How Madonna Became Madonna: An Oral History

Rolling Stone
How Madonna Became Madonna: An Oral History
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How Madonna Became Madonna: An Oral History

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.

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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.

Michael Rosenblatt:
And then we did the deal. 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.

Michael Rosenblatt:
It was great – there wasn't any infighting or any of that kind of shit. Reggie wrote two of the songs, "Borderline" and "Physical Attraction." The rest were Madonna songs.

Reggie Lucas:
"Borderline" has a stylistic similarity to "Never Felt Love Like This Before" [the 1980 Grammy-winning Stephanie Mills song that Lucas co-wrote and co-produced], particularly in the front, with Dean Gant's electric piano introduction.

This was the first record I ever used a drum machine instead of a drummer. And the bass on "Borderline" is an ARP 2600 synthesizer, but the great Anthony Jackson – who did that intro on the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money" – is playing along on an electric bass guitar, and they're playing so tight you can't tell the difference.

Michael Rosenblatt:
I remember telling Seymour, when he was giving me grief for being in the studio every day, that Madonna was going to be the biggest act he ever worked with. He laughed and said, how big is she going to be? My line was "Seymour, she's going to be bigger than Olivia Newton-John!"

Seymour Stein:
I dared to believe this was going to be huge beyond belief, the biggest thing I'd ever had, after I heard "Borderline." The passion that she put into that song, I thought, there's no stopping this girl. All of her energy – my God, I never saw anybody work this hard in my life. And then make it look so easy.

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Michael Rosenblatt:
During the making of the album, we would walk down the street and people would just stop and gawk. This is before she was famous. She just had that look and that vibe; there was no stylist working with her. It was all her. We'd walk into a restaurant and people would stop eating and just stare.

Reggie Lucas:
There's no way to get around it, Madonna exudes a lot of sexuality. She would curse a lot, talk about sexual things a lot in a joking way. She was more liberated. So you picked up her energy when you were around her. You could tell this was somebody who was going to work with being a celebrity well if she was able to achieve it. That's what she wanted more than anything. She would always come into the studio with biographies of famous movie stars from the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. She spent time studying what she was thinking about doing.

She'd really put it out there in the studio, and not in a self-conscious way. It wasn't crude, it wasn't coarse, it didn't seem like she was just selling a little sex to sell a few more records. So working with her, you could play off that. She's a pretty good improviser, on the tags – you know, the ends of the records – and on "Burning Up" when she's like "I'm burning up, "Unh! Unh! Unh!" me and the engineer were like "This is great, man!" So we're just like, "Madonna, do it one more time!" So we kept making her do it over and over, just to get off on it. But you hear it on the record; it's a very erotic record.

We had this really fun guitar thing on "Lucky Star," and then she had a meltdown about guitarists – she related an experience where a rock guitarist she was sharing the stage with turned up his guitar, and upstaged her with volume. So we never completed that version.

Michael Rosenblatt:
We finished the album, and I wanted another song. Something much more uptempo. I needed to get more money to finish the record. So Seymour said, "Take her down to L.A., have her meet the executives at Warner Brothers."

Reggie Lucas:
At Warner Brothers, when they first met her – Mo Ostin, Michael Ostin, Lenny Waronker – they said, "She wants to sing black music, so just have her go promote her singles at the black radio stations." Which is what she did. But they didn't have a vision of, "Oh my god, she's going to be an enormous pop star." Because she expressed an interest in black music, they said, "Oh! Go sell it to the black people, then." That's how she was visualized.

Michael Rosenblatt:
But once she went out to L.A., everybody started buzzing. I said to Lenny Waronker, "I need an up-tempo song; will you give me 10 grand?" He said yes.

That trip to L.A., Madonna didn't have a manager. We decided to get somebody based in L.A. to deal with Warner Brothers. So we met with Freddy DeMann. At the time, Freddy was managing Michael Jackson. So we go into Freddy's office and we're having this great meeting, his assistant comes in, and says, "Freddy, you have a call. Can you take it?" He says, "You guys stay here, watch this video, let me know what you think. It's premiering on MTV in about two weeks." Freddy puts in a video, presses play, shuts the door. Madonna and I watch the "Beat It" video. As soon as the video ends, I say, "This guy's your fucking manager." She says, "Yeah."

So I went back to New York with the money in hand and went to Jellybean [Benitez] and Reggie Lucas and maybe two other guys, and said, "Whoever comes up with an up-tempo dance song gets to produce it." Literally three days later, Jellybean comes into the office and plays me a demo of "Holiday," and it's like, "You win."

Lisa Stevens, co-writer, "Holiday":
Curtis Hudson and I wrote "Holiday" for the group we were in, Pure Energy.

Curtis Hudson, co-writer, "Holiday":
Lisa was playing [sings opening chords], but she was playing it like a ballad. It wasn't even in the rhythm of "Holiday," but I heard something. The whole melody came together in my head over a couple days before I wrote anything down. Then it just poured out of me. We played it for everybody we knew, producers, artists – everybody was excited. Kool & the Gang were like, "Wow, that's a smash."

Lisa Stevens:
 We went into Mix-O-Lydian Studios in New Jersey and cut "Holiday." Our record company said it wasn't a hit.

Curtis Hudson:
We already had songs that were doing well in the clubs, we just never did break as a pop act. We played the Funhouse, the Paradise Garage, Studio 54. Jellybean was DJing at the Funhouse, so we met Madonna through him. When I first saw her, she had all these rags tied around her dress and all these accessories. I was like "What is she wearing?"

Lisa Stevens:
Jellybean told us Madonna was looking for one more song for the album.  He asked us if we had a song for her, and we said, here – we have "Holiday."

Curtis Hudson:
So we went into Sigma Sound in New York with Jellybean, and we had the demo tape in the studio, and matched everything to that. I played guitar on it, my brother played the bass, and we brought Bashiri Johnson in to do percussion.

Fred Zarr:
Jellybean hired me to put my own touch on it. I was using new equipment at the time. The Oberheim System, which was the OB-X synthesizer, the DMX drum machine, and the DSX sequencer. I was reading the manual while I was programming in the studio. It was very primitive, but it was state of the art at the time. It allowed me to sort of have 12 hands at one time – to program the drums and sync it to the OB-X and some other keyboards – a bass part on the Moog, some string sounds. Jellybean and Madonna came to my house, I pressed play, the computer played part of the track. They loved it. We went in the next day, and I overdubbed the piano solo. Madonna played the cowbell. A couple of days and it was done.

Curtis Hudson:
We weren't there when she did the vocal sessions, because she wanted privacy or whatever, so Jellybean said, "Would you guys mind?" We said, "No, if that's the way she likes to record." She didn't know us that well, so maybe with Lisa doing the vocal on the demo, Madonna didn't want to be influenced. When I first heard it, I was like, "Wow, okay, I've got to get used to hearing it without all the soulful riffs that Lisa did." But once I'd really listened to it, I realized it was going to be more universal. Since she was pretty much sticking to the melody, it was all about the song.

Michael Rosenblatt:
At that point the jig was up. Everyone knew she was a little Italian girl. We originally had a drawing of her. But it was a little too soft, so we decided to go with a photo shoot.

Carin Goldberg, art director:
When I heard the name Madonna, my eyes just sort of rolled back in my head. I thought, "Just what we need, another gimmicky one-name girl singer who will have one album."

We had a meeting, and she showed me her new loft.  we talked a little bit. Even at that time, she was not warm and fuzzy, she was very focused, very clear about the parameters that this was business and not a friendship. There was no pretense or bullshit, and I really liked that.  She knew what she wanted.

There was no discussion of what she would wear. On the day of the shoot, she showed up at the studio in her "Madonna outfit" and danced to her music while the photographer, Gary Heery, shot. I zeroed in on her bracelets, and borrowed more from Gary's girlfriend, added those to her wrists and told Gary to focus on them. They were clearly her unique trademark. The shoot took no time at all.

Michael Rosenblatt:
As soon as we saw the proofs, that it was it. It was just perfect.

Sire Records released 'Madonna' on July 27th, 1983. It entered the Billboard 200 chart at Number 190 over a month later. The album has since been certified five times platinum.

This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone: How Madonna Became Madonna: An Oral History
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