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20 People Who Changed Black Music: Veteran Label Executive Sylvia Rhone, the Star-Maker

One might be hard-pressed to find a common denominator between gospel great Yolanda Adams, late hip-hop bad boy Ol' Dirty Bastard and rock royalty Metallica.

But for Sylvia Rhone, identifying the gifts of these and other artists has been a talent that many label unparalleled. A true living legend, Rhone has established herself as one of the best executives - male or female - in music. Today, she is president of Universal Motown Records and executive vice president of Universal Records, bringing a new voice to the fabled Motown sound.

"She has a proven track record that speaks for itself," Cori M. Murray, arts and entertainment editor for Essence magazine, told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "From Vanessa Williams to Missy Elliott, she has really been the person behind the person.

"Her work ethic, track record and business acumen really speaks volumes," Murray said. "There are not many Sylvia Rhones in the world."

Rhone's career has spanned four decades, but it was her 1990 appointment to president and CEO of Atlantic Record's EastWest Records America division that really put people on to her brilliance. The power move made Rhone the first black woman to head a major record company. In her new role, Rhone helped guide the careers of then-newcomers En Vogue, Gerald Levert and Das EFX, while helping established artists like AC/DC and Simply Red.

Four years later, Rhone was making history again, this time as the new chairman and CEO of Elektra Entertainment Group. The move made her the only black and only woman in recording industry business to hold the title.

But Rhone paid her dues en route to the top. After earning a degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School in 1974, Rhone took the very non-Ivy League route into the music business and began working for Buddha Records, a New York-based label best known for putting out "bubblegum pop." She would hold various positions at ABC Records and Ariola records before joining Elektra Records in 1980.

Over the next decade, Rhone would show her worth, earning a number of enviable promotions and working with some of the best names in the music business. In 1986, she was named senior vice president/general manager of Atlantic Records and became responsible for guiding the careers of Levert, The System, MC Lyte, Miki Howard and Yo-Yo. Her vision and keen business sense helped Atlantic Records become a powerhouse in black music. Under Rhone's reign, Billboard Magazine named the label the No. 1 Black Music Division in 1988, a major coup for Atlantic, which in its heyday had put Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding on the map but had struggled in the years before Rhone came on board.

As a female in a male-dominated field, Rhone has been instrumental in helping female artists have a voice in the boardroom as strong as their voice in the recording studio, Murray said.

"She's taken it beyond just being a woman who can sing," Murray told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "Because of Sylvia Rhone, so many female artists have been able to be more than just about music and become viable players in the industry.

"She's really about the artist and making sure the music gets out there," Murray added, saying that Rhone "has developed a reputation of tapping artists that will produce quality music, not music that will simply generate buzz."

"In today's music culture, it's all about that first week's sales, ring tone sells and other ancillary projects," Murray told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "But for someone like Sylvia, it's about putting out a great record that even years from now, people will be playing, kind of like a Stevie Wonder or Prince record."

That knack for finding quality musicians and pairing them with quality projects is the legacy that Rhone will leave, although she is a far cry from leaving her final imprint on the business.

"Her success shows it's a hard road, but we still need to be there - and there still needs to be more of us," Murray said. "There needs to be more of us in executive positions making sure that the true artistry is captured and marketed in a way that is both good for the artist and speaks to the soul."

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