Milt Gabler

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The Independent Online

Milton Gabler, record producer: born New York 20 May 1911; married (one son, two daughters); died New York 20 July 2001.

The record producer Milt Gabler was the man behind two of the most famously controversial and potent recordings of his time, Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" (1939) and Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" (1954).

Gabler was a devoted jazz fan who scored a number of firsts. He started the first independent jazz label; he was the first to put the names of the participating musicians and the dates of recording on the record label, and he was the first producer to record "jam sessions". He was also the first to allow audiences at his recording sessions and his own record label, Commodore, became one of the most cherished amongst jazz collectors throughout the world. Many of his innovations were copied by the larger record companies and it was no surprise when he eventually joined one of the biggest, Decca, in 1941.

Born in Harlem, New York, in 1911, he had begun to sell records in a corner of his father's radio spares shop, the Commodore Radio Corporation, in the late Twenties. He had rigged a speaker over the door of the shop and piped radio broadcasts into the street. Some of the broadcasts were by Duke Ellington (sponsored by Moe Levy Clothes), and through these Gabler became aware of jazz.

He urged the record companies to sell him obsolete jazz records and eventually sold so many that by 1934 he was able to ask the companies to reissue specific titles to fill the demands from his customers. The shop on East 42nd Street became the New York meeting place for jazz musicians and the new breed of record collectors.

Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the record companies began unloading further copies of the records that Gabler asked for on to other stores. Gabler regarded this as unfair competition and his response, to avoid such upstaging, was to start his own label, Commodore, in 1937.

His friendship with the guitarist Eddie Condon meant that the nucleus of the musicians that he recorded were from Condon's coterie. Thus, neglected embryo jazz giants like the cornettist Bobby Hackett and the clarinettist Pee Wee Russell had their chance and were amongst the inspired soloists who made classics of Gabler's recordings. Although a hard businessman, Gabler was a good friend and he would lend money to musicians and had a reputation for persuading his customers not to spend more money on his records than they could afford.

As his reputation as a jazz buff and record producer grew, people came to him for advice or to ask him to find rare records. He became the jazz provider for radio disc jockeys and often worked as a consultant for the major record labels. In 1936 he published The Hot Discography, by Charles Delaunay, a book that attempted to provide the personnel and dates for all jazz recordings.

Billie Holiday came to him in 1939 when John Hammond, her producer at the giant Columbia company, refused to record "Strange Fruit". This was a melodramatic poem about lynching, set to music by its author Lewis Allan. Columbia allegedly feared losing sales in the Deep South, but gave Holiday permission to record the song for Gabler.

For the reverse of the 78 he recorded a Holiday blues, "Fine and Mellow", for which he wrote the key part of the lyric. "Strange Fruit", musically barren but the first protest record, stirred up the press when it came out. But the great singing was in the irresistible blues on the other side. Gabler later wrote lyrics for Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone" and Nat "King" Cole's "Love".

By the time Gabler joined Decca in 1941 Commodore had issued 90 recordings and Gabler continued to record for his own label until 1943. As a producer at Decca he made the first recordings that brought Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald together. He produced sessions by Peggy Lee, the Inkspots, the Weavers and many others.

He saw a commercial future for Bill Haley and the Comets and signed them to Decca in 1954. In the final 10 minutes of their first session, Gabler made an informal recording of the band's "Rock Around the Clock". It became the record that triggered off rock 'n' roll and paradoxically dealt the fragile market for jazz a crippling blow.

Steve Voce