Syd at King, Herb Abramson, Clive Davis and Jerry Wexler. It was a very Jewish business.

"It still is today, but perhaps a little less so."

It was Wexler - together with his Atlantic Records' partner Ahmet Ertegun - who persuaded Seymour to return to the Big Apple, where his family still lived, from Ohio.

He worked for legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller at the Brill Building, the hub of the New York music scene.

His mother, Dora, was not from an Orthodox family, unlike his father, David.

Seymour keenly noted that she "observed everything because of him".

Describing himself as a "true Galician", both sets of his grandparents came from the historical, Jewish-heavy region in eastern/central Europe.

He explained: "I never knew my father's parents, but my mother's parents, on emigrating to America, set up a food business in an Italian neighbourhood.

"They had to adapt, but Jews and Italians are similar, and they all got along great."

Seymour was barmitzvah at Temple Shaaray Tefilla, where the rabbi was Charles Kahane - father of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who later founded the militant Jewish Defence League.

Seymour recalled: "Meir Kahane was my cheder teacher and I knew him very well. He was brilliant, but a little obsessed."

He admits not to keeping kosher, but doesn't eat pork - and has been influenced by Brooklyn's Rabbi Leo Rosenfield.

Rabbi Rosenfield encouraged him to go to the Ukrainian city of Uman, where there is a major pilgrimage every Rosh Hashana by tens of thousands of Chassidim to the burial site of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

"It was tough, but I enjoyed it very much and the rabbi looked after me," Seymour said.

It is a far cry away from the rough and tumble of the music business, which he became truly part of in 1966.

Seymour set up Sire Records with Jewish songwriter Richard Gottehrer in 1966.

But the label really made its name in the following decade when the duo signed a whole host of names who would become familiar in households across the world.

The Ramones went on to become punk legends. Two of the band, Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Hyman) and Tommy Ramone (Thomas Erdelyi) were Jewish.

Seymour said: "I had heard a bit about them and I really wanted to see them, I had arranged to do so.

"But I got really bad flu and was very ill, I just could not go, so I sent (then-wife) Linda to see them and she liked them a lot."

He signed them and Linda went on to become their co-manager.

Later signing acts such as Blondie and Talking Heads as well as Liverpool's Echo and the Bunnymen, Seymour claimed to have coined the now much-used term 'New Wave'.

He said: "Before I sign a band or artist, there is usually a lot to consider, but to me it is all about the songs.

"That is why I signed people like The Ramones, Talking Heads and Madonna - I could see that she also had ability and unlimited determination."

Madonna Louise Ciccone is perhaps Seymour's greatest signing, going on to become a global megastar.

But his discovery came about after DJ friend Mark Kamins told him he should listen to a fresh-faced star from Bay City, Michigan.

Seymour recalled: "It was 1982 and because I was born with a hole in my heart, I had developed endocarditis and was in hospital.

"Madonna came to see me in hospital and we did a deal there and then."

She later developed a much-publicised interested in Kabbalah and Seymour said they used to chat about Judaism and its mystical side.

"I last saw her a couple of months ago and we are on good terms," he revealed.

The music industry has changed enormously during Seymour's career.

The advent of downloading may turn out to be many artists' death knell and, predictably, Seymour is not happy about fans getting their music for free.

He explained: "I was happy to pay for music as a kid.

"I did not have much money, so I gave up my lunches at school and used to go to the local barber college so they could experiment on my hair.

"That way I did not have to pay for a haircut - all so I could buy music.

"I treasure my early 45s and the albums I bought as a kid.

"I compare downloading to sneaking into the movies - if you do it once, that is one thing, but you cannot keep doing it."

And he is still signing acts up - his most successful being the Australian sisters The Veronicas.

Seymour is a self-confessed fan of Britain - and The Beatles. He said: "The first time I heard Please Please Me, I went nuts, it was incredible, like nothing I had heard before."

He will be in the Fab Four's home city in May.

He is one of the keynote speakers at the Liverpool Sound City international music business conference.

It will be staged around Liverpool from May 19-22 and will feature concerts from bands including The Maccabees, Delphic, The Fall and Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle.

Seymour has signed numerous British bands during his career, including Depeche Mode, The Cult, Erasure, Soft Cell, Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine.

He also signed and looked after legendary Israeli singer Ofra Haza, who died aged 42 in 2000.

Seymour added: "I adored Ofra - and Israel too. There is a lot of great music coming out of Israel at the moment."

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 under the lifetime achievement category.

Despite a wonderful life and with friends including Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John and Brian Wilson, tragedy struck Seymour in 2007 when ex-wife Linda was murdered.

Last week, Linda's personal assistant Natavia Lowery was convicted in a New York court of bludgeoning her boss to death.

Speaking candidly, Seymour said: "We had a better relationship after we were divorced - we were better as friends than husband and wife.

"I had to testify at the trial and the whole thing was horrible. Linda had just beaten cancer.

"She was murdered on the Tuesday and we were supposed to be going to dinner on the Thursday.

"I think about her all the time and she loved Britain too.

"Obviously it has affected our daughters, Samantha and Mandy, the most."

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph