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R.I.P. Ethel Gabriel, First Female Record Producer for a Major Label Dead at 99

The RCA Records pioneer worked with Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, and many others

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Ethel Gabriel
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    Ethel Gabriel, the Grammy-winning record producer who became a trailblazer for other women in the music industry, has died at the age of 99. She passed away from dementia at a memory care facility in Rochester, New York on March 23rd, reports The Washington Post.

    Born Ethel Mary Nagy on November 16th, 1921 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she took to music at a young ago by studying trombone and starting a local swing band. Gabriel decided to pursue music as a career and set off for college, receiving a music teaching degree in 1943 from Temple University in Philadelphia and later attending Columbia University afterwards.

    Technically, Gabriel got her start in the industry while she was still enrolled in college. In the 1940s, she took a job at the RCA pressing plant in Camden, New Jersey as a finisher, then as a record tester, and eventually as a secretary to producers Steve Sholes and Herman Diaz Jr. in the A&R department — the team that signed Elvis Presley and mambo king Perez Prado. When Diaz was sick during a session, Gabriel took over for him and quickly proved that she could become a producer on her own.

    “We had a son-of-a-gun president at RCA who was not favorable to women in the industry,” she told the Lehigh Valley Express-Times in 1992. “He put me in charge of the Camden label, the economy line subsidiary, because it was supposed to fold. I’m sure he thought it was a way to get rid of me. Well, I made a multimillion dollar line out of it, conceived, programed, and produced everything.”

    Starting in 1959, Gabriel began producing The Living Strings at the exact moment that easy listening became a sought-after genre. Her impeccable timing popularized The Living Strings immediately, landing them prime placement on American Airlines flights, in offices, and on elevators. She wisely created spin-off groups — The Living Guitars, The Living Marimbas, The Living Percussion, and The Living Organ — and tapped highly regarded artists to bring the music to life, including jazz organist Dick Hyman and guitarist Al Caiola.

    After her repackaged Presley albums raked in money in the 1970s, RCA put Gabriel in charge of two other reissues: the Legendary Performer line that focused on previously unissued recordings, and the Pure Gold line that highlighted RCA’s “best of” series. In 1982, she took home a Grammy in the best historical record category for her work on The Tommy Dorsey/Frank Sinatra Sessions. Eventually, Gabriel worked her way up to become the vice president of RCA before retiring in 1984.

    “RCA assigned me tough artists, and I won my points on professionalism,” she told the New York Daily News. “The executives were surprised to see a woman in the meetings, but I said what I wanted. I had no family then, no responsibilities. I was vulnerable, but I didn’t know it. They thought I would get pregnant and quit. Being a woman has worked for and against me.”

    All told, Gabriel produced over 5,000 releases for artists including Presley, Perry Como, Dolly Parton, and Glenn Miller, among many others. In 1959, she became the first woman to receive an RIAA Gold Record, a feat which she would claim 14 more times in the ensuring years.

    In recent years, Gabriel has been honored for her pivotal role for women in the music industry at large. She was celebrated as the first female A&R producer by Women in Music Inc. at their 1997 Touchstone Awards. Over the past few years, documentarians Caroline Losneck and Christoph Gelfand have been working on a new film called Living Sound that centers around Gabriel’s accomplishments and impact as well. That documentary is currently scheduled to come out in November 2022, which would have marked Gabriel’s 101st birthday.

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