Henry Stone on Seymour Stein of Sire Records:
“When I left King Records about 1956 I guess, Seymour Stein ended up interning there with Syd Nathan. He was a young kid. He must be about 10 years younger than me, must be about 75, or 80 by now.
He fell asleep at my birthday party at the table. He does a great imitation of Syd Nathan, loves to do an imitation of Syd. I became pretty friendly with him through the years. When he left King he was editor of Billboard for a while.
He penned the charts for Billboard in New York. I used to go up there and see him all the time. And then I used to see him a lot when we went to Cannes, France for the music festival. Every year they have that, they still do. It’s called MIDEM. It’s a big deal. I was going there since the very beginning in the 70s. I used to go there with my TK Productions. I was a big man when I used to go there.
I had the biggest independent music company in the world, and they loved discos and dancing in Europe. I used to hang out with Seymour there and he was just one of those real terrific real record guys. He found Madonna ya know, and The Ramones, The Talking Heads, and he founded the Sire label, that was his, Sire Records. I didn’t know him back in the King days. Syd Nathan and I had already split up. Syd used to talk about that son of a bitch Henry Stone. I guess he respected me as a good record guy y’ know. Seymour Stein’s a real good record guy too.”
Seymour Stein would be the one on the right
Stein’s signings — as noted in the text that accompanies his Ahmet Ertegun Award from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or his (abandoned) acceptance speech for CBGB’s Icon Award) — reveal a keen ear for talent in contemporary rock and pop: The Flamin’ Groovies, The Saints, The Rezillos, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Radio Birdman, The Dead Boys, The Undertones, The Pretenders, The Replacements, The Smiths, The Royal Crescent Mob, Kid Creole & the Coconuts, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, The Cult, Modern English, The English Beat, Madness, KD Lang, Depeche Mode, Aztec Camera, Everything But the Girl, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr., Barenaked Ladies, and Aphex Twin, along with the aforementioned Ramones, Talking Heads, and Madonna. Just as Cincinnati’s King Records helped give birth to 50s rock ‘n’ roll, this same scrappy indie label would then go on to play a significant supporting role in shaping modern ‘indie’ rock.
The same year that (future) music mogul Seymour Stein inked the liner notes for a Columbia collection of classic country hits culled from Cincinnati’s King label, Stein also composed text to accompany a corresponding compilation of King rhythm & blues hits that likewise would enjoy release on almighty Columbia’s hallowed red label, as one his earlier Sire Productions: 18 King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits from 1967.
LP of King R&B HIts remixed for stereo and issued on Columbia
Seymour Stein’s liner notes for the original 1967 Columbia LP, sadly, exceed my grasp. Nevertheless, I can only presume that Stein points out (as with King Size Country Hits) how this other batch of King hits represents millions of sales: 1956’s “Honky Tonk“ by Bill Doggett (although, “Part 2“ – the better side, some assert); 1956’s “Please Please Please” by James Brown, 1961’s “Hide Away” by Freddie King, 1947’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” by Wynonie Harris, and Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night,” a huge ‘crossover’ hit in 1948 — massive sellers all.
Also finding its way into 18 King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits is “Another Woman‘s Man” – a song from Joe Tex‘s first ever recording session, which took place in New York City for King Records in September, 1955:
“Another Woman’s Man” Joe Tex 1955
Musical personnel (according to Michael Ruppli’s The King Labels: A Discography):
“Another Woman’s Man”- would be issued by King on LP only: (a) The Best of Joe Tex from 1965 (its first time on wax!), as well as (b) Rhythm and Blues: 18 All Time King Hits from 1968 (whose running order, curiously, duplicates 18 King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits).
Seed Money for Sire: Beatlemania
Bob Mehr‘s well-researched Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements provides some illuminating details about Seymour Stein’s fascinating roller coaster ride in the record business, as detailed here in this passage about the source of Sire’s seed money:
In high school, Stein spent summers in Cincinnati apprenticing under King Records owner Syd Nathan [1957-58], whose biggest star was James Brown. Stein eventually would work for King full-time [1961-63], learning every aspect of the business at the company’s one-stop operation. Back in New York, he became an assistant to record man George Goldner in 1963, then in 1966 broke off with producer-writer Richard Gottehrer. Their label’s moniker scrambled the first two letters of their first names – SE and RI – to get Sire.
Each put up $10,000 in seed money. Stein’s funds had come from Beatlemania’s 1964 height, when Capitol Records in Canada sold a selection of Beatles singles not available in the United States. Stein had spirited a mass of the records out of the country, then offloaded them to US wholesalers, making a small fortune in a week. “The statute of limitations has passed,” said Stein. “But that’s where my share of the money came from.”
Seymour Stein would later acknowledge Sire as a tribute to “Syd Nathan and King Records,” as reported by Kevin Stapleford in 1998 for Album Network‘s “120 Influential People As Chosen By a Panel of Their Peers.”
A: Capitol US – incredible as it might seem – passed on the Beatles’ first Four 45s!
The Beatles on King Records?!
As far-fetched and fantastical as it may sound, had Syd Nathan’s negotiations with EMI’s Len Wood gone the other way, the first four Beatle singles could have all been released on King rather than Tollie (“Love Me Do“), Vee Jay (“Please Please Me” & “From Me to You“), and Swan (“She Loves You“). As Seymour Stein recounted in a piece that he penned for Cash Box‘s March 15, 1980 edition entitled “Sire Records Expands Through Its Lengthy Involvement With the British Music Scene” —
Moving on from Billboard to King Records, the Cincinnati-based home of James Brown and other R&B greats, I came in contact with Len Wood, then managing director of EMI, King’s UK licensee. At one meeting, he and Syd Nathan, King’s fiery founder, were heatedly debating King’s attempt to secure an option on all EMI repertoire it it was passed on by Capitol. Nathan did not succeed, but it was not until several years later that I realized how important this option could have been.
When I heard the Beatles’ first Parlophone record, “Love Me Do,” I was not overly impressed. Their follow-up, “Please Please Me,” was one of the most exciting records I had heard during the early part of 1963. I was really surprised, months later, to see the record released on Vee Jay, as I felt certain Capitol would see the potential for America, especially since by that time, “From Me to You” and “She Loves You” had followed it to #1 in Britain.
It was only Vee Jay’s subsequent bankruptcy and EMI’s wisdom in licensing “She Loves You” to Swan Records as a one-off that eventually secured the Beatles for Capitol. But Capitol was to continue passing on acts even after the Beatles breakthrough. They basically released those artists from the Brian Epstein stable like Cilla Black and Peter and Gordon, allowing the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, the Hollies, and the Animals to go elsewhere. Decca, having virtual control of its American company, saw to it that London released product by the Rolling Stones, Zombies, Moody Blues and the remainder of its roster. Pye, having no U.S. company of their own, would send their releases each week to the various labels they represented. At that time (1964), I was working with George Goldner, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller at Red Bird, and I remembered their scrambling with Warner Brothers for rights to Petula Clark’s “Downtown.”
Gathering organized by EMI during King’s April 1961 European licensing tour
[L to R: Richard Dawes, Hal Neely, Syd Nathan & Leonard George Wood]
Stein elaborated further in a 2016 interview with Music Ally:
I had built up a relationship with EMI when I worked for King. EMI distributed King in most territories outside of America – or licensed the music. I met one of the heads of the company, LG Wood. He told me that if I ever needed anything I could always come to him.
The Beatles were turned down twice by Capitol. They would have been gone forever if it hadn’t been for EMI’s American lawyer who was very smart. Vee-Jay had it first and they had it for three or five years.
They put out ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me’. And they didn’t pay any royalties. There were very few royalties to pay but they didn’t pay them. When EMI heard ‘She Loves You’, the third record, they said this would be the smash that broke them.
Capitol, believe it or not, turned it down again even though ‘Please Please Me’ had been a hit in England – which ‘Love Me Do’ was not. Their lawyer, a guy called Paul Marshall, was one of the smartest men I ever knew and he told them to let him handle it. He took it away from VJ as they were bad and didn’t pay royalties.
He called up Dick Clark in Philadelphia who owned pieces of labels and had his own label called Swan Records. He said, “I’ll give you this record without an advance and a low royalty – but no follow ups. In exchange, you can break the band.” That’s exactly what happened. Capitol got them back from ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ onwards.
Is it ironic that Syd Nathan’s former intern – rather than Nathan himself – found a way, ultimately, to cash in on the Beatles’ early success (see Seed Money for Sire above)?
It is also curious that an indie label notable for helping to birth rock ‘n’ roll released, paradoxically, few examples of 60’s-style “beat group” rock records, aside from the odd release by The Beehives, The Exports, The Impacs, The Viceroys, Tonni Kalash, Mickey Baker, Them, and Keith Murphy & the Daze, one of King’s last signings while Syd Nathan was still alive, according to Murphy.
One that got away — King’s closest link to The Beatles
- Check out Music Ally‘s February, 2016 interview with Seymour Stein that discusses the early days in even greater depth — and reveals that while “he loved working at King,” Stein ultimately “missed New York” and moreover, “found Cincinnati difficult”!
- PR Newswire states that Sire Productions, interestingly enough, first set up shop in “the old King Records [New York City branch] offices on  West 54th Street.”
- Essential reading: “Seymour Stein – Apprentice at King Records” from John Broven’s Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock & Roll Pioneers.
- Also worthy of ingestion: “Shellac In His Veins“: The Billboard Icon Award Interview with Seymour Stein — January 21, 2012