The V-Disc Recordings

At the end of the American century, with arts funding on the wane and privatization schemes snaking through Congress, it’s hard to believe that some 50 years ago the U.S. government was running one of the country’s best record labels. But in June of 1942, as America grappled with the reality of global war, the American Federation of Musicians went to battle against the commercial record industry, declaring a nationwide ban on new recordings until labels agreed to pay royalties on the sale of records. The ban held for more than two years, and the only label excepted was V-Disc, created by the War Department in the summer of 1943 to provide music for American troops.

Between October of that year and May 1949, V-Disc issued more than 900 recordings by some 600 artists, including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Abbott & Costello, Hoagy Carmichael, Lena Horne, Roy Acuff, and Ella Fitzgerald, and distributed more than eight million records to be played in hospitals and USO halls, aboard ships and in tanks, and over camp public-address systems. And unlike the “general issue” items that gave GIs their nickname, nearly all the V-Disc releases catered to specific requests from servicemen. In the words of Ed “Digi” DiGiannantonio, one of the officers who administered it, the program was “the biggest disc-jockey show in the world, with about 15, 16 million people.”

This fall a mail-order company called Collector’s Choice Music (800-923-1122) began offering a series of “complete” and “exclusive” single-artist compilations drawn from the V-Disc catalog. In fact, the ones I’ve heard so far are neither–some cuts are missing, and others that are included have already been released, either by other labels or on the various-artist anthologies that DiGiannantonio has been selling through his V-Disc Corporation (703-437-1600) since the early 90s. Also, of the original V-Disc releases, about a fifth were pre-ban recordings licensed to the government by record companies. Still, the new series is the first to document by artist a unique chapter in American history, when both labor and the federal government left their mark on popular music: V-Disc must represent some sort of high-water mark for the New Deal, with tax dollars funding free releases determined by popular vote. The AFM was staging what amounted to a strike during wartime, and became the first union ever to be investigated by Congress. And the recording ban was the beginning of the end for the swing-era bandleaders who’d become stars in the late 30s: by the end of the war the pop singers in those big bands had eclipsed their bosses.

The V-Disc story begins not in Washington or New York but in Chicago, where in 1922 James Caesar Petrillo was elected president of the AFM’s Local 10. Thirty years old, Petrillo had learned the trumpet as a youth in Little Italy, but union politics suited him better. “He was the textbook version of an old-time labor leader,” remembers one veteran of Local 10. “He was dedicated totally to the welfare of his members, and the rest of the world was his enemy.”

An eccentric character who feared germs and would shake hands using only his little finger, Petrillo managed by most accounts to keep his chapter free of mob influence during an era when a great many Chicago musicians worked in nightclubs and speakeasies. “He was a pretty jolly fellow,” recalls Harold Siegel, who joined the local 53 years ago and now sits on its board of directors, “but always surrounded by bodyguards. Nightclub owners were a pretty unsavory lot. The only way you could deal with them was to be on their level.” Petrillo’s office, at 175 W. Washington, was equipped with a bulletproof door; in 1933, around the time rumors were circulating that he’d been kidnapped by gangsters and ransomed for $50,000 by the chapter, Local 10 bought him an armored car.

But Petrillo wasn’t one to mess with either. As president of Local 10 he organized theater orchestra musicians in defiance of the mob and forced Chicago broadcasters to pay musicians in cash, not publicity. “He was a strong enforcer,” says Siegel. “If, for instance, the union agents came into a place where there was a nonunion band, they’d break up the drums and instruments, so people knew that the union had some force there. Of course, that was before the Taft-Hartley Act. We needed a strong union, because we had very strong people to deal with, who had no qualms about dealing roughly with the members.”

At the top of Petrillo’s list of enemies was the recording industry: “Nowhere else in this mechanical age does the workman create the machine that destroys him,” went one of his favorite refrains, “but that’s what happens to the musician when he plays for a recording….A short time later the radio station manager comes around and says, ‘Sorry, Joe, we’ve got all your stuff on records, so we don’t need you anymore.'” At the time musicians were paid only a flat fee for recordings (some of which are still making money for the labels today), and then as now most professional musicians earned most of their wages through live performance. Petrillo decided to use Chicago as a laboratory for a recording ban, and in 1937 the local forbade its members to make any recordings. The elderly Joseph N. Weber, still international president of the AFM at the time, offered no support, and the move failed. But when Weber retired in 1940, Petrillo moved to New York to take his place, setting the union on a collision course with the commercial record labels.

Throughout 1941, Petrillo commissioned research on the recording industry, and in June 1942, following the AFM’s annual convention, he announced that union musicians–that is, everybody who was anybody–would cease all recording until they were paid a fixed royalty on records sold. Siegel remembers the union falling squarely behind Petrillo, but the late George T. Simon, an editor of Metronome who worked for the V-Disc program, remembered the star bandleaders “almost to a man” railing against the drastic move. “They recognized far better than he the importance of records to their future,” he wrote in his 1967 history, The Big Bands. “But James Caesar stuck dictatorially to his battle plan.”

Petrillo’s middle name became a common epithet–as in “Little Caesar”–in the newspapers, which crucified him, according to Music Matters, George Seltzer’s 1989 history of the AFM. Echoing Elmer Davis, the war information director, the press argued that the ban would hurt the war effort by undermining public morale and sinking small radio stations. Of course, as Siegel points out, “Most of the newspapers owned radio stations and also had big advertisers in the recording companies. Small radio stations were taking advantage of the situation too. They were selling only music, that was their only product, and they weren’t paying anything for it.”

Though the record companies and their allies cited the war in their arguments against the ban, by all rights the exigencies of wartime should have created a favorable climate for it. Imports of shellac, still a component of 78 rpm records, had fallen 70 percent while Japan occupied the Malay Peninsula and French Indochina, and old records were being collected in scrap drives to provide the increasingly precious substance to war-related industries. But the demand for records remained high, and without union musicians there would be no new instrumental recordings. The ban took effect, as scheduled, on August 1.

Eight days later the USS Vincennes was sunk by the Japanese during the United States’ invasion of Guadalcanal. Naval lieutenant Ed “Digi” DiGiannantonio was an engineer in charge of antiaircraft control. “We were sunk at 1:45 in the morning and got picked up at 10:30 the next morning,” says Digi, who now lives in Reston, Virginia. “Warm water, a lot of sharks, a lot of depth charges. The ship was hit by seven torpedoes, five bombs, and 57 major-caliber shells. So if it weren’t for the fact that I was blown over the side, I guess I wouldn’t be here today.” He was given a year of shore duty to recuperate from his injuries–a broken nose and jaw and a ruptured disc–and by the spring of 1944 he was eager to return to the Pacific. But the navy had been looking for a qualified officer to administer a counterpart to the army’s V-Disc program, which had been operating for the better part of a year.

Digi was the perfect candidate. He’d played piano and violin as a child in Boston; in high school he switched to clarinet and saxophone after discovering Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. He built his own ham radio and recording equipment, and as a student at MIT he began recording big bands when they played in town. “I was coming home one day and I stopped to transfer by the Raymor Ballroom,” he says, “and I heard this beautiful clarinet. It was Artie Shaw having an afternoon rehearsal. So I went up to Artie and said, ‘I’d like to record your show tonight.’ And he said, ‘Kid, go away. All you guys give me is’–a word I can’t use. Well, I recorded it anyway, and went to his hotel room that night. He was absolutely flabbergasted with the quality.”

Digi recorded Shaw’s band for the rest of its run, then recorded Glenn Miller, Goodman, and an assortment of local bands. After Pearl Harbor he enlisted and became one of the navy’s “90-day wonders,” taking part in the Battle of Midway before the Vincennes was sunk. Initially he was disappointed when the navy assigned him to the V-Disc program, he says, “but what I thought was going to be a very boring program turned out to be tremendously gratifying, because we had thousands and thousands of letters from troops that said, ‘You’re playing my song, my music.'”

V-Disc was the brainchild of another recording hobbyist, Robert Vincent, who’d done research for the Thomas A. Edison Laboratory in the 20s and later started a transcription business–making recordings for radio broadcast. “Without Bob Vincent there never would’ve been the V-Disc program,” Digi says. “Short guy, very dynamic, also shy in a way. But he got things done.” Vincent had tried to enlist after Pearl Harbor, but at 41 was deemed too old. After a popular recording project he did for the USO, however, he was commissioned and assigned to the Radio Section, whose Armed Forces Radio Service distributed radio transcriptions along with radio sets and portable phonographs. But the music in these “B kits” wasn’t terribly current, and Vincent was besieged by overseas requests for new records. He approached Major Howard Bronson, chief of the Music Section, with the idea, and finagled a million dollars from the Pentagon to pay for it. In July 1943 Vincent was transferred to the Music Section, and by October the first V-Discs were on their way across the pond.

At this point Petrillo had the record companies where he wanted them. Decca had signed an agreement with the AFM in September, and hundreds of smaller labels were on the verge of doing the same. But the army assured him that V-Discs would not be sold, and as he had already taken a fair amount of heat for supposedly hurting the war effort, he gave his members permission to volunteer their services to the label. The American Federation of Radio Artists and the Music Publishers’ Protective Association also waived copyright and performance fees. “We had carte blanche from Mr. Petrillo to record anybody, anytime, anyplace,” Digi recalls. “All the artists volunteered their services; they didn’t get a nickel for what they did. There was not a single guy that did not volunteer services.” Actually, in Richard Sears’s The V-Discs: A History and Discography, George Simon told how members of Duke Ellington’s band turned down his invitation to record because the army was segregated. That’s news to Digi, who remembers only that some black artists complained about having to stay in second-class hotels. “But they still wanted to do their patriotic thing,” he says, “and no one ever turned us down.”

V-Disc shipments usually contained 20 12-inch 78s, each with about six and a half minutes of music per side–usually two songs or one classical selection. (At first, they were made with shellac, but as the war progressed new synthetics were developed to replace it.) In the early days the V-Disc staff had to scrounge for material, and the commercial labels, motivated by patriotism and a desire to keep their acts in the public ear, licensed old recordings to the program. On the new Billie Holiday collection, four of the eight selections (“When You’re Smiling,” “My Man,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” and “It’s the Same Old Story”) were cut for Columbia; so were 36 of the songs included on the three-CD Harry James set. Live feeds from radio broadcasts and rehearsals were issued, too–almost half the songs on the Perry Como CD were recorded in early 1945 during a weekly gig on NBC’s Chesterfield Supper Club, and 24 of the 52 songs on the three-CD Glenn Miller set were performed on his Army Air Force Orchestra’s radio program I Sustain the Wings. For a while V-Disc even produced its own nationwide radio show, For the Record, as a source for future releases.

But soon V-Disc began booking its own sessions at various New York studios. With the draft board to back him up, Vincent had assembled a small but dedicated staff of men with ties to the record industry, including Tony Janak, who’d been an engineer at Columbia; RCA Victor A and R man Steve Sholes, who’d recorded Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton; and Morty “Perfect Pitch” Palitz, who’d produced records at Columbia and Decca and, according to Simon, created the first echo chamber by placing a speaker and microphone in a men’s room. Palitz also set a huge trend rolling by convincing Harry James to use strings on his smash hit “You Made Me Love You.”

Ultimately this team set up more than 400 recording dates. Nat “King” Cole’s trio played a lengthy session in February 1945, from which the new CD draws five songs. James’s band recorded 12 songs for V-Disc, 10 of which appear on the new release. Captain Glenn Miller was director of air force bands; he recorded 16 songs just for V-Disc.

Because the talent and the material were free, V-Disc could devote most of its budget to recording and production costs, and because the artists weren’t governed by contractual obligations, V-Disc could release collaborations between artists from different labels. V-Disc recorded recitals and concerts, like Billie Holiday’s performances with Louis Armstrong at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1944 and at Carnegie Hall in 1947. “There were cases when a band would play at a naval or army hospital,” Digi explains. “We would take our portable equipment–and when I say portable, in those days it was about 300 pounds of junk–and record wherever the artist was. If they were in a nightclub, we’d go to the nightclub. If they were in a hotel–the Hotel Pennsylvania with Glenn Miller–we’d go to the hotel. Whatever the guys wanted to hear, wherever the artist went, we would be there.”

Along with the USO, the Armed Forces Radio Service, and the Hollywood Victory Committee, the V-Disc staff inhabited an odd subculture of the military, caught between the discipline of the command structure and the wild life of the entertainment world. Vincent’s superior, Major Bronson, had been a member of the John Philip Sousa band and insisted that what the boys needed to lift their morale was marching music. Vincent and his staff did their best to mollify him–Glenn Miller even gave them a march version of “St. Louis Blues.” But the letters from soldiers in Europe and the Pacific contained precious few requests for military music. What Americans overseas wanted to hear was pop, jazz, blues, country–and the V-Disc staff wanted to give it to them by any means necessary.

In September 1943, for instance, Fats Waller was playing at a Greenwich Village club, and Sholes talked him into coming over to the RCA studios to record a few V-Discs. “He was like Sinatra,” Digi says. “If you’re in a room and your back is facing the door, and he walks in, you can almost feel the guy.” Waller requested several bottles of Cutty Sark, and Vincent went out and got them. Properly lubricated, Waller played “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and several other tunes on piano, then switched to organ.

“We recorded, I think, about 18 songs, and we could only use about 8 or 9, because he got a little rough around the edges,” says Digi. One of the usable songs, “You’re a Viper (The Reefer Song),” was never released on V-Disc. “Some general’s wife called up and said, ‘You can’t do that, because you’d offend these young guys.’ Here they were exposing their lives, and they wouldn’t let them hear a song like that.” According to Sears’s book, Vincent was called to the Pentagon and lectured about “corrupting the morals of the army,” but while he was there more than one staffer asked him privately for a copy.

After the recording ban hit, the Justice Department filed suit against the AFM, charging that the ban violated antitrust laws, but in October 1942 a federal court threw out the case and in 1943 the Supreme Court agreed. The Senate Interstate Commerce Committee launched an investigation into the ban, and Petrillo was called to testify in January 1943. He subsequently promised to end the ban if the recording companies would contribute royalties to an unemployment fund that would pay for free public concerts by AFM members, but the nation’s two recording giants, Columbia and RCA Victor, refused to pay into what they considered a union slush fund. Some producers used harmonica players–who weren’t covered by the AFM–to back up their singers, which eventually led to the formation of groups like the Harmonicats. Others simply hired more singers as accompaniment, and some bands added them as well–Perry Como’s performances on the Chesterfield Supper Club featured a vocal quartet called the Satisfiers.

As Simon’s book documents, vocalists who worked for dance bands in the 30s were nonunion and usually earned less than the instrumentalists. The bandsmen tended to treat them as mascots or gofers–or worse, if they were women–and arrangers usually prioritized singers below instrumental soloists. But by the turn of the decade pop singers were attracting the lion’s share of attention. Sinatra sang for Harry James and then Tommy Dorsey, but a nation of shrieking bobby-soxers catapulted him to stardom, and during the ban he left Dorsey for a solo career. Perry Como left Ted Weems’s orchestra under similar circumstances. As early as 1938 Columbia had released Billie Holiday’s work with Teddy Wilson’s band under “Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra,” but when she signed to Decca in 1944, after the ban, she was immediately backed with string arrangements, a costly mark of prestige. In examining the decline of the big bands, Simon cites many factors, among them a draft that depleted the ranks of musicians and a darkening national mood more in tune with sentiment than swing. But the main factor, he argues, was Petrillo’s “monstrous” recording strike, which helped the singers by “leaving the entire popular recording field wide open to them. It was theirs to take over, and take it over they did.” In July 1943 Petrillo asked vocalists to join the ban and, perhaps because of his fearsome reputation, most complied, but the damage was done.

Unlike the major labels, Decca couldn’t rely on its classical back catalog for revenue–it produced almost nothing but popular music. Two months after the singers went over to the AFM side, it agreed to pay into Petrillo’s unemployment fund and began recording AFM musicians. By the end of the year, only Columbia and RCA were holding out, waiting for a War Labor Board ruling on the ban. The board sided with the record companies in March 1944, but Petrillo ignored the ruling, as well as a personal wire from FDR asking him to lift the ban “in the interest of orderly government.” As Seltzer puts it, “Petrillo felt no patriotic principle would be served by allowing RCA and Columbia to gain more favorable terms.”

Now the holdouts were losing talent and market share to the other labels. Decca picked up Holiday from Columbia and, in a major coup, lured conductor Jascha Heifetz from RCA. In November, Columbia and RCA threw in the towel. The AFM created a Recording and Transcription Fund, to which the record companies paid about 2.5 percent of each record’s selling price to pay for free public concerts in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and public places–like the Petrillo band shell in Grant Park. They weren’t happy about it then and they still aren’t: “Every time we have negotiations, every two or three years, they want to cut down their input to that fund,” Harold Siegel says. “That’s the one thing they start fighting about immediately.”

After Germany’s surrender, the V-Disc staff disbanded. Digi left in May 1945 to head the navy’s Entertainment Section. After his discharge he worked in television, returned to the navy to run the radio service, and eventually resumed his engineering career, designing antisubmarine sonar systems for defense contractors. “Perfect Pitch” Palitz had been replaced by George Simon in mid-1944 and eventually wound up at Decca. Steve Sholes returned to RCA, where he discovered Chet Atkins and talked the company into buying Elvis Presley’s contract from Sun Records. Vincent was assigned to Nuremberg, where he installed the simultaneous translation system used during the war-crimes trials; later he developed a similar system for the United Nations. Recording engineer Tony Janak rejoined Columbia and continued to run V-Disc as a civilian consultant, but by November 1947 the shipments had been cut to ten records every other month. In the same year the Taft-Hartley Act made it illegal for employers to pay into union funds, and in December, when the labels’ contracts expired, the AFM declared another recording ban that lasted through most of 1948. Eventually the parties agreed to form the Music Performance Trust Fund, which unlike the Recording and Transcription Fund would be administered by an independent trustee and would pay out to nonunion musicians as well as union members. In May 1949 the V-Disc program was shut down, and eventually the armed forces began buying their records from the labels.

As the last survivor of the V-Disc team, Digi has become the label’s custodian. During the program he was ordered to keep a copy of every release, and usually he took the first or second pressing off the stamper. He’s worked closely with the Library of Congress to make sure their collection was as comprehensive as possible, and in 1990 he was given clearance to form the V-Disc Corporation. Unlike the Collector’s Choice releases, his ten volumes of V-Disc material are mostly on cassette and exclude tracks licensed from the labels in favor of songs recorded by the program. As with the original shipments, they present a variety of artists. Writer Bruce Elrod, who worked with him on the new CD project, is hoping to record Digi’s encyclopedic memories of the V-Disc era.

While that’s sure to be a fascinating document, no text can equal the peculiar power of music to absorb memories, to transport us to an earlier time and place. For soldiers overseas the V-Discs were more than a diversion–they provided a precious link to the past in the face of an uncertain future. After all, the number-one song requested by those troops delivered a Christmas “just like the ones I used to know.” And when the last of the veterans of World War II has passed on, the V-Discs will preserve their collective memory for all of us.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo of Ed “Digi” Digiannantonio, Benny Goodman, Tony Janak.