The broke dancer from Hell’s Kitchen
2005 saw the entry into the US Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame of legendary Sire president Seymour Stein. Many of you reading this will instantly recall his involvement in the official Madonna history, for yes, it was he who signed her to Sire Records on that fateful day back in 1982, whilst laid up in hospital recovering from heart surgery!
The story of how this happened has become legend and taken on a life of it’s own, such that even Madonna herself has become amused at the variations on the story of what actually happened in getting her signed up for a proper record deal. She finally gave her memory of how it happened in writing label notes for the autumn 2005 Sire retrospective box set, on which her hits Everybody and Like A Prayer featured:
“There have been lots of versions out there of my fateful meeting with Seymour when I visited him in the hospital over 20 years ago. It’s true, I was so broke that I had been eating on a dollar-a-day budget – so when he promised me a recording deal for two singles ‘and we’ll see how it goes,’ plus lots of Italian dinners, needless to say I jumped at the prospect. I was thrilled to be on the same label as The Pretenders and the Talking Heads. Who knows, if I didn’t meet Seymour Stein, I might still be a broke dancer living in Hell’s Kitchen”
The two-single deal was for ‘Everybody‘, the song Stein heard a rough demo of, and ‘Burning Up‘, a song Madonna had been playing as far back as in her Emmy days. As we all know, Madonna has remained faithful to Sire and on through it’s various allegiances with the Warner group ever since, something almost unheard of for a 25 year career.
When Rolling Stone asked Stein about his involvement with Madonna he gave his side of the story, providing us with a better understanding of how Madonna came to be visiting him in hospital.
“There was this great DJ, Mark Kamins, who I would follow around to whatever club he was playing. He wanted to become a producer, and I said, “Look, I could introduce you to some of my artists, but you have no track record so they’re not going to want to work with you. You better go out and find the acts yourself.” So I gave him some money, a budget enough to make six demos by six different acts. And the third or fourth thing he brought me was Madonna.
I was in the hospital at the time, and I had an infection. It was not life-threatening or anything, but I had to stay in the hospital and be on a penicillin drip. When I heard Madonna’s demo that he made of “Everybody” I got so excited, I said, “I want to sign her right away. I want you to bring her to the hospital.” He said, “I can do it tonight. She really wants to get signed.”
I got off the phone, and I looked at myself in the mirror. I was wearing the hospital garb, with the slit up my ass, and I needed a haircut, a shave and a good shower. I got a barber to come cut my hair, and I got my secretary to come with a pair of pajamas and a bathrobe. I wanted her to look at somebody who she thought would be around for a few years to help guide her career – not somebody who was in hospital on the way out. I managed to get it all together by the time she got there. But, to my amazement and disappointment, as anxious as I was to sign her, she was just as anxious to jumpstart her career.
If I was lying in a coffin on top of the bed and could get my hand out to sign a contract, she would have been happy. I’m glad I made a presentable appearance, but it was absolutely unnecessary!”
The mutual respect these two professionals have for each other remains to this day – she is quoted as saying “he’s more interested in the music than whether he’s going to get platinum records out of it. Every time he signs somebody, he’s taking a chance, and there aren’t many people in the entertainment industry who do that anymore.”
Every Madonna fan should be grateful to Seymour for having the vision to see just how far she could go with just a little help in the right direction.