Sylvia Rhone, who received the City of Hope’s 2019 Spirit of Life Award—the first-ever African-American woman to be so honored—has spent her career making history, not least as the first black woman to head a major U.S. record company. She first achieved that feat leading the Elektra Entertainment Group in 1994, reprising it in 2004 when she was named President of Motown Records and EVP of Universal Records. Earlier this year, when she was promoted to Chairman/CEO of Epic, she was still the only woman of color in the top job at a major label. Sony Music boss Rob Stringer, announcing the move, hailed her—accurately —as “a trailblazing and iconic executive.”

Rhone was born to Marie Christmas Rhone—a schoolteacher at Hunter College Elementary, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., the SCLC and Adam Clayton Powell—and Bob Rhone, who, together with his wife, became an important part of the political and social fabric of Harlem. Sylvia was accepted to Wharton, one of the most prestigious business schools in the U.S., and graduated with a B.S. in economics. Fresh out of college, she entered an international management program at Banker’s Trust in NYC. One day, as she tells it, she decided to wear pants to work—and was told to go home and change. “I never went back,” she declared.

Instead, she opted to pursue a dream she’d secretly held since college, at which time she attended a Jackson 5 concert as the guest of the group’s manager, Suzanne DePasse—a friend of her mother’s. “I watched her working,” recalled Rhone of DePasse, “and something clicked.”  She began her music career in 1974 with Buddah Records and subsequently worked her way up the ranks through ABC Records and Ariola Records.

But it was finding mentor and champion Doug Morris that truly helped shape Rhone’s executive trajectory. That vital chapter began at WMG, where Morris was President at Atlantic Records. “She flew right to the top” upon being hired, Morris recalls. “She can be tough as nails but always on the right side of the line. I’m very proud to have played a part in her career. She’s special.”

After a successful run as the regional promo manager in the Northeast for Elektra, Rhone was promoted to Director of National Black Music Marketing at Atlantic in 1985, reporting to Morris. The next year saw her promoted to SVP/GM of Atlantic, taking on additional responsibilities in the A&R and marketing departments and overseeing the development and launch of artists like En Vogue, The System, Levert, Brandy, Yo Yo, The D.O.C., MC Lyte and Chuckii Booker, among others.

In 1990, Rhone pitched Morris on the formation of the EastWest label and, with her subsequent appointment as Elektra Chairman, became the first African-American woman to head a major record company. And she’s never looked back.

It should be noted that Sylvia is often recognized for the fierce sartorial flair and eclectic, sometimes avant-garde fashion sense that have always been her signature. She’s also been widely celebrated for her refusal to tailor her style to convention as regards age, position or environment.

Excerpted from History of the Music Biz: Rainmakers II; read the entire piece here.

Rhone with Sean Levert, Dave Glew, Gerald Levert, Mark Gordon and Doug Morris

with Morris, Bob Morgado, Jimmy Iovine, Gerald Levin, Mel Lewinter and Danny Goldberg

The Goldmind and Elektra crews celebrate Missy Elliott's hot streak

Camila Cabello and Sylvia enjoy a "Havana" night with Epic's Sandra Afloarei, Joey Arbagey, Ezekiel Lewis, Rick Sackheim, manager Roger Gold and the label's Lisa Kasha.

At the Spirit of Life L.A. kickoff breakfast with the legendary Clarence Avant, physician Loretta Ehrunmwunsee and Motown chief Ethiopia Habtemariam

with our own Todd Hensley and Simon Glickman, because she couldn't get out of it