Milt Gabler’s musical contributions spanned many genres—most notably, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock ‘n’ roll—and three distinct occupations: record retailing, ownership of a record company, and studio production. At a time when activities within the record industry were not as clearly demarcated and specialized as in the present day, he literally did it all, market analysis, contractual negotiations, talent scouting, promotional details, consulting, artist and repertoire work, and writing liner notes.
Gabler began working for the Commodore Music Shop, owned by his father, in 1926. As store manager, he was instrumental in building the enterprise into one of the leading record outlets in the New York area. By the early 1930s, he had began stocking cutout jazz and blues material, catering to musicians, songwriters, journalists, and other collectors. He would bulk order custom pressings of deleted titles from the American Record Company, which had absorbed many bankrupt labels—including Brunswick, Columbia, Okeh, and Perfect—at the outset of the Depression to be issued as white-label Commodores. He then instituted the UHCA label (United Hot Clubs of America) as an outlet for his reissue program.
In early 1938, Commodore became the first American jazz label, recording a combo lead by Eddie Condon. Run more as a mechanism for creating the type of small-group jazz Gabler loved than as a business enterprise, Commodore continued to produce recordings through 1957. The company often served as outlet to record music which did not generate a favorable response from majors such as Columbia and Decca, including sides by Lester Young and the Kansas City Six and Billie Holiday. Holiday approached Gabler, a longtime friend, when her label, Vocalion, expressed reservations over recording "Strange Fruit," a song which addressed lynching in the South in unflinching terms. The song’s flip side, a blues entitled "Fine and Mellow," would become Commodore’s first hit.
Commodore’s output dropped off considerably when Decca hired Gabler as a staff producer in the mid-1940s. In that capacity he worked with jazz, R&B, and pop artists, most notably, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Jordan, and Bill Haley and His Comets. Perhaps his most fabled recording session involved Haley at the Pythian Temple, April 12, 1954, when they produced "(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" and "Thirteen Women." The release (Decca 29124), spurred by the inclusion of "Rock Around the Clock" on the soundtrack of the film, Blackboard Jungle, spent eight weeks at the top of the Billboard pop singles charts in July-August 1955, thereby ushering in the rock ‘n’ roll era. Gabler would continue working for Decca through the 1960s, generally with middle-of-the-road acts like Bert Kaempfert and Burl Ives.
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