As reported April 2, 2023, Seymour Stein, Sire Records co-founder who signed Madonna, The Ramones & other legendary artists, died at age 80. Stein began his storied career in the music industry as a teenager at Billboard, where, as an intern after school, he contributed to the founding of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The following interview was conducted and originally published in 2015.
“I look at my schooling as, in part, my early years at Billboard.”
That’s how Sire Records co-founder and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame enshrinee Seymour Stein, who in January 2021 oversaw the relaunch of the Blue Horizon label in partnership with Fat Possum, recalled his industry education.
That upbringing included the unveiling of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the magazine’s Aug. 4, 1958, issue. At the time, Stein was a high school student eager to learn, and help shape, the music business, soaking up information firsthand from inside Billboard’s offices.
The Hot 100’s hot shot debut wasn’t front-page news, but it did make page two, in an editorial succinctly headlined “The Billboard Hot 100”: “On pages 36 and 37 of this issue, we are proud to present The Billboard Hot 100, the fastest, most complete and most sensitive index to the popularity of recorded music in America. This new chart feature, which each week will list the 100 most popular recorded sides, is a guide to potential, as well as the current hits.”
When the ranking premiered, ruled by Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool,” it encompassed “such factors as [radio] disc jockey plays, jukebox activity and record sales.” Today, airplay is still among the Hot 100’s data mix, with downloads continuing the form of record sales. Streaming is essentially a modern-era, digital jukebox, with clicks of a mouse having replaced the clicks of a mechanical arm selecting and dropping a 45 perfectly into place.
At the heart of the Hot 100’s launch was then-head of charts Tom Noonan, along with music-radio-TV editor Paul Ackerman and Stein. “Tom and Paul were great mentors to me,” says Stein. “It was such an honor when Tom asked me to help start the Hot 100.”
Similar to today, as Billboard wrote in its story unwrapping the first Hot 100, “Data is obtained and tabulated right up to deadline time” (with Luminate data figures having fueled the chart since 1991, and multiple streaming sources having joined in recent years). “Weighted factors in the carefully-designed formula result [in] the fastest and most complete guide to the national popularity of records.”
While the Hot 100 marks over six decades as the chronicle of American hits, Stein’s legacy has likewise become legendary. Sire’s first signee? Steven Tallarico. Then in a band called Chain Reaction, he’d change his name to Steven Tyler as frontman for Aerosmith. In 1975, Sire signed the Ramones and Talking Heads. The Pretenders followed in 1980 and Madonna in 1982. (“I realized, ‘This woman is smarter than all of us. Just get out of her way,’” Stein said of Madonna in 2012.) Other acts Sire signed in that formative era: Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Smiths and Ice-T.
In 2005, Stein was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in its lifetime-achievement category. In 2012, he was honored as Billboard’s first Icon Award recipient, presented to him at the annual MIDEM industry gathering in Cannes, France.
Here, in Stein’s words (from an interview first published in 2015), is his recollection of how the Hot 100 originated, how it helped speed up the measurement of hits, thanks to the inclusion of radio airplay data, and the story of how the chart’s name was (possibly) chosen.
On the need for a then-new chart: “Back in the day, before the Hot 100, there were many different charts in Billboard reflecting the success of singles in the marketplace [including] Best-Selling Pop Singles in Stores, Jukebox Favorites, Most-Heard on the Radio and Sheet Music.
“Then, there was an overall chart which was called the Honor Roll of Hits. This was a [composition, not singles] chart, because back in those days, there were multiple versions of just about every song. Sometimes three or four or more were successful, like in the case of ‘Unchained Melody.’ To show the strength of the song, the Honor Roll of Hits would list the points of all versions to obtain a position.
“Back then, jukebox sales were enormous. If a hot artist, like Perry Como, Patti Page or Nat ‘King’ Cole, with a successful track record put out a new single, record stores knew how to order based on their recent sales. But, in the case of new artists, and there were a lot of them in those early days of rock & roll, stores had no way of being guided. More urgently, jukebox operators needed to know quickly to get these new records into their machines.
“It was the jukeboxes, in particular, that first instigated the need for a faster way of making the charts. Fortunately, this was around the same time as the dawn of top 40 radio, and the Hot 100 used radio playlists from across the country weighted by the size of the market to help compile this new chart.
“It wasn’t entirely error-free or 100 percent accurate; remember, this was . I was just 16, working at Billboard after school. From the time I was 9 years old, I knew I wanted to be in the music business.”
On Billboard’s editorial impact: “As important as the charts were, the Billboard review sessions that picked spotlight winners of the week were even more important. If a record was accorded a spotlight review, it could stir the sales upwards of 75,000 copies by jukebox operators alone in the first week. Before the Hot 100, the charts were so slow, the jukebox operators couldn’t wait for these records to prove themselves and had to go by the reviews in Billboard.
“Paul Ackerman invited me to attend these music review sessions on Wednesday nights and even provided me with a due-bill to stay at one of the hotels close to the Billboard offices and that way I could get up and take the subway to Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. It was at these sessions that I met people like Syd Nathan of King Records, Leonard Chess, George Goldner, Lew Chudd of Imperial, Herman Lubinksy of Savoy, Don Pierce of Starday and publishers like Freddy Bienstock and Al Gallico, to name a few.”
As for the name Hot 100? “I can only imagine that what the industry was looking for was a hotter, quicker way of getting chart information. Tom [Noonan] could have come up with the name. I certainly did not. It might have been one of the reporters, or Paul Ackerman. I just don’t remember. Then we added star performers to show quick movement upward, aka, bullets.
“Reaction was, of course, positive from every corner of the music business. These were still the early days of rock & roll. Mitch Miller and Hugo Winterhalter were still the heads of A&R of Columbia and RCA Victor, the two leading majors, and rooting for rock & roll not to happen. Milt Gabler over at Decca was the first of the majors to embrace rock & roll and it was Steve Sholes at RCA who arranged to buy Elvis Presley’s contract from Sun; but not without first taking the advice of Paul Ackerman.
“Record stores certainly reacted favorably and radio stations, too.
“Through the success of the chart, more execs were drawn up to the Billboard offices, often with their artists in tow, whether it was for a story or just to say thanks for acknowledging their No. 1 position.”