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Ethel Gabriel the First of the 5%

 

Ethel Gabriel (1921-2021) may be one of the most prolific recording industry professionals you’ve never heard of. Ethel was the first woman record producer for a major record label, and one of the first women in the world to work in A&R. She had a 4-decade career at RCA starting with an entry-level job and rising up to being an executive in the company.

During her career, Ethel produced over 5,000 records – some original recordings and some repackaged – by nearly every artist on the RCA roster (including Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton). Ethel was the woman in A&R to receive an RIAA Gold Record in 1959, and the first woman to win a Grammy for Best Historical Album (1982).

Ethel was willing to take risks, such as producing the first digitally-remastered album or working with artists who brought new types of music to the mainstream. Her credits include everything from mambo to easy listening to rap.

Ethel’s Background

Ethel was born in 1921 in Pennsylvania. She started her own dance band at age 13 (called “En and Her Royal Men”) where Ethel played trombone. She originally wanted to go to college for forestry (at the encouragement of her father) but women were not allowed into the program. She decided to attend Temple University (Philadelphia, PA) and study music education.

A relative helped Ethel get a job at RCA’s record plant (in Camden, New Jersey) to help pay for tuition and expenses. Ethel’s first job included tasks like putting labels on records. She was promoted to record tester where she had to listen to one out of every 500 records pressed for quality. She learned every note of the big hits since Ethel had to listen to them over and over.

Ethel was allowed to visit the nearby RCA recording studios. She brought her trombone with her, playing with major artists for fun between sessions. She also learned how recording sessions worked. Ethel was secretary to the manager of A&R at the time, Herman Diaz, Jr. Ethel got to produce her first recording session (with bandleader Elliot Laurence) when Diaz called in sick and asked her to do it.

In 1955, Ethel convinced her boss, Manie Sacks, to sign Perez Prado to RCA’s label. She produced his record, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, which became a worldwide hit and helped bring the mambo craze to the US.

She was with RCA during the creation of their Nashville studios, the signing of Elvis, and their transition from mono to stereo.

Through Ethel’s career, she was willing to take risks and experiment with new technology or music. In 1959, Ethel launched Living Strings, a series on RCA Camden’s label that ran for 22 years.

In 1961, she produced Ray Martin and his Orchestra Dynamica, the first release using RCA’s “Stereo Action.” In 1976, she was executive producer of Caruso,’s A Legendary Performer, the first digitally-remastered album. The technology used by Soundstream Inc (lead by Thomas Stockham) has gone on to be widely used in audio and photography restoration and Stockham’s work on the Caruso album was the basis for a 1975 scientific paper. In 1975, Ethel gave a chance to then-unknown producer Warren Schatz, who produced RCA’s first disco album, Disco-Soul by The Brothers.

Ethel managed RCA’s Camden label (designed for budget records) starting in 1961. Camden was struggling when she took over and went on to become a multi-million dollar label under Ethel’s watch. Some of RCA’s major artists even asked to be released on the Camden line over the flagship RCA label because of Camden’s success.

Ethel received two RIAA Platinum records and 15 Gold records (over 10 million record sales total) during her career with numbers still growing. Many of these were repackages or re-releases where Ethel put her expert eyes (and ears) on song selection and label redesign. One album she re-packaged, Elvis’ Christmas Album, was the first Elvis record to reach Diamond (10 million sales). Ethel said of creating special packages (in Billboard Magazine Sept 5, 1981), “It’s like second nature to me. The secret is that you know the market you’re trying to reach. You can’t contrive a special record. It has to be genuine and full of integrity because people know the difference.” Ethel re-issued albums for nearly every RCA artist (including the Legendary Performer series, RCA Pure Gold economy line, and the Bluebird Complete series).

Towards the end of her time at RCA, Ethel asked the company to fund a women’s group for lectures and seminars. She wanted to help women learn to become executives. Ethel said she felt like a mother to some of the women she mentored (Ethel was married but did not have children). She wanted to teach skills like how to network, how to dress or behave. Ethel also became involved with Women in Music, one of very few groups available to women in the music industry at the time. In 1990, Ethel publicly spoke out against the “boys club” in a Letter to the Editor of Billboard Magazine (Oct 6). She said, “Yes, there are ‘record women’ in the industry – and they have ears, too!”

Ethel also worked with many artists and ensembles in the studio during her career including Chet Atkins, Caterina Valenti, Marty Gold, Los Indios Tabajaras, Teresa Brewer and hundreds of recordings under the Living series. She said of working with artists, “There are times to ‘harness’ artists and times to ‘push.’” Ethel said her most helpful qualifications to do the job were “her knowledge and love of music and her ability to make difficult decisions and hold to them.” (Cincinnati Enquirer August 18, 1983)

Ethel was not promoted to Vice President at RCA until 1982, over 40 years into her career. Many colleagues said it was long overdue. The following year, she won a Grammy for Best Historical Album (for co-producing The Dorsey/Sinatra Sessions). After leaving RCA, Ethel remained in the industry where she worked as president and vice president to smaller record labels.

Ethel’s story is being captured in a documentary film about her life and career, called LIVING SOUND. Production on the film started in 2019, when Gabriel was 97 years old. The documentary began (with the aide of SoundGirls) through uncovering archival materials and conducting interviews with Ethel.

For more about LIVING SOUND visit livingsoundfilm.com.  SoundGirls also has a scholarship in Ethel’s honor: the Ethel Gabriel Scholarship.

The SoundGirls Podcast – Caroline Losneck and April Tucker: Living Sound the Ethel Gabriel Documentary Team

 

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Profiles of Women in Audio

 

The Ethel Gabriel Scholarship

Applications for 2021 will open on June 1, 2021.

We are proud to recognize Ethel’s contributions to the music industry and for paving the way for future generations of women working in music production.

In honor of Ethel Gabriel, SoundGirls will be awarding two $500 scholarships to members pursuing a career in the recording arts. These scholarships will be awarded in August 2021 and can be used for educational training and university programs. The scholarships are open to all members of SoundGirls.

SoundGirls is currently in production on a new documentary about Ethel Gabriel’s career and impact. For more info visit EthelGabrieldoc.com

WHO IS ELIGIBLE?

Any member of SoundGirls that is attending or plans to attend educational programs in Professional Audio. There is no age requirement and includes college programs, trade schools, seminars, and workshops. Applications are open to all genders and non-conforming genders.

HOW TO APPLY

The application includes two short essay questions:

  1. Why you are applying for this scholarship;
  2. How has Ethel Gabriel inspired you? (400-600 words, please.)
  3. Application opens June 1, 2021 – Apply Here

DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSION

The essay submission deadline is 12:00 midnight EDT July 30, 2021. The scholarships will be awarded in August 2021, and paid to scholarship winners. Scholarship winners will be required to send proof of enrollment in the educational program to SoundGirls or scholarship money must be returned.

SELECTION PROCESS & NOTIFICATION

The SoundGirls Board will review essays and will notify the winners via email.

ADDITIONAL DETAILS

The scholarship funds awarded can be used for educational programs related to professional audio. Scholarships are non-renewable. You will need to submit proof of enrollment in a program.

QUESTIONS?

Any questions on the scholarship essay can be directed to soundgirls@soundgirls.org.


About Ethel Gabriel

Photo: Democrat & Chronicle Dec. 13, 2013

Photo: Democrat & Chronicle Dec. 13, 2013

Ethel Gabriel may be one of the most prolific music producers you’ve never heard of. Ethel had a 4-decade career at RCA starting with an entry-level job and rising up to become the first female record producer for a major record label and an executive role in A&R.

During her career, Ethel produced over 5,000 records and worked with a wide variety of artists on RCA’s roster including Elvis Presley. Ethel was willing to take risks – such as producing the first digitally-remastered album or working with artists who brought new types of music to the mainstream. Her credits include everything from mambo to easy listening to rap.

Ethel’s Background

Ethel was born in 1921 in Pennsylvania. She started her own dance band at age 13 (called “En and Her Royal Men”) where Ethel played trombone. She originally wanted to go to college for forestry (at the encouragement of her father) but women were not allowed into the program. She decided to attend Temple University (Philadelphia, PA) and study music education.

A relative helped Ethel get a job at RCA’s record plant (in Camden, New Jersey) to help pay for tuition and expenses. Ethel’s first job included tasks like putting labels on records. She was promoted to record tester where she had to listen to one out of every 500 records pressed for quality. She learned every note of the big hits since Ethel had to listen to them over and over.

Ethel would hang out at the nearby RCA recording studios (and brought her trombone with her to play between sessions). She got to play with some major artists for fun and also learn how the engineers and producers worked. She also spent a lot of time in the studio as secretary to the manager of A&R at the time, Herman Diaz, Jr. Ethel got to produce her first session (with bandleader Elliot Laurence) when Diaz called in sick and asked her to do it.

In 1955, Ethel convinced her boss, Manie Sacks, to sign Perez Prado to RCA’s label. She produced his record, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, which became a worldwide hit and helped bring the mambo craze to the US.

She was with RCA during the creation of their Nashville studios, the signing of Elvis, and their transition from mono to stereo.

Through Ethel’s career, she was willing to take risks and experiment with new technology or music. In 1959, Ethel launched Living Strings, a series on RCA Camden’s label that ran for 22 years.

In 1961, she produced Ray Martin and his Orchestra Dynamica, the first release using RCA’s “Stereo Action.” In 1976, she was executive producer of Caruso,’s A Legendary Performer, the first digitally-remastered album. The technology used by Soundstream Inc (lead by Thomas Stockham) has gone on to be widely used in audio and photography restoration and Stockham’s work on the Caruso album was the basis for a 1975 scientific paper. In 1975, Ethel gave a chance to then-unknown producer Warren Schatz, who produced RCA’s first disco album, Disco-Soul by The Brothers.

Ethel also helmed RCA’s Camden label (designed for budget records). Camden was struggling when she took over in 1961 and had a sales volume increase of 100% over two years. Camden went on to become a multi-million dollar label under Ethel’s watch. Some of RCA’s major artists even asked to be released on the Camden line over the flagship RCA label because of Camden’s success.

During her career, Ethel received two RIAA Platinum records and 15 Gold records (over 10 million record sales) and her albums continue to sell. Many of these were repackages or re-releases where Ethel put her expert eyes (and ears) on song selection and label redesign. One album she re-packaged, Elvis’ Christmas Album, was the first Elvis record to reach Diamond (10 million sales). Ethel said of creating special packages (in Billboard Magazine Sept 5, 1981), “It’s like second nature to me. The secret is that you know the market you’re trying to reach. You can’t contrive a special record. It has to be genuine and full of integrity because people know the difference.” Ethel re-issued albums for nearly every RCA artist (including the Legendary Performer series, RCA Pure Gold economy line, and the Bluebird Complete series).

Towards the end of her time at RCA, Ethel asked the company to fund a women’s group for lectures and seminars. She wanted to help women learn to become executives. Ethel said she felt like a mother to some of the women she mentored (Ethel was married but did not have children). She wanted to teach skills like how to network, how to dress or behave. Ethel also became involved with Women in Music, one of very few groups available to women in the music industry at the time. In 1990, Ethel publicly spoke out against the “boys club” in a Letter to the Editor of Billboard Magazine (Oct 6). She said, “Yes, there are ‘record women’ in the industry – and they have ears, too!”

Ethel also worked with many artists and ensembles in the studio during her career including Chet Atkins, Caterina Valenti, Marty Gold, Los Indios Tabajaras, Teresa Brewer and the entire Living series recordings. She said of working with artists, “There are times to ‘harness’ artists and times to ‘push.’” Ethel said her most helpful qualifications to do the job were “her knowledge and love of music and her ability to make difficult decisions and hold to them.” (Cincinnati Enquirer August 18, 1983)

Ethel was not promoted to Vice President at RCA until 1982, over 40 years into her career. Many colleagues said it was long overdue. The following year, she won a Grammy for Best Historical Album (for co-producing The Dorsey/Sinatra Sessions). After leaving RCA, Ethel remained in the industry where she worked as president and vice president to smaller record labels.

 

 

Lillian McMurry – Record Producer & Owner of Trumpet Records

In 1949, Lillian Shedd McMurry heard a record that changed her life. A woman with no prior experience in the music industry started a record store, record label, and recording studio where she produced, promoted, and engineered songs – many of which became rhythm and blues classics. Some of her artists went on to hit records and career success such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, and Big Joe Williams. At its peak, Lillian calculated Trumpet Records to be the fifth-largest independent record label in the US.

She was born Lillian Shedd in 1921 in Purvis, Mississippi. During the Great Depression, Lillian’s family experienced extreme poverty. For years, they couldn’t afford a radio, so the family entertained themselves by singing together. She had seven male cousins who were like brothers to her. Lillian, a self-described tomboy, could “whip any three” of her cousins.

At age 13, she worked part-time after school. She graduated high school with experience in bookkeeping and secretarial work. In the early 1940s, she worked the counter at a pharmacy from 7 am to 10 pm 7 days a week, and was later promoted to manager. She met her future husband, Willard McMurray when she inquired about a beautiful concert grand piano for sale in his furniture store. The two were married in 1945 and had a daughter, Kathryn Vitrice, in 1947.

Willard and Lillian purchased a hardware store in 1949 (at 309 Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi) with the plan to turn it into a furniture outlet. It was located on the boundary of white and black businesses and entertainment districts. While sorting through what was left behind in the building, workers came across a stack of unsold 78s (at the time, you could find records for sale at hardware stores in addition to grocery stores, service stations, and beauty parlors). One of the workers put on a record, Wynonie Harris’s recording of “All She Wants to Do Is Rock,” and Lillian was transfixed. “’It was the most unusual, sincere and solid sound I’d ever heard,” she said. ”I’d never heard a black record before. I’d never heard anything with such rhythm and freedom.’”

The workers (one who was a part-time bassist) knew these “race” records could only be ordered from wholesale houses in New Orleans. Lillian was going there on business soon and asked them to help make up a list of records to buy. In New Orleans, some of the distributors laughed at Lillian’s lack of knowledge but still told her where to get the records. She asked Willard if they could turn the store into a combination record and furniture store and he agreed.

Record Mart

The store had a sign that said Record Mart and the record shelves were on the walls (the center of the store had furniture for sale). She quickly sold out of her new records and the stock the workers had found. Lillian advertised three hours a day on a local radio show that featured a lot of music aimed at the black audience (R&B, blues, and gospel music). Lillian then expanded to the mail-order business, growing to as many as 1,500 orders a day. Most of the orders were coming from rural areas which had no record shops.

Record Mart also had listening booths which brought customers to the store to listen to new releases. Vocal groups would come in to hear new releases and sing along. This was the first time Lillian heard a live black vocal performance. Marc Ryan says in his book, “Trumpet Records: An Illustrated History with Discography”:

In the segregated society of Mississippi, it had been possible for Lillian McMurry to live nearly thirty years without having heard live or recorded black music. Segregation worked both ways, and the places where black musical forms flourished were pretty much off limits for whites.

Trumpet Records

The success of record sales at the store and her encounters with local musicians made Lillian want to create her own records.  28-year-old Lillian formed Trumpet Records and its parent company, The Diamond Record Company (DRC). Her first two signed artists were black gospel groups she met in the store (over time, word traveled that Lillian would audition walk-in talent at Record Mart). On April 3, 1950, Lillian produced her first recording session with a local group called the St. Andres Gospelaires. The session was at a local radio studio (WRBC). Lillian signed a second artist, the Southern Suns, to an exclusive contract on May 30, 1950, and had their first recording session at WRBC the next night.

Even with her lack of experience, Lillian already had the instinct of a producer. She went looking for local country, western, and blues artists to expand the label. While she didn’t have any marketing data to know it would sell, she saw how Hank Williams’ records performed at Record Mart (she had never heard of Hank Williams until the prior year when her workers wrote up the list of records for her to buy). Lillian arranged for a recording with Kay Kellum, a well-known local singer-accordionist, and paired him with two brothers she heard on the radio (Sam and Westley Tolars who played bass and fiddle).

Sonny Boy Williamson II

Lillian heard about a blues singer who played the harmonica (or the “harp” as it’s known in the blues circle) and tracked him down in a neighboring community. Sonny Boy Williamson had been performing locally and on the radio for almost 20 years. They signed a contract in December 1950 and in January they recorded the label’s first hit, “Eyesight to the Blind.” The recording was at Ivan Scott’s Radio Service Studio in Jackson. He used one microphone and a direct-to-disc recording process.

It turns out Sonny was not the artist’s real name – he was an escaped convict who needed a new name. Sonny recorded hits for the label including “Dust My Broom” and became one of Trumpet’s most successful artists.

In 1951, the label got the news that all of their masters, which had been sent to the Master Record Company in Chicago, were lost in a fire. Lillian powered forward by finding a new firm to handle her mastering and getting her artists back in the studio to re-record songs.

Lillian had high standards in the studio. She recalled 120 rejected takes on one title. Since Ivan Scott’s studio was direct-to-disc, they couldn’t edit, and a new disc was required for each take. Whether it was a balance issue, audio problem, or an artist’s flaw in performance, Lillian only wanted to release the best.

Lillian was honest and direct with her artists. In a later letter to Joseph Curtis Almond (after he skipped a session), she said, “We are very disappointed with your slow tunes . . . Your voice is cracked all through; you blast and then drop your voice, and the whole dark vocal comes out a mess. . . If you had come to Jackson as planned on Thursday, we could have put you on the mike and corrected anything that was wrong with the songs or your voice; then you could have rehearsed from Thursday until Sunday.” She told Sherman “Blues” Johnson in a letter, “You are about the nicest guy, and we do appreciate your attitude. .We are not discouraged, and we don’t want you to be. . . I’m going to give you a swift kick in the pants next time I see you if you don’t keep on trying.”

Recording to Tape

Bill Holford, ACA Studios

A year into operations, Lillian discovered Bill Holford, a recording engineer who owned the Audio Company of America (ACA) in Houston. Bill was willing to work remotely and worked with analog tape (new technology at the time) which gave the ability to edit takes. Bill was an Oklahoma native who trained in the Air Force (where he learned electronics) during World War II. He had a 1948 Raytheon four-channel mixer and an Ampex 300 mono recorder. Lillian booked him in December 1951 for a marathon series of sessions (four days, three nights) and scheduled nearly all of her contracted talent. The sessions were booked at the local Musicians’ Union Hall.

With Bill busy setting up mics and Lillian doing last-minute preparations, they didn’t notice what was going on with the union folks at the hall. At the time, Mississippi was one of the most openly segregated areas of the entire country, and the musician’s union had a ‘whites only’ policy. According to Marc Ryan, “Lillian had naively assumed that the union would welcome such a flurry of activity for the Jackson musicians. As a relative novice in the recording field, she had little knowledge about the attitudes and policies of the rank-and-file white leadership towards black musicians. When the union bosses finally sized up the situation, turmoil erupted.”

Lillian and Bill captured a few tracks while the union bosses bothered the black musicians waiting to record. “I wasn’t going to have those musicians harassed,” she said in Ryan’s book. “They got so nasty that we just moved our equipment out.” She quickly located a vacant club hall, the Cedars of Lebanon, and rented it for the rest of the sessions. Ryan wrote, “Beset with coffee nerves and talking herself hoarse; the crusading producer forged on into the third night, then the fourth day, of the marathon. Holford, ever calm and self-possessed, aided and comforted by his wife Kay, kept the reels of his Ampex rolling as the final round of recordings built to a remarkable climax.” In the end, they had 42 usable takes and Lillian was confident there were hits in the bunch.

Lawsuit

In January 1952, Lillian received news that “a pair of big shots from Hollywood” were in the Jackson area trying to sign artists by promising fame and fortune. Many of the artists the Bihari brothers (Jules and Joe) were going after were Trumpet artists – with no regard to their Trumpet contacts. Lillian quickly contacted a lawyer and the local Sheriff. The Sheriff issuing a restraining order to the Bihari brothers during a demo recording at a local nightclub. Trumpet artist Lonnie Holmes was about to audition when the Sheriff came in. The session ended, and the Biharis were served papers to appear in court. Diamond Record Company was suing Modern Records for “inducing artists who were under exclusive contract” and asking $1 million in damages.

The lawsuit made national news and the case was in the courts for over two years. In 1954, a judge ruled in Lillian’s favor. The Biharis were guilty of “violating a state statute forbidding willful and knowing interference between parties of an employment contract.” The damages awarded were a disappointing $2,500 and the Biharis continued to record with one of the artists they took from Lillian, “Mister” Elmore James. Lonnie Holmes, the artist whose audition, was stopped, had his contract voided and his first Trumpet release (which was about to ship) was canceled. He never recorded again.

Moving Ahead

Lillian continued to look for new talent and sign new artists. The Southern Sons recorded some tracks with the Argo Singers, an all-female gospel group based in Chicago. 

Their first session was at the RCA Victor Studio in Chicago then one at Universal Recording (while Bill Putnam was still based in Chicago). Lillian held Gospel concerts at some of Jackson’s small theaters and used that to help promote the label and the store. These shows were advertised on local radio and usually had a full house.

On the country music side, Lillian was gaining recognition for her ear for artists. Producers from MGM and Capitol started to call her to talk shop and market trends. After Hank Williams’ death in 1953, she recognized a hole in the market and arranged sessions with existing and new Trumpet artists. She helped shape part of the early Rockabilly sound with artist Joseph Curtis Almond.

She hired top musicians for some recordings including B.B. King, Little Milton Campbell, and Joe Willie Wilkins. Even though the city of Jackson’s musician’s union had segregation requirements, she refused to adhere and mixed black and white musicians. Lillian said later, “Because we recorded some black blues and spirituals, I was treated rather ugly sometimes by certain people… I acted like a lady, as a businessperson, and that’s the way it should have been.”

Lillian’s devotion to her artists went outside the studio, too. She offered everything from encouragement and advice to money management and cab rides. She got notified by the police that artist Bobo “Catfish Slim” Thomas had been in jail for eight months. The year prior, Lillian had loaned him an amp and a guitar to write a b-side to a song, and he hadn’t been heard from since. Lillian wasn’t concerned about the broken and muddy guitar and amp the police were returning to her. She was more concerned that Bobo didn’t have a single hearing in eight months. She hired a lawyer for him for $125 (for perspective, a 125-mile taxi ride would cost you $6 at the time). Lillian was at the trial where she spent two hours in a room behind the judge’s bench trying to talk Bobo into pleading “not guilty” so the judge would let him go. A couple of years later, Lillian sent her family doctor to check on Trumpet artist Willie Love as his health was failing. She visited Willie in the hospital in his final days, and DRC paid for his funeral.

Recording Studios

Lillian tried a few tape-based studios once she made the jump from recording vinyl. She connected with Sam Phillips, engineer, and owner of Memphis Recording Service (where Marion Keisker worked). Lillian knew that Sam’s interest was the blues and trusted his instinct and sent some of her artists for sessions at his studio. She also continued to send artists to ACA in Houston. But, eventually, a new idea came about: The furniture store. In the summer of 1953, Lillian’s dad built the Diamond Recording Studio (designed by Bill Holford of ACA) in the 309 building. The Record Mart ceased operations.

Ryan’s book explains her gear:

She bought a new Macintosh pre-amp and amplifier, a big Altec Lansing monitor, RCA 77 DX and 44 BX microphones, and a Magnecord tape deck. She had mattresses hung on the walls and ceiling, covering them with huge theatre drapes for acoustical effect.

Lillian began experimenting as an engineer, using her observations from being in sessions with engineers like Holford and others. Ryan said,

She discovered the wisdom in recording everything “flat”, with no “echo”, which could then be added later as needed. She studied balance, striving always to keep the voice “out front.” With her usual dynamism, she soon was obtaining professional standards in her temporary studio in the furniture store. The first DRC studio session to be released on the Trumpet label was Jerry McCain in October 1953.

Lillian engineered tracks at the studio such as Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Red Hot Kisses” and ‘Lucky’ Joe Almond’s “Every Day of the Week.” Most (but not all) of DRC’s catalog starting DRC 185 were recorded by Lillian.

The End of Trumpet

By the end of 1954, the DRC was losing money, and Lillian’s enthusiasm was starting to dwindle. Willard’s furniture business was subsidizing the studio in hopes a new release would be a big success and help put the studio and label finances back on track. It had been nearly two years since Trumpet had a big hit. The label faced a number of struggles – unfaithful artists, the failure to find new artists that could grab hold of the market, distributors that took merchandise on advance then went bankrupt, and other distributors that ignored invoices completely.

At the same time, R&B music was starting to reach the mainstream. The major labels were enveloped by it. It wasn’t practical for Lillian to release music for local consumption but competing with the majors was going to be a challenge. Lillian, in a fight to the end, started Globe Records in an attempt to reach a new market (she also engineered all the recordings, as well).

Trumpet was done (in 1955). But, the growing debt of the organization lead to fewer recording sessions. Lillian even traded away Sonny Boy’s recording contract to their pressing plant, Plastic Products, to cancel a huge debt. The last recording was Lucky Joe Almond on St. Patrick’s Day in 1956.

Ryan says in his book, Lillian “had grown from a musically naive dilettante to an accomplished professional, whose tiny label had blossomed to become, for a few years at least, the second-largest independent label based in the South. To have remained in the field into the second half of the decade would have required a greater stake than the McMurrys were willing to gamble. The furniture business was still booming, and there was certainly no need to pursue the chimerical forms of fame and fortune that tantalized so many of DRC’s contemporaries.”

Lillian continued to keep the books and sell off old record stock for years at the furniture stores. She kept Globe Music, the publishing company where most of Trumpet’s catalog (and some unreleased tracks) went. She kept protecting her business-like in 1963 when a record-producer reissued some of Sonny Boy’s Trumpet recordings without Lillian’s blessing (she immediately sued the label owner). Federal copyright did not protect sound recordings until 1972. She protected her artists, too, who she diligently paid royalties on-time for years.

The rights to many Globe and Trumpet releases were sold to other labels (major and small). In 1985, the remaining masters and rights were donated to the Centre for the Study of Southern Culture (at the University of Mississippi in Oxford).

Lillian was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1998 (one of a few record producers at the time to have that honor). She died a year later at age 77.

In 2007, Lillian and Willard McMurry were posthumously honored with a historical marker at 309 Farish Street in Jackson. It was the first record company in Mississippi to achieve this type of recognition. Unfortunately, the site of the studio has since decayed – but Lillian’s most important contribution to the music industry will live on.

Further reading/listening

Ryan, Marc. Trumpet Records: an Illustrated History, with Discography. Big Nickel Publications, 1992.

Lillian McMurry and the Blues Contracts of Trumpet Records

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Profiles of Women in Audio

First to Record Elvis – Marion Keisker

“Marion Keisker MacInnes (September 23, 1917 – December 29, 1989), born in Memphis, Tennessee, was a radio show host, station manager, U.S. Air Force officer, and assistant to Sam Phillips at Sun Records. She is best known for being the first person to record Elvis Presley on July 18, 1953. Keisker had a vibrant career in broadcasting, made inroads for women in a male-dominated media industry, and became an activist in the burgeoning women’s rights movement.” – Sun Record Company website

Radio years

Marion’s radio debut was in 1929 (at age 11) on WREC in Memphis. She attended Southwestern College where she studied English and Medieval French and graduated in 1938. She was married in 1939 and had a son before divorcing in 1943.

Marion went on to become one of the best-known female radio personalities in Memphis where she worked at virtually every station in town. By 1946, she was hired full-time by WREC where she hosted a daily talk show, “Meet Kitty Kelly.” Management suggested her show be a “woman’s program” based around homemaking, beauty or storytelling for children. She refused, wanted to make a show that interested her generally and not exclusively around her gender.

At WREC, Marion wrote, produced, and directed 14 other programs. She worked on a weekly music show (which broadcast big bands) where she met Sam Phillips. Sam was a broadcast engineer and on-air personality for WREC. Sam had ambitions to open a recording studio and asked Marion to come work for him (as his assistant and studio manager). Marion, a single mom who knew little about music, wanted to help Sam fulfill his vision.

Memphis Recording Service: The Birthplace of Rock ‘N’ Roll

Sam and Marion were together when Sam discovered the empty building at 706 Union Avenue he wanted for his studio. “With many difficulties, we got the place, we raised the money, and between us we did everything,” Marion recollected in an interview. “We laid all the tile, and we painted the acoustic boards. I put in the bathroom; Sam put in the control room – what little equipment he had always had to be the best.”

The studio, which opened in 1950, was named Memphis Recording Service. Marion was working part-time at WREC alongside her duties at the studio (as well as Sam’s record label, Sun Records, when it opened in 1952). In a later interview, Marion said of the studio, “I scrubbed the floors, did the publicity, the works.” While she was sometimes referred to as secretary, she said, “it’s ok if they’ll also say I was office manager, assistant engineer, and general Jane of all trades.”

Sam’s business card carried the motto, “We record anything–anywhere–anytime.” Sam’s vision was to record and produce black musicians – a progressive attitude for the time. What’s considered by some to be the first rock and roll single, “Rocket 88,” was recorded and produced by Sam in 1951 (it hit number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart). Blues and R&B artists like B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Ike Turner recorded at the studio in the early 1950s.

The studio later attracted rock and roll, rockabilly, and country artists like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. More on the studio’s technical setup can be found here.

The start of Elvis’s career

On Saturday, July 18, 1953, Elvis Presley stopped by the studio to make his first demo recording. Marion was the first to meet him, and the story has become folklore with Elvis fans. Marion asked, “What kind of singer are you?” Elvis said, “I sing all kinds.” Marion asked, “Who do you sound like?” He responded, “I don’t sound like nobody.”

Elvis recorded two songs on a 10” acetate disk, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Heartaches Begin” for around $4. There’s some dispute on who did the recording (more on that later). By Marion’s account, Sam was out of the studio when Elvis arrived, so she operated the studio’s Rek-O-Kut direct to disk lathe and also ran the mono recorder. Marion, who kept notes on artists for future opportunities, wrote next to his name in the studio’s records: ‘Good Ballad Singer – Hold.’

Marion tells her side of the story recording Elvis

 

The next summer, Sam needed a singer for a song called “Without You,” and Marion encouraged him to try Elvis. While Elvis wasn’t right for the song, it opened the door to singing other tunes for Sam. Elvis was then introduced to a friend of Sam’s, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bassist Bill Black. On July 5, 1954, the three were in the studio recording. Elvis’s first record came from that session (“That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky”), and the songs were on the radio less than a week later. Elvis was 19 years old, had never played a professional gig, and hadn’t played with his bandmates until that session.

 

Another video of Marion talking about the studio.

All-women radio station

On top of working at the recording studio and record label, Marion helped Sam launch WHER-AM, the first all-female radio station in the country. Both talent and staff were almost entirely women. WHER launched in 1955 with Marion being the first voice heard on-air. She read the news for two years at the station. Sam’s wife, Becky, was one of the first DJs at WHER.

Air Force

Sergeant Elvis Presley With Marion Keisker

After her relationship with Sam became tumultuous, Marion left her job in 1957 and joined the US Air Force (where she was offered a direct commission as captain). After training, she was assigned to Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma where she was the only female officer other than nurses. She was transferred to Ramstein AFB in Germany where she was Commander of the largest armed forces television facility in the world.

At the television station, American TV programs were copied and shipped overseas weekly. Staff members were responsible for the news, weather, and sports. According to the Air Force’s Historical Support Division, “German television sets could not receive the station because they could not pick up the MHz frequency. German radios, however, could tune in to American broadcasts from the American Forces Radio Network. Many Germans learned English by listening to the Armed Forces Radio Network.”

In 1960, Army private Elvis Presley was in Germany doing a press conference when he stopped to say hello to one of the few women in the room, Captain Marion Keisker MacInnes.

Elvis told her, ‘I don’t know whether to kiss you or salute!’ She responded, ‘In that order.’ She was reprimanded by an army captain for over-familiarity with a noncom. Elvis defended her and said, ..’ we wouldn’t be having a press conference if it weren’t for this lady.’ (https://www.elvis.com.au/presley/marion-keisker.shtml)

Marion went on to serve at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida (Cape Canaveral is controlled and operated by this base). She was stationed there during a lot of the space activities of the 1960s including manned and unmanned space programs.

Marion retired from the Air Force in 1969 after 14 years of service and returned to Memphis where she became a key figure in the local women’s rights movement.

Women’s rights advocate

Marion was co-founder and president of the Memphis chapter of the National Organization of Women. She fought to change the classified ads in the local newspapers so jobs would not be separated by gender. She was a member of the Women’s Media Group where she fought discrimination against women in the media.

In the 1970s and 1980s, she was known for her broadcasting and theater work in Memphis. Marion frequently wrote letters to the editor to address issues of discrimination against women. Marion died on December 29, 1989, after a long battle with cancer.

Elvis recording controversy

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Marion’s claim to be the first to record Elvis dates as far back as 1955. Her story did not waver (other than minor details) from that time until her death in 1989. Conversely, Sam didn’t comment about the recording until 1979. In 1986, Sam Phillips did an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine where he said of the recording, “Well, I would love to say Marion did it. She did an awful lot for me, man. I mean we painted floors together. I wouldn’t take anything away from Marion Keisker. And I think she made the statement inadvertently. I don’t want to make Marion look bad on the thing. I wish you’d just drop it, ’cause I don’t care who it was. But it was simply me. That’s all.”

Author Peter Guralnick, who was friends with both Sam and Marion, discusses the controversy in his 2016 book, “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll”:

To test Sam’s contention that Marion had never recorded anyone in that studio, I tried without success to find someone she had. I spoke to numerous people familiar with the Sun operation over the years, and all agreed from what they knew of Marion and the technical operation of the lathe, that not only could she have operated it, she probably did. But none could recall ever seeing her do so. I tried to contact her son, who she said was frequently in the studio with her, but was unable to get a response from him. I even asked Marion if she could suggest someone I might talk to if she could give me the name of someone she had recorded—which I thought could at least settle the equipment question once and for all—but although we remained in frequent contact right up until her death, she never directly addressed the question. And so I am left with my own discomfiting conclusion. . .

All I can offer by way of explanation is Marion’s view of memory as a fleeting and fungible thing. “I’ve really become very much conscious and preoccupied with the subject of memory,” she said to me one time. “How subjective it is, how protective it is. It wasn’t that we didn’t know that things were happening, it’s just that there wasn’t enough time and energy [to write it down]. So I don’t know, it’s sort of like, whatever I may have suggested, it’s quite possibly not accurate.

Marion’s legacy

While it’s probable that Marion Kreisker could add “tape op” to her job duties at Memphis Recording Service/Sun Records, there are no known witnesses to her actually doing it. But, both Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley publicly expressed their gratitude to Marion – Elvis saying more than once Marion was a pivotal person in his career and Sam acknowledging many times he couldn’t have done it without her.

Even with those accolades, Marion Keisker is often presented in the Sun Records story as merely a personal assistant or secretary to Sam Phillips. While Marion has been recognized by women’s rights organizations, Elvis historians and fan clubs all over the world, her contribution to the audio and radio community has largely gone unknown. We would like to recognize Marion Keisker as one of the pioneers of women in our community.

“I think that if women stand behind women – both women as an audience, women as listeners and viewers, and women as co-workers within the broadcast field – we’d just be supportive and give each other a little encouragement, it would make all the difference.” Marion Keisker MacInnes

The Elvis record today

In 2015, Jack White anonymously purchased the acetate disk of Elvis’s 1953 recording in an auction for $300,000. The recording was digitally transferred by Alan Stoker. A video of the process is here

 

 

Further reading:

Did Marion Keisker Record Elvis? (A more in-depth analysis by April Tucker)

Book: Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll – Peter Guralnick

The Anything but Ordinary Life of Marion Keisker MacInnes ’42

Jack White Has Elvis Presley’s First Recordings Digitally Transferred

WHER: 1000 BEAUTIFUL WATTS, PART 1 (Kitchen Sisters podcast)

 

 

Visit:

Sun Studio in Memphis, TN

Memphis Recording Service replica at The Musicians Hall of Fame Museum (Marion Keisker was a Source Foundation award recipient in 2009)

Special thanks to Peter Guralnick, Jon Hornyak, J M VanEaton, Maureen Droney, Wes Dooley, and Billy “The Spa Guy” Stallings, and Air Force Historical Support Division

 

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