Ethel Gabriel, trailblazing producer and executive at RCA Records, dies at 99
By Terence McArdle,
True Life Media
Ethel Gabriel, a Grammy-winning record producer who blazed a trail for other women in the music industry by turning a sleepy corner of the business into a major profit center, died March 23 at a memory care facility in Rochester, N.Y. She was 99.
She had dementia, said a nephew, Ed Mauro.
Ms. Gabriel was one of the first women to work as a record producer and, for nearly four decades, the only one at RCA. She supervised recordings by the Living Strings, an ad hoc studio orchestra that did symphonic and chamber renditions of standards and pop songs and ran the record company’s Camden budget line.
As an artist and repertoire (A&R) producer, Ms. Gabriel chose the songs, the arrangers and accompanying musicians and supervised the recording sessions. Above all, she ensured that everything came within budget — akin to what movie producers do on feature films.
While attending college and doing music gigs as a trombonist, Ms. Gabriel took a job at the RCA pressing plant in Camden, N.J. She advanced to secretarial positions in the A&R department and worked on the teams that signed Elvis Presley and mambo king Perez Prado. Her production work came about partly because of her music background but also because of her gritty determination.
“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.”
Much of the RCA Camden roster consisted of inexpensive reissue recordings of such performers as Presley and big-band leader Glenn Miller. However, beginning in 1959, Ms. Gabriel produced the Living Strings, just as mood music was becoming pervasive in public places.
Businesses piped the syrupy genre into stores, offices and elevators — often with the dubious belief that its comforting blandness could motivate productivity or sales. The Living Strings were played on American Airlines flights and, with a list price under $2, their records also turned up as sales premiums for gas stations.
Ms. Gabriel spun off other groups: the choral Living Voices, the Living Guitars, the Living Marimbas, the Living Percussion and the Living Organ. She described them as “geared for a person who loves music but at the very moment you get too classy with them, it’s over their head.”
The discs often featured such uncredited but highly regarded players as jazz organist Dick Hyman and guitarist Al Caiola. British orchestra leader Johnny Douglas frequently arranged and conducted several LPs for her at RCA studios in London, Hollywood and Munich. But Ms. Gabriel favored the RCA studio in New York because of the echo they could achieve by running the sound through the men’s room.
Because no real orchestra existed — just a makeshift group of session musicians — RCA saved by not paying artist royalties. Even so, Ms. Gabriel remained keenly cognizant of the bottom line, particularly as the orchestra was being paid union scale.
“Working for the budget line, she could record a whole LP in half the time it took to record an album on the regular RCA label,” fellow RCA producer Mike Lipskin said in an interview. “Unlike some A&R people, she could read music and would have a score to read while the recording was going on. If she heard a mistake, she could stop and go back to the mistake.”
After Camden’s repackaged Presley albums became big sellers in the 1970s, RCA put her in charge of two other reissue lines, “Legendary Performer,” which focused on previously unissued recordings, and “Pure Gold,” the company’s “best of” series. She shared a 1982 Grammy in the best historical record category for her work on “The Tommy Dorsey/Frank Sinatra Sessions.” She was a vice president of RCA by the time she retired in 1984.
Ethel Mary Nagy was born Nov. 16, 1921, in suburban Philadelphia to Hungarian parents. Her father was a forester and metal fabricator, and her mother did ceramic sculpture.
As a teen, she studied trombone and later started a local swing band. She received a music teaching degree in 1943 from Temple University in Philadelphia and later attended Columbia University in New York.
She joined RCA in the 1940s, first as a finisher, putting labels on records, and then as a record tester, listening to one out of every 500 records in a sound booth to assess the quality. While continuing to play music at night, she worked as a secretary to producers Steve Sholes and Herman Diaz Jr. in the A&R department.
Once when Diaz got sick during a session, Ms. Gabriel took over from him and she quickly advanced as a producer.
“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.”
In 1958, she married Gus Gabriel, a music publisher. Ms. Gabriel once recalled that soon before her husband died of cancer in 1973, she walked into his hospital room and saw his nurses all giddy with excitement. A family friend, Sinatra, had given the nurses autographed pictures.
In 1984, Ms. Gabriel left RCA and invested her entire retirement check — $251,485.92 — to start a new music management company, Global Entertainment and Cultural Centers Inc. Her financial adviser, Robert B. Anderson, a former treasury secretary in the Eisenhower administration, told her the money was in a time deposit at the Bank of America. Instead, he had placed the money in an unregistered tax-free bank in the British West Indies.
When the bank collapsed, Anderson was convicted of tax evasion and illegal offshore banking. Because of a cap on the settlement, Ms. Gabriel recovered only $100,000, but was able to garnish an additional $100 a week from Anderson’s Social Security checks.
In 1997, Ms. Gabriel was honored as the first female A&R producer by Women in Music Inc. at their Touchstone Awards. More recently, an audio engineer named April Tucker discovered Ms. Gabriel’s story and brought it to the attention of Sound Girls, an advocacy group.
“Living Sound,” a film by documentarians Caroline Losneck and Christoph Gelfand that highlights Ms. Gabriel’s accomplishments in the male-dominated industry, is planned for general release in November 2022 — in time for what would have been her 101st birthday.
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