The Petrillo Ban of 1942–’44: Past & Future at War

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​The Aug. 1, 1942, issue of DownBeat announces the recording ban.

(Photo: DownBeat Archives)

The writing had been on the wall for weeks, maybe years. Then, 80 years ago this August, Jimmy Petrillo lowered the boom on the record business. Like the DownBeat banner said, “All Recording Stops Today.”

It was not just a trade story. It was a national event. The New York Times ran it as a front-page, above-the-fold war story. Unlike the other war — Germany and Japan — this was a fight between the American Federation of Musicians and the record industry. Everyone figured it would be brief once folks came to their senses. But that was to underestimate the imperial rule of James C. Petrillo.

Today, I’d wager not a single reader of this story could name the current president of the AFM. But in the 1940s and ’50s, Petrillo was the most famous labor leader in America. To comics from Bob Hope to Bugs Bunny, he was a punchline. The joke was always the same: Nobody messes with the almighty godfather of 130,000 working musicians.

For years, Petrillo’s luddite views of the record business had convinced him that discs stole up to 60% of live music jobs. In 1937, as president of Local 10 in Chicago, he had briefly shut down the city’s studios. But once elected AFM chief in 1940, Petrillo’s power became national and dangerous. When he demanded record companies pay into a union fund for musicians whose records were broadcast, they drew the line and prepared for battle.

There were three major companies then: Victor, Columbia and Decca. During May, June and July, the rush was on. Like officious squirrels fixing for a cold winter, they banked backlogs of inventory in marathon sessions. At midnight, July 31, 1942, the race ended and the standoff began.

Had it been brief, it would have left no mark. But Petrillo’s stubbornness was surpassed only by his patience. He was in no hurry. Not even a personal request from President Roosevelt moved him. Meanwhile, that backlog would have a shelf life of only about six months. Harry James recorded “I’ve Heard That Song Before” just under the line on July 31. The following spring it hatched into a huge hit. But the pile was low by then because no matter how carefully the companies rationed their stashes, no one could record a song in July 1942 that hadn’t been written yet.

Since new songs couldn’t get recorded, reissues boomed, giving old ones a second chance. When Sinatra-mania swept the country in 1942–’43, publisher Lou Levy reminded Columbia that it had recorded the singer as an unknown “boy vocalist” with Harry James in 1939. Among the songs was “All Or Nothing At All.” When Columbia reissued it in 1943 as a Frank Sinatra disc, the same record that had sold less than 8,000 four year earlier became Sinatra’s first million seller. Compliments of Petrillo, thank you.

Hollywood generated hits, too, not all of them expected. “As Time Goes By” was a forgotten 1931 song in the Warner Bros. catalog when the studio blew off the dust and inserted it into Casablanca for Dooley Wilson. The movie turned it into a wartime romantic anthem. But neither Wilson nor any other singer could re-record it. The only available version was the 1931 original by Rudy Vallee on Victor. It was rushed back into print in 1943 for a much younger audience who barely remembered Vallee as a singer and now thought of him as a character actor in Preston Sturgis films. People may change, but a recording is immutable.

The strike affected only commercial records, not radio, clubs or concerts. And Petrillo excused Victory Discs from any sanction, since they were strictly for the armed forces. So music went on. But the record industry struggled. It looked for detours.

Soon someone had a devious insight. If singers could not record with musicians, maybe they could record with other singers. On Oct. 15, 1942, DownBeat quietly whispered a rumor on page 15 that Sinatra was considering recording with an a cappella chorus. He denied it, but the idea was in the air. Sinatra had just left Tommy Dorsey and was still looking for a record company. He didn’t have the standing yet to challenge the great Petrillo.

But Bing Crosby did. By 1943 he was the only entertainer to dominate all three media platforms simultaneously: broadcasting, records and movies. He was an amiable colossus. So, in the middle of the strike, Decca scheduled its first musician-less Crosby session. Decca president Jack Kapp cautiously asked Petrillo if an a cappella choir would violate the strike. It must have seemed harmless enough. He approved.

On July 2, Crosby made “Sunday, Monday Or Always” with the Ken Darby singers. Not only was the song a hit, it was a precedent. Suddenly, Sinatra, Perry Como and Dick Haymes began recording with their own choral accompaniments. If you’ve studied popular music, maybe you’ve noticed that sudden cluster of a cappella recordings in 1943 and wondered, was it passing musical fad or an expression of wartime sentiment? It was neither. It was a union-busting loophole that Petrillo naively walked into, and — upon closer consideration — quickly walked back with threats of secondary strikes. Soon silence returned to the disc business.

Meanwhile, unity within the Big Three was softening. Decca’s only business was selling records, and it was growing eager for a settlement. But Victor and Columbia were holding because they were owned by parent companies (RCA and CBS) whose primary businesses — network radio — were thriving. It gave them a financial cushion to outlast Petrillo. By late summer, Decca was ready for a separate peace and told the others, “It’s every man for himself.” Victor and Columbia released Decca with no hard feelings.

Lawyers got down to cases, and on Sept. 8, 1943, Decca and the AFM announced “full agreement.” For the first time in 13 months, the turntables started spinning and not just at Decca. A procession of independent jazz labels jumped into action: Commodore, Blue Note, Signature, Keynote, Dial, Savoy, Joe Davis, Continental, Apollo, even Capitol. Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers, Cootie Williams, Edmond Hall, Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday were making some of the best sides of their careers. A few were newcomers: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Oscar Pettiford, Don Byas and Al Haig. Some thought they sounded “different.” They were. With no records made during the crucial years of 1942–’43, the first stirrings of bebop had gone unrecorded and overlooked.

Meanwhile, what was now the Big Two soldiered on in silent idleness for 14 months, paralyzed by anger, pride and a fear of concessions that could affect their network parents. It was not only an enormous financial sacrifice, but a benevolently insane gift to its biggest competitor. With no competition, Decca would enjoy a virtual monopoly of the entire pop record market through the end of 1944. Having lost sight of their purpose, Victor and Columbia simply redoubled their efforts.

Even more infuriated were musicians and singers pinned down under exclusive contracts. Decca may have had Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, but the Big Two still controlled the record careers of nearly everyone else from Toscanini to Tommy Dorsey. During a period that produced such songs as “My Shining Hour,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Swingin’ On A Star,” “You’ll Never Know” and the entire score from Oklahoma, no one could record any of them. Dorsey was so furious with Victor, Variety reported him “huddling” with Decca over a label switch. Meanwhile, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa, Perry Como, Harry James and even Sinatra sat benched on the sidelines during the prime money earning years of their careers, all over a few of Petrillo’s jobs.

It all ended with the final surrender of Victor and Columbia on Nov. 11, 1944. Record sales rebounded as the war ended, the economic consequences of the strike were quickly absorbed, and all the songs that couldn’t be recorded at the time ultimately got made. The fight against Petrillo had been for nothing.

The real damage was to the historic record of a moment in American music. Neither the progressive wartime bands of Earl Hines or Billy Eckstine, nor musicians such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie made extensive commercial records at a time when they were sketching the early outlines of bebop within the dance band formats of the time. So a revolutionary new music evolved largely behind closed doors, beyond the ear of its public. When it suddenly appeared on disc and in concerts in early 1945, it sounded surprising, shocking, even weird to some. Most caught up. But in a power struggle that seemed so important at the time, history was cheated of essential documents.

The larger lesson is that what seemed like a battle between labor and management in 1942–’44 was really and struggle over technology in a larger war between the past and the future. Petrillo had grown up in a world where music was performed in front of you. It was a world he never outgrew or wished to abandon. In any such struggle, time and tide are on the side of the young and the future, which is always scary and rarely reveals its ultimate consequences.

Today, people routinely stream music on Spotify and record souvenirs of concerts they attend on their phones. Imagine what Petrillo would think of that. DB



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