The Man Who Crippled the Recording Industry: James Caesar Petrillo and the American Federation of Musicians Recording Bans

THE MAN WHO CRIPPLED THE RECORDING INDUSTRY
James Caesar Petrillo and the American Federation of
Musicians Recording Bans (1942 – 1948)
By Allan Sutton

An excerpt from the upcoming Recording the ’Forties*

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For professional musicians in the 1940s, membership in the American Federation of Musicians was essential. Among the few to resist were members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose management was firmly opposed to unionization. Under pressure from RCA’s David Sarnoff, BSO officials finally capitulated, and the newly unionized orchestra was allowed to return to the RCA studios. No sooner had it done so than the BSO found itself shut out again, this time by an industry-wide recording ban ordered by AFM president James Caesar Petrillo. [1]

Petrillo had long held a vendetta against what he termed “canned music,” blaming it for the downturn in live performances. Widely viewed by recording-industry officials as a coarse, obscenity-spewing petty dictator, Petrillo did not hesitate to employ strong-arm tactics against anyone who opposed him.

In early 1941, Petrillo recruited bandleader-turned-recording director Ben Selvin to undertake a survey intended to prove that recorded music was responsible for the declining employment of union musicians. [2]  Selvin’s questionnaires, individually tailored for commercial record companies, transcription producers, radio stations, advertising agencies, and jukebox operators, were mailed in the spring of 1941. Based upon the initial responses, involving the radio-transcription business, Selvin concluded, “The amount of money spent for musical talent on recorded [as opposed to live] programs is much higher than anyone in the industry would have guessed.” [3]

Armed with Selvin’s rather flimsy findings, Petrillo presented his case at the AFM’s convention on June 9, 1941. He contended that although AFM members earned approximately $3 million annually in royalties from recordings, they lost $100 million as the result of what he termed “reduced employment opportunities” from the substitution of recorded for live music. Petrillo estimated that eight- to nine-thousand AFM musicians could be put to work if records were not available and establishments were forced to rely on live music, while admitting that he had no firm statistics to back up his claims.

The issue came to a head in June 1942, when Petrillo ordered members of the Ringling Brothers–Barnum and Bailey Circus Band to strike. Director Merle Evans’ assurance that he and his musicians were “perfectly satisfied” with salaries and working conditions were ignored, and John Ringling North’s request to personally negotiate with Petrillo went unanswered. [4]

Petrillo’s  demands included higher wages, with time-and-a-half for Sunday performances, which were rejected. After a brief postponement to allow the band to play a benefit for handicapped children, the strike order was enforced. Circus officials responded by substituting recorded music over a public-address system during the band’s involuntary absence. [5]  It apparently was lost on Petrillo his strike order caused live musicians to be replaced by recordings — the very situation he had recently railed against at the AFM conference.

Having defeated a circus band, Petrillo next targeted American youth. In July he banned the broadcasting of a popular high-school band festival in Interlochen, Michigan. The action brought universal condemnation from the public, the broadcast industry, and members of Congress. Petrillo was unrepentant. “When amateur musicians occupy the air,” he proclaimed, “it means less work for professionals.” [6]

The incident prompted the Federal Communications Commission to launch an investigation of Petrillo, but it resulted in only a mild rebuke from chairman James Fly, and a vague recommendation that a committee be formed to study the situation. [7]  Iowa Senator D. W. Clark filed a formal, if ineffectual, resolution charging Petrillo with depriving the students of their freedom to make their musical talents known, while undermining the national music education program. [8]  Stanley E. Hubbard, president of radio station KSPT (St. Paul, Minnesota), issued a scathing denouncement of Petrillo that read in part,

[Petrillo] forbade the broadcast…from the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Mich., in which 160 teen-age boys and girls from 40 states hoped to play for their folks at home. He stopped eight Chinese Boy Scouts from blowing a fanfare in Chicago unless eight union musicians were hired to stand by while the scouts tooted… That is the kind of power Fuehrer Petrillo wields today. [9]

Undeterred, Petrillo next threatened to bar AFM musicians from making radio transcriptions. Key figures in the broadcast industry responded swiftly, with a threat of their own. Five years earlier, broadcasters had informally agreed to retain house orchestras, whether needed or not, after Petrillo complained that radio’s reliance on recorded music was causing widespread unemployment of union musicians. Now, Broadcasting magazine predicted,

If transcriptions and recordings are banned, as ordered by Mr. Petrillo, it is generally expected that the [broadcast] industry, almost as a unit, will be disposed to release staff orchestras, since the gentlemen’s agreement will have been violated… In a nutshell, the overall view appears to be that AFM has walked out on its 1937 agreement by banning transcription performance, and that the next move is up to Mr. Petrillo. [10]

Petrillo’s next move was to escalate the threat of a recording ban by union musicians, extending it to commercial recordings as well as transcriptions. On June 8, 1942, he announced,

We will make records for home consumption, but we won’t make them for jukeboxes. We will make them for the armed forces of the United States and its allies, but not for commercial and sustaining radio programs.” [11]

But Petrillo was not content to stop there. Within several weeks, he decided to extend the ban to all recordings, including those made for home use. On June 27, he served notice to transcription and record companies that all recording by union musicians would cease on August 1. [12]  The New York Times reported,

As part of a campaign to force radio stations, soda fountains, bars and restaurants to employ union musicians instead of using recordings, Mr. Petrillo has informed all the record manufacturers that the 140,000 members of his A.F. of  L. organization will not make “records, electrical transcriptions or any other form of electrical reproduction of music” after July 31…

Even if Mr. Petrillo’s economics were not fantastic, it is intolerable that a labor leader should dictate to the American people what kind of music it shall or shall not hear. But of we need waste little time in exposing the nonsense in Mr. Petrillo’s economics, we should waste less in denouncing Mr. Petrillo as an individual. It is much more important to remind ourselves that it is our political muddle-headedness and spinelessness that have made the Petrillo type of dictator possible. [13]

In last-minute effort to fend off the Petrillo threat, U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle announced on July 23 that he would file for injunction under federal anti-trust laws to prevent implementation of the ban. [14]   But on August 1, with Biddle having yet to act, Petrillo’s recording ban went into effect.

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August 1, 1942

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Petrillo agreed informally to exempt transcriptions for the armed forces and government agencies involved with the war effort, although he soon reneged on even that meager concession. Recordings for motion-picture soundtracks would still be allowed, provided that the recordings did not find their way onto the airwaves or commercially issued records.

Private home recording would also be permitted, but only if the manufacturers of recording blanks would guarantee the recordings would not be broadcast or used in jukeboxes, a provision that was obviously impossible to enforce. There would be no cooperation from the blank manufacturers, who disclaimed any responsibility for the uses to which their products were put. With recording blanks and inexpensive portable recording units readily available, a lively underground market soon developed for custom-duplicated discs from private recording sessions, live performances, and broadcast captures.

There would be no immediate concessions from the record companies, nor full-fledged support from most AFM musicians. Black band-leaders in Philadelphia loudly protested the ban, claiming a potential loss of a half-million dollars in income. [15]  In New York, union musicians attended clandestine hotel-room recording sessions for Eli Oberstein’s Hit label, which issued the results under some imaginative aliases.

Record-company executives, according to the New York Times, were content “to sit back and try to outwait Mr. Petrillo,” allowing public outrage to work in their favor. Directors and officials of the National Association of Broadcasters met informally with record company executives to coordinate their strategies, but apparently neither group felt any compulsion to meet with Petrillo.

The record companies were allowed to continue manufacturing and selling their pre-ban recordings, and with Petrillo’s deadline looming, they scrambled to stockpile enough new recordings to sustain them through the work stoppage. “This they did on a 24-hour-per-day schedule,” Billboard reported. “When August 1 arrived, they emerged from their studios with enough masters to last well into 1943.” [16]  The same article predicted a return to normal recording operations around January 1943, “assuming that all goes as expected.” It did not.

Petrillo’s actions continued to draw fire from members of Congress. Iowa Senator D. W. Clark, still seething over the Interlochen incident, took the floor on August 29 to denounce Petrillo as a thug whose actions jeopardized national morale during a time of crisis. [17]  At Clark’s urging, a Senate resolution was drafted empowering the Interstate Commerce Commission to investigate whether the recording ban constituted restraint of trade under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. [18]

The Justice Department’s request for injunction was denied in October by a federal judge in Petrillo’s home district of Chicago. Refusing to hear the defense’s arguments, he dismissed the case on the grounds that anti-trust laws did not apply to labor unions. [19]   As the ban dragged on, the case was referred to the Supreme Court, which in February 1943 upheld the lower-court’s decision that the ban was merely a labor dispute, and thus not covered under the Sherman Act. [20]

Of the major publications, only Life magazine sided with Petrillo post-ban. A fawning, six-page feature article by Robert Coughlan, published two days after the recording ban took effect, depicted Petrillo as a gruff but good-hearted defender of the working class who was only looking out for his “boys.” [21]

Coughlan was largely alone in his assessment. Three weeks after his story appeared in Life, the American Institute of Public Opinion released the results of a George Gallup poll concerning Petrillo and the AFM strike. Seventy-five percent of respondents said they opposed the ban, and seventy-three percent favored intervention by the federal government. Dr. Gallup reported,

A majority of those who disapprove Petrillo’s actions feel strongly, even vehemently, about the subject. Typical of their views were such statements as, “he’s a petty dictator,” “he’s suffering from a bad case of overgrown ego,”  “it’s disgraceful,” and “he ought to go over and join Mussolini.” [22]

The producers of several small labels attempted to negotiate directly with Petrillo, to no avail. Hazzard E. Reeves of Reeves Sound Studios, and E. V. Brinckerhoff of Brinckerhoff Studios, formed a trade association comprising thirteen New York–area recording studios, which Reeves felt would give them an advantage in negotiating with the AFM. [23]  But so far as can ascertained, they received no acknowledgment  from Petrillo. Neither, initially, did Musicraft president Paul Puner.

In February 1943, Pruner attempted to contact Petrillo with a proposal that Musicraft, as a small company, be allowed to pay a lower royalty rate than what Petrillo was demanding. In return, Musicraft would publicly affirm its support of the AFM’s basic principles. [24]  After receiving no acknowledgment, Puner followed up on March 11 with a letter requesting a prompt reply.

Petrillo’s reply was a curt brush-off. [25]  Undeterred, Puner next sent what Billboard termed an “impassioned wire” to Petrillo, desperately offering to negotiate with him under any circumstances, at a date of Petrillo’s choosing. This time Puner received a note stating the matter would be referred to the AFM’s International Executive Board on April 15. [26]  Eventually Puner received a personal rejection letter from Petrillo, who dismissed Musicraft’s offer as “peanuts.” [27]   Clearly, Petrillo was not looking to accommodate small producers or negotiate settlements on a company-by-company basis. [28]

At the outset, the major labels seemed well-positioned to weather what was expected to be a short-lived strike. For a time they made do by drawing down their existing stockpile of masters, combing the vaults for unissued pre-ban recordings, and reissuing some previously deleted material. But they were soon forced to become more creative.

In mid-January 1943, Billboard reported that Decca was about to release the last of its pre-ban recordings, and speculated that Victor and Columbia might soon have to follow suit. [29]  With no more new material to offer, Decca’s solution was to substitute vocal ensembles (vocalists not being AFM members, and thus not bound to honor the ban) for instrumental backing. The idea was soon copied by Columbia, Victor, and a host of minor labels.

“The wholly vocal disks are not being taken seriously as a long-term substitute,” Billboard reported. [30]  But  they infuriated Petrillo, who resorted to personal intimidation in an attempt to stem the flow. “Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and other leading vocalists have been contacted,” he warned a reporter, “and have promised AFM they won’t make records.” [31]

Petrillo stepped up the pressure on recording-studio directors as well. In June 1943, he summoned former ally Ben Selvin, along with RCA’s Leonard Joy, before the board of Local 802 to demand they take no actions “against the best interests of the union.” A Billboard reporter observed,

Although AFM officials made no threats, their “requests” can be quickly enforced, as arrangers and copyists employed for vocal waxings are AFM members. The union has made it plain that it expects cooperation from all its members, and indicated that practically all the record and transcription firms have executives who hold union cards. [32]

One producer refused to be cowed. New instrumental recordings continued to appear on Eli Oberstein’s new Hit label, although they were not credited to any recognizable bands. One anonymous informant, identified in a 1976 interview only as “the music director of a major label,” remembered participating in a clandestine Oberstein session:

One day I found this ad for an arranger… I was told to report to a certain room at the Hotel Claridge at nine that night… and there was Eli Oberstein. In the room with him was a nine-piece orchestra and a disc cutter. Eli had hung blankets over the windows so that the noise from the street wouldn’t be too loud and had stuffed towels under the door so that we wouldn’t bother other guests. Between nine and six the following morning, that band must have cut a dozen hit tunes. I sat right there and did the arrangements, and they sight-read them. Eli paid us all in cash as we left. I don’t know who those guys were, but they were good. [33]

The band sides were attributed to such patently fictitious conductors as Johnny Jones, Peter Piper, and Willie Kelly, leading to a long-standing guessing game among modern discographers as to who was actually responsible. [34]  Pee Wee Irwin reportedly admitted in later years that, being short of cash at the time, he had taken the risk and directed the “Willie Kelly” sessions for Oberstein. [35]

The band recordings soon caught Petrillo’s attention, since there was no evidence that Oberstein had obtained recording licenses for the issued titles. But it was Arthur Fields’ vocal rendition of “Der Fuehrer’s Face” for Hit  that touched-off what would become an epic clash between Oberstein and Petrillo. [36]

Although Fields as a vocalist was not bound to honor the AFM ban, the record’s sparse instrumental backing placed it within the union’s jurisdiction. Oberstein initially claimed that the recording had been made with a “local pickup crew.” [37]  He later changed his story, claiming the masters had come from Mexico, leading some insiders to joke that he must mean Mexico, New Jersey. [38]  “Call it bootlegging,” Oberstein told a Down Beat reporter, “but it’s legal.” [39]

Oberstein’s tale failed to convince officials of AFM Local 802, who summoned him before the board to demand he reveal the names of the musicians involved. Oberstein ignored the summons and was given until October 22, 1942, to either testify or be judged “guilty without explanation.” [40]  The outcome was eagerly awaited by industry officials, some of whom expressed hope that Oberstein would successfully defy the union. [41]  They would be disappointed.

Examination of the union logs failed to reveal any evidence that “Der Fuehrer’s Face” was an AFM-licensed recording. Finally facing the AFM board on October 22, Oberstein elaborated on his latest tale, claiming the masters had been purchased by an unnamed “associate” from an unknown Mexican studio through one Manuel Valdez, who was not available to corroborate the story because he was “on his way back to Mexico.” [42]  Oberstein went on to claim that Victor and Decca were also obtaining many of their pop-tune recordings  from Mexican studios, which officials of both companies vehemently denied. [43]

On December 24, Oberstein submitted to another grilling by the AFM board, at which he agreed to turn over a list of all masters he supposedly had obtained from Mexican sources. In the meantime, union officials were investigating some suspicious artist credits on Oberstein’s labels that had them “scratching their heads,” according to a Billboard report. No one had heard of Oberstein’s mysterious new band leaders, none of whose names appeared on Local 802’s rolls. The break for Petrillo came after Oberstein’s “Peter Piper” was spotted in the union rolls as a pseudonym for Jack Small, who was immediately summoned to testify before the AFM’s trial board. [44]

Petrillo finally had his evidence that Eli Oberstein was recording with union musicians in defiance of the AFM ban. Oberstein was expelled from the union and had his recording license revoked in June 1943, on the grounds that his continued release of instrumental recordings was “damaging to the interests of the Federation.” [45]  Petrillo was not finished with Oberstein, however. Nineteen music publishers whose songs had been recorded by Hit during the ban were summoned to Petrillo’s office, where the trade press predicted they would be strong-armed into withholding recording rights from any company, such as Oberstein’s Classic Records (the makers of Hit), that was deemed “unfair” by the AFM. [46]

While Petrillo succeeded in largely crippling the consumer record industry, he was less successful in his attempts to intimidate the transcription companies. Many were involved in work for the war effort and could rely on support from Congress, which had already made clear its disdain for Petrillo. Having reneged on his early promise not to interfere with war-related transcription work, Petrillo found himself facing a group of influential executives who charged him with bypassing governmental agencies and undermining the war effort. They asked that the matter be referred to the War Labor Board.

Just hours after the executives released their statement on June 23, 1943, Petrillo agreed to accept mediation, narrowly avoiding intervention by the Labor Board for the time being. He attempted to minimize his defeat at a press conference, dismissing the burgeoning transcription industry as too small to be of any interest to the AFM. [47]  Several month later, V-Disc director Robert Vincent, with the backing of Pentagon officials, began applying pressure to Petrillo to exempt the V-Disc recording program from the AFM recording ban. Petrillo finally acquiesced on October 27, 1943, but only after insisting on a long list of conditions.

In the meantime, negotiations between AFM officials and a committee comprising representatives of CBS (Columia), Decca, and RCA had broken down. However, Decca attorney Milton Diamond had continued to meet privately with Petrillo. [48]  On September 18, 1943, Decca president Jack Kapp announced that his company and its World Broadcasting transcription subsidiary had signed four-year contracts with the AFM that would allow them to resume recording immediately. [49]  

The terms were not immediately disclosed, although within the month Petrillo let it be known that they included payment of a percentage of Decca’s gross revenue directly to the AFM. [50] The proceeds — later revealed to be a flat half-cent royalty per new recording sold — were to be held by AFM officials in an “employment fund” that reportedly would finance make-work projects for AFM members deprived of “normal employment opportunities” because of competition from recorded music. [51]

Capitol Records, which had barely launched before the ban was enacted, capitulated on October 9, agreeing to the same terms as Decca. [52]  Four independent transcription companies signed slightly modified agreements several weeks later, amidst accusations from the National Association of Broadcasters that the payment plans were “as economically and socially unsound as extortion is immoral and illegal.” [53]

Many industry observers predicted that other producers would rush to sign with the AFM in a bid to counter Capitol’s and Decca’s early advantage. Within a matter of months, virtually all of the record and transcription capitulated, leaving only RCA and Columbia as the last significant holdouts. “Privately,” Broadcasting magazine reported, “industry leaders made no bones about their feeling that had been ‘sold out’ and are now ‘over a barrel.’” [54]

In April 1944, attorneys for RCA and Columbia called for the War Labor Board to lift the AFM ban and allow their companies to resume recordings, pending a challenge to the AFM’s “employment fund” provision. When a meeting between record-company and AFM officials ended in a stalemate, more radical solutions (including a temporary government takeover of the Columbia and RCA facilities) were floated in some quarters. [55]

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A hostile James Petrillo testifies before the National War Labor Board in 1943.

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Facing rapidly escalating pressure from the recording and broadcast industries, the National War Labor Board ordered an end to the AFM ban on June 15, which went unheeded. After Petrillo refused to cooperate at a show-cause hearing on August 18, the case was referred to the Office of Economic Stabilization. President Roosevelt finally weighed in on October 4, 1944, declaring in a strongly worded telegram to Petrillo,

It is the opinion of the Director of Economic Stabilization that under all the present circumstances, the noncompliance by your union is not unduly impeding the war effort. But this noncompliance may encourage other instances of noncompliance which will impede the war effort… Therefore, in the interest of respecting the considered decision of the Board, I request your union to accept the directive orders of the National War Labor Board. What you regard as your loss will certainly be your country’s gain.” [56]

However, it would not be the AFM’s loss. After considering the matter for a week, Petrillo rebuffed the president in a rambling nine-page response. Since virtually every other record and transcription company had already settled with the AFM, Petrillo declared, he saw no reason to offer any concessions to the last two major holdouts. [57]

With no alternatives left, Columbia and RCA (including the latter’s NBC Thesaurus transcription division) finally capitulated to Petrillo’s demands on the evening of Saturday, November 11, 1944, with a formal signing set for the following Monday. After a twenty-eight–month hiatus, RCA resumed commercial recording activities on Sunday, November 12, at 1:43 pm. Columbia followed suit six hours later. [58]

RCA recording manager James W. Murray conceded, “We had no alternative but to meet the demands that we make direct payment to the union’s treasury or to abandon our record business.” Columbia’s Edward Wallerstein fixed the blame firmly on Washington lawmakers, declaring, “We are finally accepting because of the government’s unwillingness or incapacity to enforce its orders.” [59]  Although Petrillo denied that the contracts offered to CBS and RCA were punitive, they contained restrictive clauses not found in those the AFM had signed with other companies, including a provision that allowed artists to cancel their recording contracts in the event of an AFM strike.

In the end, industry experts estimated that the AFM ban had done little damage to most record companies, and might actually have benefited some. There had been no decline in record sales or profits during the ban. There had been a lack of significant growth within the industry, but that was attributed more to wartime shortages, and the fact that a vast number of record customers were out of the market until their enlistments were up, than to the ban. In addition, Capitol and other promising newcomers had gained a competitive edge by signing with the AFM and resuming production while the two industry behemoths remained locked in their losing battle with Petrillo. [60]

 

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Recording companies — whether large, small, or still in the planning stages — would enjoy an unprecedented postwar boom. As early as October 1943, a Billboard columnist had observed,

Old-timers who remember how recording companies mushroomed in the days that followed the wind-up of World War I would blink in amazement if they could peak at the post-war blueprints now being drawn by dozens of minor diskers with major American ambitions. And there’ll be business enough for all of them, in the opinion of one of the most astute and important record men in the field today. No less than 300,000,000 annual record sale is the figure at which he pegs the post-war potential. [61]

Petrillo monitored that boom with a growing sense of indignation as record-company profits soared and broadcasters made even greater use of transcriptions. Current AFM contracts, signed at the end of the 1942–1943 recording ban and due to expire on December 31, 1947, were now deemed inadequate in light of the recording industry’s strong rebound and rapid growth.

At the AFM’s summer 1947 convention, Pertrillo once again threatened to shut down all commercial recording activity to force further concessions. Members of the House labor subcommittee immediately launched an investigation into the union, only to have it temporarily squelched by a young Richard Nixon, who favored giving Petrillo “a chance to be a good boy.” [62]

For public consumption, Petrillo made the same case as in 1942: Recorded music puts “live” musicians out of work, and musicians do not receive a fair proportion of the profits from record companies and jukebox operators. [63]  This time, however, there was speculation that Petrillo had a hidden agenda. Suspicions arose that he was using the recording companies as pawns in a scheme to pressure Congress to reject the Lea-Vanderberg and Taft-Hartley acts, which had the potential to undermine some union involvement in both the recording and broadcast fields. [64]

Petrillo was said to be especially concerned with preserving his union’s royalty-funded welfare plan, a concession he had wrung from the record companies at the end of the ban. Not subject to outside oversight or regulation, the fund was widely rumored to be enriching union officials at the expense of those it was intended to help. Under the proposed Taft-Hartley Act, it would have to be administered jointly by the AFM and the record companies, with benefits paid directly to the musicians rather than to the AFM — changes that Petrillo was determined to prevent. If record-industry officials were to join him in lobbying Congress to defeat those bills, Petrillo  hinted, then perhaps a new recording ban might be averted.

That alliance never materialized, and both bills were signed into law. Petrillo sprang into action with his usual barrage of threats hyperbole, and personal intimidation, declaring that “none of the union’s 220,000 members ever will record again.” [65]  But this time, the industry’s response was not what he had expected. The four major producers — Capitol, Columbia, Decca, and RCA — brushed off Petrillo’s threat, claiming to have already stockpiled enough new recordings to sustain them for at least a year (or two, in Capitol’s case). One unnamed record-company executive even welcomed the opportunity a ban would provide to weed out some competitors, telling Billboard,

We have the catalogs the smaller record companies don’t. Should a new record ban develop, Petrillo will be helping us to get rid of small-label competition. We’ll spread “revival” disks all over the market, and the minor companies could not follow suit… Year-long holiday is just what we need to clear up the backlog of orders for old discs. How many of the smaller companies can sweat out a year without new pop diskings? [66]

The same report noted that the record companies were paying $2 million in royalties into the AFM’s welfare fund annually, a large portion of which would dry up in the event of a ban. Petrillo’s threat to launch his own record company evaporated after Justice Department attorneys warned  that doing so could cause jeopardize the union’s protection as a labor organization under the Wagner Act.

After weighing Petrillo’s limited legal options, his increasingly close scrutiny by the federal officials, and the union’s potential financial losses should Petrillo impose a recording ban, many record-company executives decided to outwait him. Their confidence must have been bolstered considerably in October, after they received an invitation from the National Association of Broadcasters to join them in what was termed “an all-industry front against the AFM.” [67]

Petrillo also made the mistake of tipping his hand far too early. With a full five months remaining on their AFM contracts, the record companies began stockpiling masters at a feverish pace. There was even a song tribute to the effort, Jon and Sondra Steele’s “They All Recorded to Beat the Ban,” which became a surprise hit for the minuscule (and until then, utterly obscure) Damon Recording Studios of Kansas City. In an attempt to stem the stockpiling, the AFM refused to issue recording licenses to any new companies, to no avail.

Recording activities reached a new peak in October, when a rumor began circulating that Petrillo might move the ban forward by two months, to November 1. Billboard correctly predicted that “the next few weeks may see a good many label switches, in addition to the signing of still more talent.” [68]  Anxious producers went on signing sprees and attempted to lure competitors’ stars with better contracts. Universal, a small Chicago start-up, signed three new bands within a week. Aristocrat, a six-month-old race label, added more than a dozen new artists. Mercury talent scout Jimmy Hilliard, although reportedly “well-entrenched” with the label’s existing roster, signed nine new artists, in addition to purchasing masters from the defunct Vogue operation. Transcription producer Frederick W. Ziv, who had just signed a long-term contract with Guy Lombardo when the rumor surfaced, recalled,

We began a frantic race against time… Guy Lombardo and his crew sweated it out with us. We had them over at a New York recording studio virtually day and night. Occasionally we would take half an hour off to eat at a nearby restaurant, but mostly we had food brought in. Sofas and chairs served for cat-naps… We produced enough in the series to give us a respectable backlog and an assurance that our sales force could go out and sell Lombardo to the hilt, which they did. [69]

On the West Coast, some small independent producers threatened to withhold any further royalty payments to the AFM and openly announced plans to record with non-union talent, or to employ union musicians under aliases, as Eli Oberstein had done during the first AFM ban. Coast Records announced that it would step up its importation of Peerless discs from Mexico, and several other small labels hinted that they were already in contact with Mexican suppliers. [70]

Some enterprising individuals planned to cut masters on their own and offer them to the major labels, despite not holding active AFM recording licenses, only to discover that most companies would not accept them for fear of AFM reprisals. [71]  That did not deter one Dick Charles, an aspiring songwriter who recruited a group of high-school musicians to record his “Man on the Carousel” in his living room. The Dana label took a chance and issued the recording, with no repercussions reported. “Jocks already have been whirling ‘Carousel,’” Billboard reported, “and copies are due on retail shelves sometime this week.” [72]

November 1 came and went, and no ban was ordered. By then, however, it appeared certain that the AFM would refuse to renew its record-company contracts, and that a recording ban would be ordered on December 31. To skirt the new Taft-Hartley Act and avoid possible intervention by the Justice Department, Petrillo would not officially term the action a strike. Instead, union musicians would be instructed to “merely quit work” on that date. [73]

Richard Nixon, having belatedly realized that Petrillo would not be a “good boy” after all, now insisted that the Justice Department prosecute Petrillo and the AFM for conspiracy in restraint of trade if the recording ban was implemented. But he was thwarted by Justice Department attorneys, who after initially expressing puzzlement over Petrillo’s wording, concluded that “quitting work” was not synonymous with “striking,” and therefore was not an issue with which the department should become involved.

Once the ban was in effect, record producers began revisiting strategies that had been developed during the first AFM strike. Non-instrumental accompanists made a comeback, but on a grander scale than previously. For an April 1948 session by Jack Smith and the Clark Sisters, Capitol brought in a sixteen-voice chorus and a band consisting of kazoos and other toy instruments, presumably played by non-union talent. To lend a fuller sound to its vocal offerings by the Sportsmen Quartet, the company overdubbed accompanying tracks by the same group. Tower’s first post-ban session employed an eight-voice chorus, two harmonicas, and a ukulele to accompany singer Jack Owens. The King label recruited the non-union Harmi-Kings harmonica trio. [74]   Several small concerns skirted the ban by licensing European dance-band recordings, on which they overdubbed vocals by American artists.

Columbia was quick to point out that it had recently opened a new studio in Mexico City, far beyond the AFM’s reach. Bob Thiele, the president of Signature Records, also announced that he planned to move some recording operations to Mexico. [75]  But the largest Mexican recording operation was mounted by Standard Transcriptions, which had employed Mexican musicians during the first AFM ban. During the summer of 1948, Standard president Jerry King announced that his company was planning a Mexican trek that Billboard predicted would be “the largest single recording series yet attempted since the Petrillo ban.” Special arrangements were commissioned so that vocal choruses could be overdubbed by American singers once the masters arrived in the U.S.

King also offered to cut masters in Mexico for the other major transcription companies, the only restriction being that arrangements had to differ from those used his own recordings. [76]  There were no takers, but that apparently did not deter other producers from floating similar offers. For RCA and CBS, the Mexican option proved to be problematic. Union musicians were already on strike at Victor’s Mexico City operation, and a work stoppage reportedly was being planned for Columbia’s Mexican facilities.

There was a renewed interest in importing foreign-label pop recordings as well. Even before the ban, several companies had begun negotiating for the rights to foreign recordings, albeit primarily for the classical market. Keynote’s John Hammond had already secured U.S. pressing and distribution rights to what were claimed to be ten-thousand Czech recordings, and Capitol was in secret negotiations with Telefunken in Germany for its classical and foreign-language catalogs. Now it was reported that Capitol and Columbia were looking to license foreign pop material as well, from British sources. [77]  They idea was largely abandoned after encountering stiff resistance from Hardie Ratcliffe, assistant general secretary of the British Musicians’ Union, and a staunch Petrillo supporter.

Capitol Records, whose launch had been hampered by the earlier AFM action, was the first major label to openly defy the new ban. On February 21, 1948, it was reported that the company had ordered several of its most popular artists, including Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, and Wesley Tuttle, to report for recording sessions in defiance of the ban. Tuttle immediately contacted AFM Local 47 for guidance and was told to ignore the order. The situation turned into a standoff as rumors swirled that Capitol was preparing to test the legality of the ban in court. [78]

On the same day the Capitol news broke, Jerry King ordered band-leader Ike Carpenter to report for a February 25 Standard Transcriptions session, openly admitting that he intended to use Carpenter as a “guinea pig” to test the validity of the ban. The matter was referred to Local 47, which made it clear that Carpenter would face expulsion if he reported for the date. [79]

On April 10, 1948, a group of record-company that included James Murray (Victor), Frank White (Columbia), Milton Rackmil (Decca), A. Halsey Cowan (Signature), and Jack Pearl (representing the Phonograph Record Manufacturers’ Association, a consortium of small independent labels) met to discuss the advisability of approaching Petrillo personally. This time, in marked contrast to the earlier AFM ban, the record-company executives did not appear particularly concerned about the situation, or about appeasing Petrillo. Billboard reported,

No conclusions were reached, but the reps decided to think the matter over and go into it further at another meeting late next week… One disc exec reported that he “don’t much give a damn” about bringing the ban to an early close, and intimated he felt that such was the prevalent attitude among fellow diskers. [80]

The ban dragged on through the summer months, with disbursement and use of royalties paid to the union by record companies the major sticking point. But with the work stoppage was now costing many union members jobs, and crimping the flow of royalties into AFM’s coffers, Petrillo faced mounting internal pressure to resolve the standoff. In September he presented a sketchy proposal under which the royalty payments would be used to fund work for unemployed musicians. Among the many missing details was any mention of the new royalty rates the AFM intended to demand. Several major-label executives reported that they were taking Petrillo’s proposal home for further study but remained noncommittal. [81]  By mid-October, both sides acknowledged that they were at a complete stalemate.

Two weeks later, Petrillo and recording-industry representatives unexpectedly announced that they had agreed to terms of a new contract involving concessions from both sides, but particularly from the beleaguered union boss. An earlier demand for payment of royalties on all discs sold during the ban was dropped, in exchange for which the record companies agreed to a slight increase in the royalty rate for records that retailed for more than a dollar (comprising a small portion of total sales, primarily involving higher-end classical records). The proposed solution, including revisions to the way the royalty fund was administered, was to be submitted to the Justice Department, which would rule on its legality under the Taft-Hartley Act.

By the first week of November, one trade publication was predicting that the first post-ban recordings would begin reaching the market within a matter of days. [82]  The prediction proved to be more than a month premature. Recording could not begin until the Justice Department (which had become bogged down in an internal debate over the need to channel the request through the Labor Department) issued its advisory opinion on the new contract. With approval finally imminent, Billboard reported on November 11 that the record companies were gearing up to resume recording. [83]

A new five-year pact was finalized on Monday, November 13, and it was generally expected that record companies would rush to sign with AFM and resume recording, as they had in 1943. However, reactions were mixed among industry officials. At RCA headquarters, the mood was described as “festive.” But when a Billboard reporter encountered Decca’s Jack Kapp enjoying a leisurely lunch and asked why he wasn’t in the recording studio, Kapp replied, “What for? There’s nothing we particularly want to record.” [84]

The small independent labels, many of which were getting by reasonably well with non-union talent, were especially slow to sign. On December 25, Billboard reported, “In New York, indie diskeries have as yet shown no mad rush to take out AFM recording licenses.” On the West Coast, only three independent labels had signed with the AFM by that date. [85]

For union recording artists, the settlement proved to be a mixed blessing. Record-company executives had spent the year evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of their artists. Not all were welcomed back to the studios when recording resumed, as Billboard reported on Christmas day 1948:

Brandishing fountain pens in one hand and axes in the other, diskery artists-and-repertoire staffs geared for action on the talent front following the inking of the new recording contract. To date, the pens have been mightier than the axes, but it was plainly indicated that the axes should claim a considerable number of victims before the end of the week. Meanwhile, most of the a. and r. [artists and repertoire] men are propounding a “fewer but better” policy. [86]

The settlement effectively marked the end of James Caesar Petrillo’s decade-long rampage against the recording industry. He would go on to mount further skirmishes, particularly against radio and television producers, but would score no significant victories. In 1958, facing a potential revolt among Los Angeles musicians who believed his policies discouraged the hiring of union members by television studios, he resigned as president of the AFM. [87]

 

Notes

[1] O’Connell, Charles. The Other Side of the Record, pp. 260–261. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1947).

[2] Selvin, who had begun his recording career in the late ’teens as the director of a popular dance orchestra, was by this time the vice-president of Associated Music Publishers, and a long-time member of the American Federation of Musicians.

[3] “Cost of Record Music Talent Is Found Above Expectations.” Broadcasting (April 14, 1941), p. 54.

[4] “Settlement Talk Rumored After RB Drops Band in Pay Dispute.” Billboard (June 13, 1942), p. 38. The strike involved the main circus band, under Merle Evans’ direction, as well as the smaller sideshow band directed by Arthur Wright.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Union Head Protests.” Phoenix Arizona Republic (July 14, 1942), p. 2.

[7] “Action Against ‘Canned Music’ Scored by J. L. Fly.” Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times Leader (Jul 21, 1942), p. 2.

[8] “Senate Quiz on Petrillo; Clark and Vandenberg Hits Music ‘Tyranny’ by AFM.” Billboard (September 5, 1942), p. 62.

[9] “Hubbard Labels Petrillo as ‘Fuehrer’ of Musicians, Seeking to Wreck Radio.” Broadcasting (July 27, 1942), p. 8.

[10] “Industry Remains Calm on Petrillo Ban.” Broadcasting (July 13, 1942), p. 12.

[11] “Petrillo to Put Curb on Making of Records.” Chicago Tribune (June 9, 1942), p. 17.

[12] “Highlights of the Petrillo Recording Ban that Went Before; From 1942 to 1944.” Billboard (November 1, 1947), p. 20.

[13] “Mr. Petrillo Gives the Word.” New York Times (July 10, 1942), reprinted in Broadcasting (July 13, 1942), p. 12.

[14] U. S. Trust Suit Against Petrillo on Recording Bar.” St. Louis Dispatch (Jul 23, 1942), p. 1.

[15] “Hubbard Labels Petrillo as ‘Fuehrer’ of Musicians,” op. cit.

[16] “Shellac Shortage, Petrillo and War Have Little Fellows Groggy.” Billboard (August 29, 1942), p. 19.

[17] “Senate Quiz on Petrillo,” op. cit.

[18] “D of J Must Prove That AFM Conspires; ‘Labor Disputes’ Can’t Be Hit By Trust Laws.” Billboard (August 1, 1942), p. 19.

[19] “The Petrillo Decision.” Reno [NV] Gazette-Journal (Oct 16, 1942), p. 4.

[20] “Chronological Chart of Events in the A.F.M. Record Ban.” The Billboard 1944 Music Yearbook, p. 147.

[21] Coughlan, Robert. “Petrillo.” Life (August 3, 1942), pp. 68–70, 72, 74, 76.

[22] “75% of People Against Petrillo.” Billboard (September 5, 1942), p. 62.

[23] “Independents Form Record Association.” Broadcasting (August 10, 1942), p. 58.

[24] “Tiny Disker Tries to Steal Play from Big Firms with Petrillo Personally, But No Dice.” Billboard (April 3, 1943).

[25] “AFM Rejects Plan.” Broadcasting (March 29, 1943). P. 52.

[26] “Musicraft Asks Petrillo Again, Get Second ‘No.’” Billboard (April 10, 1943), p. 22

[27] Chasins, Gladys. “Recording Ban Grows Tighter; Vocalists Agree to Stop Recording Until AFM Lifts Ban.” Billboard (July 3, 1943).

[28] “Petrillo Won’t Settle Individually with Diskers; April 15 Meeting Set.” Variety (March 31, 1943), p. 35.

[29] “Petrillo Stands Pat.” Billboard (January 16, 1943), p. 20.

[30] “Tune Pile Getting Low.” Billboard (October 31, 1942), p. 62.

[31] Chasins, Gladys. “Recording Ban Grows Tighter; Vocalists Agree to Stop Recording Until AFM Lifts Ban.” Billboard (July 3, 1943).

[32] Chasins, op. cit.

[33] Quoted in Angus, Robert: “Pirates, Prima Donas, and Plain White Wrappers.” High Fidelity (December 1976). An attempt by researcher George Blacker in the 1980s to discover the anonymous music directors’ identity was unsuccessful.

[34] Pee Wee Irwin reportedly told writer Roy Evans that he was responsible for the Willie Kelly side.

[35] Evans, Roy. Undated letter to George Blacker (William R. Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press collection).

[36] Hit 7023, released on October 14, 1942.

[37] “Big Recording Whodunit; 802 to Investigate Oberstein’s Recording of Mysterious Bands.” Billboard (October 17, 1942), p. 20.

[38] “Whither Disk Biz, Petrillo?” Billboard (July 26, 1947), p. 23.

[39] “Discs Cut in Mexico, Says EO.” Down Beat (November 1, 1942). Oberstein apparently did have connections with one or more Mexican studios, as evidenced by the earlier release of some Mexico City recordings on his Varsity label; but “Der Fuehrer’s Face” appears to have been recorded in the same American studio as Hit’s pre-ban recordings, and the voice was unmistakably that of Arthur Fields, who is highly unlikely to have journeyed from New York to Mexico City just to fill a recording date for a cut-rate label. In a bizarre twist, Fields himself reportedly filed for an injunction to  halt sales and distribution of the record (“Now Oberstein Says Discs Are Mexican.” Billboard, October 31, 1942, p. 21). Little more was reported on the case, but based on the large number of surviving copies of Hit 7023, it seems unlikely the injunction was granted.

[40] “Discs Cut…,” op. cit.

[41] “Big Recording Whodunit,” op cit.

[42] “Oberstein Defends Records.” Billboard (October 31, 1942), p. 62.

[43] Ibid.

[44] “Oberstein’s ‘Peter Piper’ May Be 802’s Jack Small; Union Wants Some Answers.” Billboard (January 16, 1943), p. 20.

[45] Oberstein was later re-admitted to the union, but only after threatening to file a half-million dollar defamation suit against Petrillo, the AFM, and its officers, raising fears that “a lot of dirty linen will be washed in public” (“Obie Planning 500G Suit”; Billboard, July 10, 1943). Obertein’s Classic Records recording license was restored in early November 1943 (“AFM Okays Classic Recording License;” Billboard, November 13, 1943, p. 16).

[46] “Calls on Pubs to Put Screws on Black Market Recorders.” Billboard (June 5, 1943), p. 21.

[48] Robertson, Bruce.“Disc Meeting Discusses Performance Fee.” Broadcasting (August 9, 1943), p. 12.

[49] “Petrillo’s Permission.” Motion Picture Herald (September 25, 1943), p. 8. The AFM contracts signed by Decca, World Broadcasting, and the many companies that followed were effective as of January 1, 1944, but Petrillo allowed those companies to resume recording immediately upon signing.

[50] Robertson, Bruce. “Other Disc Firms May Yield to AFM Pact.” Broadcasting (October 4, 1943), p. 9.

[51] Ibid.

[52] “Capitol Records Signs with AFM.” Broadcasting (October 18, 1943), p. 60.

[53] “NAB Hits AFM Fees; Four Disc Firms Sign.” Broadcasting (October 25, 1943), p. 9.

[54] Robertson, “Other Disc Firms,” op. cit.

55] “Editorial: Jimmy’s Opportunities.” Broadcasting (October 9, 1944), p. 44.

[56] “FDR Telegram to Petrillo.” Broadcasting (October 9, 1944).

[57] “Chronological Chart of Events in the A.F.M. Record Ban,” op cit.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Stone, Floyd E. “Victorious Caesar Petrillo Talks; Hollywood Waits.” Motion Picture Herald (November 18, 1944), p. 13.

[60] “Ban Background and Effects.” The Billboard 1944 Music Year Book, p. 146.

[61] “Post-War Deluge of Diskers.” Billboard (October 2, 1943), p. 1

[62] “AFM ‘Stop Work’ Disk Move Irks Congressmen But It Puzzles Justice Department.” Billboard (October 25, 1947), p. 17.

[63] “For the Record — Mr. Petrillo.” Billboard (January 17, 1948), p. 25.

[64] “Whither Disk Biz, Petrillo? Waxers Seen as Pawns in Larger Strategy by AFM, But Big Firms Hold Aces.” Billboard (July 26, 1947), pp. 3, 23.

[65] “Petrillo Says He’s Obeying Taft-Hartley.” Billboard (October 25, 1947), p. 17.

[66] Ibid.,  p 23

[67] “NAB Bids for Disker Reps.” Billboard (October 25, 1947), p. 17.

[68] “Ban Starts Wax Talent Flurry; Rush Is On to Beat Deadline.” Billboard (Ocotber 25, 1947), p. 34.

[69] Ziv, Frederick W. “It Could Only Be Done with Discs.” Audio Record (June–July 1948), pp. 1, 3.

[70] “Small Coast Labels Talk ‘Bootleg’ Wax as Big Countermove to Petrillo.” Billboard (November 1, 1947), p. 22.

[71] “Check the Angles!” Billboard (December 20, 1947), p. 20.

[72] “High School Tootlers Heard on Dana Disk.” Billboard (May 8, 1948), p. 21.

[73] “Dec. 31 Disk Ban Due Hourly; Petrillo Nix on Recordings Held Certain.” Billboard (October 18, 1947), p. 17.

[74] “Ban Side-Stepping Quickens.” Billboard (April 10, 1948), p. 17.

[75] “Dec. 31 Disk Ban Due Hourly,”op. cit.

[76] “Standard Treks to Mexico for Wax-Cutting Session.” Billboard (July 3, 1948), p. 37.

[77] “Ban Side-Stepping Quickens,” op. cit.

[78] “Cap Orders Talent to Wax Despite Ban.” Billboard (February 28, 1948), pp. 3, 17.

[79] “Ike Carpenter Guinea Pig in Petrillo Case.” Billboard (February 28, 1948), pp. 3, 17.

[80] “Diskers Weight Bid to Petrillo to Raise Ban.” Billboard (April 17, 1948), p. 32.

[81] “Petrillo’s Latest Proposal Gives Lawyers a Workout.” Billboard (September 25, 1948),p. 36.

[82] “Petrillo, Record Firms Agree; To End Union Ban.” Motion Picture Herald (November 6, 1948), p. 34.

[83] “Diskeries Set to Cut; A&R Men Polish Ax.” Billboard (December 18, 1948), p. 3.

[84] “A PS (Petrillo and Sarnoff) to Ban’s End; Other Assorted Items.” Billboard (December 25, 1948), p. 3.

[85] Coast Diskers Cold-Shoulder New Recording.” Billboard (January 1, 1949), p. 40.

[86] “Talent Roster Revamping Started by A. & R. Staffers.” Billboard (December 25, 1948), p. 21.

[87] Serrin, William. “James Petrillo Dead; Led Musicians.” New York Times (October 25, 1984), p. 15.

 

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* Recording the ’Forties is currently in development for publication in 2022, along with expanded editions of the three previous volumes in the Evolution of American Recording series.