With her seductively catchy smash hits and signature style, Madonna had the competition licked from the start. As she turns 60, Event looks back on the dazzling rise and sheer gall of the Material Girl, through the eyes of those who know her best – starting with the untold story of the man who unleashed pop’s biggest and brashest plucky star!
I was awaiting open-heart surgery in New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital in mid-1982 when the demo tape arrived. As penicillin dripped into my heart, I slotted it into my Sony Walkman and immediately felt an excitement. I liked the hook, I liked the voice, I liked the feel, and I liked her name. I liked it all and played it again.
I reached over and called up Mark Kamins, the DJ who was hustling this new singer and her song to record companies all over town.
‘Can I meet you and Madonna?’
He called back and said they’d drop by the hospital that evening.
‘I know. I told her you were sick, but she really wants this.’
I hit all the panic buttons. ‘Get me a pair of pyjamas,’ I told my secretary. ‘Oh, and send me a hairdresser as soon as you can.’
Months before, Mark had started dropping hints about a dancing beauty who had introduced herself to him at Danceteria, the number-one downtown New York club. She charmed the pants off him, literally, and played him a self-made demo of a song called Everybody. He had reworked and revamped it and I was finally hearing it.
By the time Madonna walked into my hospital room, my hair was good and I no longer smelled like a farm labourer. Of course, she took one look at the tube stuck into my skin and squirmed. Not that she really cared about my predicament. She’d come to get a record deal before this old record guy croaked, along with his cheque-signing hand.
She was all dolled up in cheap punky gear, a club kid who looked absurdly out of place in a cardiac ward. She wasn’t even interested in hearing me say how much I liked her demo. ‘The thing to do now,’ she said, ‘is sign me to a record deal.’ She then opened her arms and laughed. ‘Take me, I’m yours!’
She didn’t take long to cut through the smalltalk. ‘And now,’ she said, ‘you give me the money.’
‘What?’ I snapped, a little irritated. I had no idea she was broke and hoping to leave the hospital with a cheque.
‘Look, just tell me what I have to do to get a f***ing record deal in this town!’ she hit back, sounding deflated.
‘Don’t worry, you’ve got a deal,’ I said.
Lots of people have written about Madonna’s natural star power, and it’s absolutely true that when she was still a complete unknown she oozed a dazzling aura that even a hardened – and gay – veteran like me wasn’t immune to.
I’m a record business entrepreneur, the man who signed the Ramones, Talking Heads and The Pretenders, and shipped into America a whole bloodline of British bands, from Depeche Mode to The Smiths and Seal. My label, Sire, was by then a part of Warner Bros, and my business was turning great music into hit records.
The deal we agreed was modest: $15,000 per single, for three singles, with an option for an album. Knowing what we know today, that tiny agreement looks comical. However, all she had then was one clubby song that you couldn’t get on Top 40 radio. She wasn’t a musician, she didn’t have a band. To be honest, I was doing Mark Kamins a good turn; there was no reason to believe I was looking at a female Elvis.
The biggest joke of all was that I couldn’t even get the 15 grand out of Warner. I spoke to Mo Ostin, the dictatorial head of Warner Bros Records, while still in hospital. He said absolutely not. He told me I was signing too many acts. I told him Madonna was special, with immediate appeal to international audiences. Still he refused. In fact, he did everything in his power to kill the deal.
The whole thing was saved by Nesuhi Ertegun, the head of Warner’s international division, along with his brother, the legendary record man Ahmet. I tracked Nesuhi down on holiday and explained the situation. He didn’t even ask to hear the demo. He told me to rest up and, yes, he’d gladly pick up the tab. You had to love the Ertegun brothers.
Madonna ended up selling more than 300 million records for Warner. Over two decades she clocked up 12 No 1 singles, 48 Top 10s and eight No 1 albums, and all that’s just in the US alone. Madonna is as big as it gets, up there with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles and Michael Jackson. So let me just repeat that detail for posterity: had Mo got his way, Madonna would not have been signed to Warner Bros. Of course, when she broke worldwide, Mo quickly claimed her for himself.
I break out in a rash whenever I hear the myth that Madonna somehow slept her way to the top. Trust me, no big shot picked her up and sprinkled her with stardust. I certainly didn’t know then just how big she would be, but I did believe with all my heart she would be really big. I defy anyone to sleep their way to No 1 and stay there for well over three decades. If there was a trail of whimpering, wounded men along her path to the top, it was only because various guys tried to hold on to her. But as they’d all learn, she didn’t need any of them.
The thing to remember about Madonna’s early days is that she was penniless in New York without a safety net. Just look at her early photos; it’s all dime-store junk, wristbands, hairspray, heavy make-up. She was certainly a looker, but I was not interested in her appearance. What I heard was something in her voice, and a personality that drew in disciples and over time gathered an army. Each studio collaboration bore at least one great tune, every photo-shoot produced at least one knockout image, every record company meeting converted new believers. She kept raising the stakes until a growing number of voices started agreeing that, hell yeah, this hot chick should maybe be given a bigger break.
Holiday got inside the Top 20 in January 1984 and was technically the first hit. The big bang, however, turned out to be Borderline, the fifth single. There really was no stopping her from that point on. It was Madonna who asked if Nile Rodgers, who had seen blockbuster success with Chic, David Bowie and Duran Duran, could produce her second album, and a very smart choice that was – although it nearly blew the lid off the Warner boardroom.
Nile smoothly declined a three per cent royalty, offering to accept two per cent on sales up to two million, or six per cent on everything if the album sold more. When the top brass showed me the deal, I couldn’t believe they’d let this happen.
‘Are you guys crazy?’ I gasped. ‘With a producer like Nile Rodgers, Madonna is definitely going to sell two million.’
‘Well, Madonna will have to pay,’ they said bluntly. This meant short-changing Madonna so that Nile’s cut would be sliced out of hers.
Warner’s problem, however, was that Madonna had recently appointed Allen Grubman, the toughest showbusiness lawyer in New York. And when the Like A Virgin album came out in November 1984, it sold six million copies almost immediately.
Mo, who hadn’t been interested until then, read the numbers and hit the roof. But with Grubman limbering up in the background, I knew how much s*** was going to fly.
When Grubman entered the room, it was like a wrestler stepping into the ring. He was a heavyweight Brooklyn Jew who delivered every legal slam in filthy language and personal insults. ‘The artists did their jobs. You f***ed up. So now you wanna f*** Madonna.’ He’d come to repel them into submission.
When Mo could physically take no more, Grubman stood up to exit the battle scene. Everyone knew the score. From here on in, Warner was going to accept pretty much whatever Madonna wanted.
She was in charge now.
Excerpts from Siren Song: My Life in Music by Seymour Stein via Daily Mail