I received a phone call yesterday from the legendary RCA Records producer Ethel Gabriel who was told by a mutual acquaintance that I was trying to get in contact with her. As I said in a previous post on the message board, Norma Camby (daughter of the great Living Strings/Living Voices conductor-arranger Johnny Douglas) had asked me the other day during a telephone conversation if I knew whether Ethel was still alive here in the United States. Norma, who lives in the UK, said that the letter she had sent to her a few weeks ago announcing that her record company, Dulcima, was releasing three of the Living Strings/Living Voices Christmas LPs (which Ethel produced) had come back to her in the mail because the address was no longer valid. I told her that as far as I knew she was still alive and living in the Poconos. Well, after we spoke I put a couple of feelers out and luckily one got through to her and gave her my telephone number. She called me up and we ended up having an amazing 3½ hour conversation! A big part of the reason why we spoke so long is that I have family in the music industry myself, so we had a lot of stories to share about the business and various recording stars. I’ll share with you some of our conversation, but first, for those of you who not familiar with Mrs. Gabriel, a little background.
The legendary Ethel Gabriel was a pioneer: she was the first female record producer in the American record industry. Her official title at RCA Records was VP of Pop Contemporary A&R. In her 40-year career she produced over 2500 albums, won 6 Grammy Awards and earned 15 Gold Records. Among the leading artists that she worked with are Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Perry Como, Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Chet Atkins, Al Hirt, John Gary, Kate Smith, Arthur Fiedler, Robert Shaw, Norman Luboff, Danny Davis, Floyd Cramer, Gisele MacKenzie, Roger Whittaker, Jack Jones, Charley Pride, Harry Belafonte, Marian Anderson, Henry Mancini, The Three Suns, Hugo Winterhalter, Ralph Hunter, George Melachrino, Walter Schumann, Morton Gould, Dick Leibert, Peter Nero, Neil Sedaka, among many, many more. She created RCA’s budget record label Camden Records in 1955. She also created all the “Living” groups that recorded on the Camden label and produced all their albums. The “Living” groups were The Living Strings, The Living Voices, The Living Trio, The Living Guitars, The Living Brass, The Living Marimbas, The Living Jazz, The Living Percussion and the Living Organ. One other thing of note; it was her 1955 #1 hit that she produced for Perez Prado, Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White, that kicked off the Mambo craze here in the United States.
In the conversation we had she had nice things to say for just about everybody, except a select few which I won’t divulge here. She said she was particularly close to Elvis and his mother, Gladys. In fact, it was Ethel and her boss at RCA, Steve Sholes, who made the trip to Elvis’ home in 1955 sign him to an RCA contract. She also had close personal relationships with Perry Como, Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Al Hirt and Frank Sinatra (who her husband Gus worked for). In fact, she told me that when her husband was dying, Mr. Sinatra sent autographed pictures to all the nurses in charge of his care at the hospital just to make sure he would be well taken care of. She was also a very close friend of composer Gladys Shelley, who wrote the great song Christmas Is Christmas All Over The World, which is iconic to the Yule Log soundtrack. She also had nothing but wonderful things to say about the three most prolific conductors of the Living Strings and Living Voices: Johnny Douglas, Hill Bowen and Geraldo. She said all three were perfect gentlemen as well as perfectionists in their craft; she loved working with them, and they with her.
Currently, Ethel is busy working on establishing a new museum of Woman in American Music that will be located in New York City sometime in the near future. One last thing: since she has not spoken to Norma Camby in quite a while, she had no idea that Dulcima Records is getting ready to release three of the Christmas albums she did with the Living Strings and Living Voices. She was very pleased to hear it.
As a result of our phone call, we have become good friends and plan on having dinner together sometime soon in the next few weeks.