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How Madonna Became Madonna: An Oral History

Three decades later, looking back on the making of the superstar's debut album

July 29, 2013 12:11 PM ET
Madonna
Madonna, 'Madonna'
Courtesy of Sire Records

Thirty years ago this past week, Sire Records released Madonna's debut album. Although it only created one pop icon, Madonna the album was the culmination of months of effort by diverse artists, photographers, executives and musicians. "The first new wave disco music," as one of her friends described it, carried plenty in its DNA: bouncy R&B grooves; traces of the last gasps of the pre-AIDS Downtown NYC culture; and, of course, the force of personality of the future Queen of Pop.

In early 1982, Madonna was 23 years old. In the four years since leaving Detroit for New York City, she'd earned her starving-artist bona fides, working at a Dunkin Donuts, sleeping in an abandoned Queens synagogue and rocking studded bracelets, ripped jeans and bleached, cropped hair. She'd traveled as a backup dancer for French disco singer Patrick Hernandez and auditioned for Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. She'd also gone into a Times Square studio with her ex-bandmate (and ex-boyfriend) Steven Bray and recorded a demo of four songs. With her music, she hoped to capture the attention of "the kind of people who might like Grace Jones." It was that hope, and that demo, that she brought with her one Saturday night to the Danceteria nightclub.

The 100 Greatest Debut Albums of All Time: 'Madonna'

Seymour Stein, founder, Sire Records:
Mark Kamins was the best DJ in New York. I followed him to various clubs – I didn't dance, but I liked the way he spun.  He could mix Portuguse and Indian music with whatever was going on in England at the time. I gave him some work to remix some things for me. One day he said, "I want to be a producer. Let me work with one of your new artists." I said, "I can't do that, Mark. You don't have a track record." But I said, "Why don't you bring me an artist. Then the artist is indebted to you." I gave him $18,000 to record demos for six artists.

Michael Rosenblatt, A&R, Sire Records:
Mark Kamins told me there was this girl who had a demo and was trying to get him to play it over the dance floor. And he was going to have none of that – he didn't play any demos. But he said she looked amazing, so I was trying to keep an eye peeled for her.

A friend of mine had just signed a group called Wham! They were about to put out their first single, but before they put it out, my friend wanted them to see the New York club scene. So I was taking them to clubs on a Saturday night – I'm at the Danceteria second-floor bar with George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, and I see this girl walk across the dance floor and up to the DJ booth to talk to Mark. I figured she had to be the girl with the demo. So I walked up and introduced myself as an A&R guy, and we started talking.

She came by on that Monday and played me that demo. It wasn't amazing. But this girl sitting in my office was just radiating star power. I asked her, "What are you looking for in this?" I always ask that, and the wrong answer is "I want to get my art out," because this is a business. And Madonna's answer was, "I want to rule the world." The next step was getting her signed. I had to play [her demo] for Seymour Stein.

Seymour Stein:
I was in the hospital, hooked up to a penicillin drip. I said, "Send it over, please." I listened to "Everybody" – it was the early days of the Sony Walkman – and I loved it.

When Madonna came by, I was caught with dirty pajamas with a slit up the back of my gown. I needed a shave and a shower. But I got it together to meet with her. When she walked in the room, I could tell she wouldn't have cared if I was like Sarah Bernhardt lying in a coffin. All she cared about was that one of my arms moved, that I could sign a contract. What I saw there was even more important than the one song I heard. I saw a young woman who was so determined to be a star.

I shook hands on the deal. It was a deal for three singles and an option for albums afterward. I would have gone down to the bank and withdrawn my own money to sign her if I had to.

Michael Rosenblatt:
It was Seymour that signed Madonna. It was simple. There was no bidding war. Nobody else wanted to sign her. Cut and dry, easy and cheap.

Seymour Stein:
I told her, "The first night out of the hospital, let's go out to dinner, you, me and Mark." But I forgot about it. I get back to the office, I get a call, it's Madonna. She says, "Where are we going tonight?" I said, "Oh my god, the Talking Heads are in town, I'm going to see them at Forest Hills." She said, "We'll go together!" I introduced them to Chris [Frantz], Tina [Weymouth], Jerry [Harrison] and David [Byrne]. David gave me a thumbs-up sign. He was impressed.

Fred Zarr, keyboardist:
Mark Kamins brought me in to redo all the keyboards on "Everybody." When she first walked in, I had my back to the door. I know this sounds corny, but I felt this swish of energy come into the room. I turned around, and . . . she had all the makings of a star. She had the style, the way she dressed, and she was very strong-willed.

Michael Rosenblatt:
You had this girl coming out of the new wave scene doing dance music. I thought if we were able to do it right, we'd be able to capture a lot of audiences. We'd get the new wave kids, we'd get the pop people, and the dance community. We'd be able to get everybody.

I didn't want her picture on the cover of the "Everybody" single, because I thought I could get a lot of R&B play on that record, because a lot of people thought she was black.

Lou Beach, designer, "Everybody" 12":
I'd never heard of Madonna before then, and I didn't get to listen to the music. Warner Brothers told me, "Do a scene of everyday people in the street." So I clipped images from magazines, and threw them together for the collage. I do remember being a little nervous about using the photo of the black-and-white dog from LIFE magazine, but finally I said, "Fuck it, it'll be fine."

Michael Rosenblatt:
Madonna needed somebody who could really help her with her vocals.  Mark Kamin's strength was grooves, not working with a girl who's never been in the studio before. That's when I hired Reggie Lucas, with an eye to giving an R&B feel to this dance/new-wave artist. He was having a lot of success with Stephanie Mills and Roberta Flack.

Reggie Lucas:
When Warner Brothers called me about working with Madonna, I was the big score. It seems ridiculous in retrospect, but I was an established professional and she was a nobody. I met with her at a tiny little apartment she had in the Lower East Side. I thought she was vivacious and sexy and interesting, and had a lot of energy.

I signed on to do the record, and then "Everybody" came out and it made a little noise. It sold 100,000 copies, so I was like, "All right! This artist became a somebody before I even started on the album." So that was nice, that was encouraging. 

Most of the people around Madonna at the corporate level did not get her and for the most part did not like her. You could see them recoil from her bohemianism. Everybody thought she was crazy and gross. I would never say she was a punk rocker, but she used to wear little boys' shorts, and white t-shirts with holes in them, and then she had little ring things in her ears. She wasn't the weirdest person I'd ever met, you know? I'd worked with Sun Ra! So after hanging out with the Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Madonna didn't seem particularly avant-garde.

Michael Rosenblatt:
While Reggie was making the record, nobody at Warner Brothers gave a shit at all. Madonna was just a little dance girl.

Reggie Lucas:
She was poor. She borrowed Jean-Michel Basquiat's apartment while he was in Paris, and so I spent a good hour and a half during the record meeting with her at Basquiat's place. He had his art up there, nobody knew who he was.

We had a fun experience. There was no committee rendering judgment from on high, because she was brand new and frankly nobody cared about her that much. And she had a sense of direction.

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