April 14, 2021

Record Producer Pioneer Ethel Gabriel Dies at Age 99

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The name Ethel Gabriel probably means very little to the average Rock fan. She was a true pioneer in the record business and should be remembered.

Ethel was born and raised in the Philadelphia area. As a young, accomplished musician she started her own band at age 13. Her instrument was the Trombone and the music her band played was that of the great big band bands of her youth like Glenn Miller. That led to playing in the Philadelphia Women’s Symphony Orchestra at a very early age.

While studying music at Temple University a relative got her a job working at the RCA plant in Camden, New Jersey. At first, it was just a part time job that she needed to help pay for tuition and living expenses. Little did she know then that this part time job would eventually become a lifelong career.

Her first job at RCA was putting the labels on the records and packing them for shipping. Soon, because she had a good ear, Ethel was promoted to record tester. A record tester would listen to one out of 500 records to see if the quality was good enough to ship. Among those things that needed to be checked was to be sure there were no scratches and the label was correct. This gave her exposure to all kinds of music.

The recording studios were close to the plant. Ethel would go there in her spare time and watch how records were produced. She starting to bring her trombone to work and was able to get some work playing on recording sessions.

After graduating from Temple, she was promoted to being the assistant to the manager for the RCA A&R department. Her whole life soon became working and playing in the studio learning everything she could.

Back then, there were no women producers. It was extremely hard to break into the “men’s club”, but over time she did. She was instrumental in signing many of the big name acts for RCA like Dolly Parton, Harry Belafonte, Eddie Fisher, Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka and many others. She was even present when RCA signed Elvis Presley to a contract.

Not everyone was happy to see a woman succeed in the business. Some didn’t want to see the first woman record producer make a name for herself. It is suspected that her boss, under the pretense of giving her a promotion, made her head of the Camden division of RCA. That division was so unprofitable that it was just about to be discontinued. It was thought that it would be a good way to get rid of her.

If that was the plan, it certainly backfired. Gabriel not only saved the label, but her signing of International artists, made the label a multimillion dollar operation. The Mexican Perez Prado was one of her best finds. His song “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” was number one of the US charts for ten straight weeks.

Instead of being out, Ethel was very much in for the expansion of RCA. She was instrumental in creating a studio in Nashville. Gabriel was in the forefront of experimenting with stereo and echo chambers. She supervised the first stereo recording of Bing Crosby.

Not one to live in the past, Gabriel also was there for the many changes in music from Rock to Disco and helped launch many new artists. During her over forty-year career she produced over 2,550 records. 15 of them were certified Gold Records, six were Grammy winners.

In 1983 Ethel Gabriel gave an interview to the New York Times. She lamented that the role of record producer has changed and she no longer had the kind of control. It was no surprise that a year later she retired and moved to Rochester, NY to be with her family.

Apparently, there’s a documentary in the works about her life. It was hoped that would be completed by Ethel Gabriel’s 100th birthday in November. Unfortunately she died on March 23, 2021.


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