Not only was Milt Gabler present at the birth of rock and roll, but in a sense he also helped deliver it by virtue of having produced such founding fathers as Louis Jordan and Bill Haley. On top of that, Gabler also produced records for the likes of Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Weavers, the Ink Spots and Louis Armstrong. From jazz to rhythm & blues to gospel to folk to rock and roll, Gabler has been a force in popular music for much of this century. But his imprint has been felt most strongly in the world of jazz, where he carved out multiple niches as a music retailer, label founder, club impresario and record producer.
In 1926, Gabler began working in his father’s Manhattan radio shop across from the Commodore Hotel. He soon began stocking jazz records in the store, and eventually the Commodore Music Shop became the leading jazz retailer in New York City. Gabler successfully branched out into jazz reissues on his Commodore label and by the late Thirties was overseeing historic sessions of his own for such artists as Billie Holiday (whose classic “Strange Fruit” he produced). In 1940, Gabler also began orchestrating weekly jam sessions involving some of jazz’s greatest luminaries at Jimmy Ryan’s on 52nd Street.
Gabler was hired by the Decca label as an A&R man in 1941, and it was here he began working with performers across the spectrum of popular music. In terms of his impact on rock and roll, Gabler produced some of Louis Jordan’s hottest jump-blues sides from the Forties, including “Caldonia” and “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.” These uptempo R&B records served as blueprints for the sides Gabler later cut with Bill Haley in the Fifties. “All the tricks I used with Louis Jordan, I used with Bill Haley,” Gabler later said. “The only difference was the way we did the rhythm. On Jordan, we used a perfectly balanced rhythm section from the Swing era... but Bill had the heavy backbeat.” In other words, rhythm & blues became rock & roll, under Gabler’s watchful eye, through a shift in rhythmic emphasis.
Throughout the late Fifties and Sixties, Gabler continued to write and produce songs, including Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry.” During the Seventies, he produced several reissue albums for MCA Records. In 1991, he received the Trustees Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; and in 1993, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where Gabler’s nephew, the comedian and actor Billy Crystal, inducted him. Milt Gabler died on July 20, 2001. In 2005, Crystal produced a documentary and CD entitled The Milt Gabler Story.