Timeline of Women in Early Sound Recording History (1895-1959)

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more information.

Female Engineers

1895 – Ethnomusicologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher recorded the music of Native American tribes in addition to her study of culture and history. She was one of the first women in her field and spent some time in Nebraska studying tribes. Some of her 19th century recordings can be found in the Library of Congress.

1907 – Ethnomusicologist Frances Theresa Densmore began recording music on wax cylinders for the Bureau of American Ethnology (at the Smithsonian Institution). She studied American Indian music for 50 years and many recordings are in the Library of Congress.

1929 – Laura Boulton (also an ethnomusicologist) did her first research expedition to Africa. She recorded folk music and bird calls with a cylinder recorder. Over 30,000 recordings (50 years of work) can be found at Columbia, Harvard University and the Library of Congress.

1934 – Singer Ursula Greville becomes part owner of the company Synchrophone. She engineered some records (which may have been out of financial restraints of the company) until the company was bought by Decca in 1937 (more under record labels/1934).

1940 – Mary Shipman Howard starts working for NBC in Manhattan and is promoted to engineer during the war. She may have been engineering earlier. Donald Plunkett (who used to work for her) said in an interview Mary was doing independent/remote recordings before she started her studio. Of the early engineers, she had the longest music engineering career. She left the industry in 1955 and became a pug breeder.

1942 – Daphne Oram takes a job at the BBC as a Junior Studio Engineer and “music balancer”. She was 17 and turned down going to the Royal College of Music to take the job. She was promoted to studio manager in the 1950s and established the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958. She left the BBC in 1959 to work independently into the 1980s. She was the first full-time electronic music composer in Britain.

1942 – Mary Ellen Trottner spends two years recording and working in the control room at WCCO in Minnesota. In 1944, she became the first woman in the engineering department of NBC at Chicago. In 1951, Mary passed the bar exam and became a lawyer.

194? – Mary Caroline Bell learned recording on the job at a small independent New York studio. The studio did a lot of dub work for the Armed Services. A year later, the studio went out of business and she went to work for NBC. After marrying engineer Bill Schwartau, who also worked for NBC, the two were separated and Mary became broadcast engineer for the news. She left in 1952 to be a mom.

March 27, 1947 – Evelyn Blanchard (married name Evelyn Palladino) engineers ‘Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)’ by Tex Williams at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. It was a number one seller. She may have been engineering prior to this. Evelyn worked at Radio Records til at least 1949. Her husband, John Palladino, went on to have a 40 year career at Capitol Records. In an interview, he spoke proudly of her engineering skills.

1948 – Bebe Barron starts a recording studio with her husband, Louis, at 229 West 8th Street in New York. While their primary goal was exploring electronic music (and composition), they were a successful recording studio for a few years because of their monopoly on magnetic tape (Louis’s cousin worked for 3M). Louis’s specialty was electronics and Bebe’s was composing and production. In the 1950s, they moved into music and sound fx for experimental films. Their 1956 soundtrack for Forbidden Planet is recognized as the first film score that was entirely electronic. They composed together until his death in 1989.

July 18, 1953 – Elvis records his first demo, “My Happiness” at Memphis Recording Service. Marion Keisker says she was the engineer. Marion left the studio to join the military in 1957.

October 1953 – Lillian McMurry engineers her first session at DRC studio in Jackson, Mississippi with Trumpet artist Jerry McCain. She had learned from hiring other engineers over the years. She had barely begun in the record industry 4 years before; in 1949, Lillian heard Wynonie Harris’s recording of “All She Wants to Do Is Rock” which inspired her to sell records. She got out of the recording business in 1956 and back to helping her husband with his furniture store business.

1954 – Ruth White starts recording music after being approached by Los Angeles County Schools. Her first recording project was filmmaker Paul Burnfords short film “Rhythms of the Freight Yard” (which she also scored). In 1955, she started doing recordings for the Los Angeles City school district, which needed folk music and other recordings. She worked on educational children’s content into the 1980s but is more widely known as an electronic music composer and pioneer (for her experimentation of the Moog synthesizer).

1956 – Cordell Jackson (aka the “Rock and Roll Granny”) records Beboppers Christmas in her living room (Memphis, Tennessee) for her label, Moon Records. A few years later, she put her focus into selling real estate.

Female Producers

1927 – Victoria Hernández started the record label Hispano. The label had to close because of the Great Depression a couple years later but she opened the first Latin music store in New York City (in 1941). Her record store has been operating longer than any other music store in the city.

1935 (possibly 1934) – Helen Oakley Dance starts producing jazz records in Chicago. She produced Duke Ellington among others. In 1936, she was named part of Master Records (owned by Irving Mills) in New York where she was producing records for the Variety label. She joined the Women’s Army Corps in WWII where she was assigned to the OSS (later known as the CIA). After returning, she pursued a career as a music writer.

1943 – Gloria Chandler creates Gloria Chandler Recordings, Inc, which focused on educational content for children. Some LPs she produced can be found in libraries today.

April 3, 1950 – Lillian McMurry produces her first recording session with St. Andres Gospelaires for Trumpet Records (Jackson, Mississippi). She was the producer for her label until its close in 1956.

1951 – Wilma Cozart Fine is hired by Mercury Records to run the label’s small classical music department (not exactly sure the date she started producing). She produced hundreds of records that are still recognized for their sound quality. Her husband, C. Robert Fine, was also a record producer. She retired in 1964 to raise her children.

1952 – Ethel Gabriel produced RCA’s Moods in Music series with music by George Melanchrino. In 1955, she produced Perez Prado’s Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White. It becomes a number 1 hit and starts the Mambo craze in the US. Ethel Gabriel was the first female record producer for popular music.

1953 – Dorle Soria co-produces 500 albums with her husband (Dario Soria) for Angel Records, a subsidiary of EMI.

1956 – Cordell Jackson self-produces Beboppers Christmas for her label, Moon Records (more on Cordell in engineers).

1958 – Ethel Gabriel produced the full-length album Hi Fi-ing Winds by Elliot Lawrence. Ethel went on to produce 5,000 albums, and worked at RCA until 1983.

Female-Owned Record Labels

1921 – Juanita Stinnette Chappelle and her husband, Thomas E. Chappelle, started the second record company owned and operated by African Americans. Chappelle and Stinnette Records was short-lived, only issued six records (5 of the couple, who were vaudeville performers).

1934 – Singer Ursula Greville is part owner of Synchrophone, which created the label Octacros. The label released private recordings cinemas purchased to be played against 16mm films. Decca purchased the label in 1937.

1947 – Mary Shipman Howard starts releasing her own commercial recordings under the MHR label (classical music). It ran til 1955.

1950 – Lillian McMurry creates Trumpet Records to release blues records. It ran til 1955. She then created the short-lived Globe Records, which had its final recording in 1956. Lillian McMurry left the recording business after this but continued to protect her recordings and pay her royalties.

1952 – Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney (best friends who had just graduated college) started Caedmon Records. Caedmon was the first label to sell spoken-word recordings and is credited with starting the audiobook industry in the US. The label is still around and owned by HarperCollins.

1953 – Dorle Soria launches Angel Records with her husband, Dario (an Italian who had another record label to distribute Italian opera recordings). They produced nearly 500 recordings and left the label in 1958.

1955 – Ruth White started the production company Rhythms Productions to produce records and educational materials for the Los Angeles city school district. She did many albums of folk music as well as albums for the physical education department. (Ruth is now primarily known as an electronic music composer.)

1956 – Cordell Jackson, a spunky guitarist and mom, starts Moon Records to release her own music. She was locally active through the 1960s and 70s but devoted most of her energy to selling real estate. She revived the label again in the 1980s. She made the late show rounds in 1991 and was in a Budweiser commercial.

1958 – Johnnie Matthews starts the Northern Recording Company in Detroit. She was the first African-American woman to own and operate a record label. She was one of the artists on the label, also.

1958 – Estelle Axton, a middle-aged school teacher and mom, joined her brother Jim Stewart to create Stax Records. Estelle takes out a second mortgage on her home to help rent out an old movie theater that they converted into a recording studio. Their first platinum album was in 1960, a band which Estelle’s son played saxophone.

1958 – Florence Greenberg, a 45 year old housewife in New Jersey, starts Tiara Records. She signs her first artist, The Shirelles, after an audition in her living room. A year later, she created Scepter Records after selling Tiara Records (with the Shirelle’s contract) to Decca Records. Scepter was a successful independent label through the 1960s. Florence retired in 1976.

Amy Williams playing piano. Photo from Sound Of The Hound

Miscellaneous History

1898 – The Gramophone Company opens a recording studio in London. Amy Williams, the recording studio secretary, plays piano for many of the label’s sessions.

Late 1890s – Lilian Bryant becomes “musical director” for the Edison-Bell recording studio (cylinder recordings). She rehearsed artists, did arrangements and orchestrations for recordings, and conducted. Bryant conducted the first recording of a Tchaikovsky symphony for the Pathé record label in 1912. She went on to work for other labels as music director in addition to being a composer and piano accompanist.

1922Judith C. Waller becomes the first known radio station manager of the US at WMAQ in Chicago. When she was offered the job, Judith said she didn’t know what a radio station was. Her soon to be boss, Walter Strong, said, “Neither do I. But come on down and we’ll find out.”

Grace Sloventsky and Harold Soule

1927 – engineer Harold Soule did the first recording in St. Paul, Minnesota. Grace Sloventsky was the secretary of the Northwestern Phonograph Supply Company, but is seen in a photo working with wiring at a field session – which would be the equivalent of an “assistant engineer” today.

1928 – Aletha Mae Dickerson-Robinson becomes recording director of Paramount in Chicago where she supervised recording dates. She was secretary to Mayo Williams who left for another record label. Aletha didn’t know she had been promoted til three months later. She left Paramount sometime before 1938. Her husband, Alexander Robinson, was a pianist, songwriter and arranger for the label.

1939 – Marie Killick raises £300 to start a business manufacturing sound recording equipment in Putney, London. She had studied sound recording at some point before this in Antwerp and worked for the Army making steel cutters for wax discs (more on her in 1945)

1940 – Ethel Gabriel starts working at RCA in Camden, New Jersey. She was promoted to record tester where she had to listen to one out of every 500 records for quality. She also started hanging out at the nearby recording studios, watching and learning from the engineers. She went on to become the first female record producer for a major label (see above section).

194? – Evelyn Blanchard and Rose Palladino were the two women who worked for Radio Recorders in Hollywood during WWII. They specialized in “armed forces deletion work” which was basically dubbing acetates of radio shows but removing the commercials. These discs would be sent overseas to be played for the troops.

1944 – Kay Rose gets a job at Universal Studios as an assistant picture editor. The studio was short on union members because of the war. As a picture assistant, she learned to cut sound fx and music. Kay later transitioned into sound and went on to become the first woman to earn an Academy Award for Sound (for “The River” in 1984).

1945 – Marie Killick files a patent application for her stylus that used a sapphire or diamond gemstone. While she was granted the patent in 1948, it was later infringed upon by Pye Ltd. Her lawsuit spent 10 years in the courts and became famous. Killick won the case, but she was never able to collect and died homeless and broke in 1964.

1947 – Bebe and Louis Barron received a tape machine as a wedding gift (from his cousin who worked for 3M). They move from Chicago to New York a year later and start their recording studio (and exploration of electronic music).

1950 – Memphis Recording Service (owned by Sam Phillips) opens in Memphis. Marion Keisker was the studio assistant, manager and “Jane of All Trades”

1950 – Daphne Oram, who was working at the BBC, would stay late after work secretly experimenting with their new tape equipment (splicing, looping, layering, etc). It wasn’t until 1958 the BBC would give her a room and the equipment which became the Radiophonic Workshop.

1951 – Belinda Putnam and Bill Putnam, Sr. publish Good Morning, Mister Echo”. The first recording was released by Decca Records and it lasted 5 weeks on the Billboard magazine charts (peaking at #24). Belinda worked at Universal Recording in Chicago and was a tape editor (among many other duties at the studio).

1956 – Wilma Cozart Fine named vice-president of the Mercury label

1958 – Daphne Oram joins the newly created BBC Radiophonic Workshop, known for their experimentation with music and sounds for radio (and later for television). Maddalena Fagandini joined a year later.

1959 – Jean Walton files a patent for a gramophone pickup. Jean worked for Cosmocord, an audio manufacturer at the time. Some of her research was published under the name “John Walton”.

1959 – Daphne Oram left the BBC and sets up a home studio, her Oramics Studio for Electronic Composition. The BBC had told her to take time off since they did not know the effect of radio sound waves on the female body.

  • See Leslie Gaston-Bird’s book, “Women in Audio,” for an expanded timeline of women in the recording industry.
  • This content may be shared/reused, but please credit appropriately. Putting together lists like this are not easy, and take a lot of time and research.
  • Please contact me if you know of anyone who’s not in this list or any discrepancies!