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1942-43 Musicians' Strike

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Title: 1942-43 Musicians' Strike  
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Subject: Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, List of strikes, Swing music, James Petrillo, Lili Marleen, V-Disc, List of years in country music, The Columbia Years 1943–1952: The V-Discs, 1943 in country music
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1942-43 Musicians' Strike

On August 1, 1942, the American Federation of Musicians, at the instigation of union president James Petrillo, started a strike against the major American recording companies because of disagreements over royalty payments. Beginning at midnight, July 31, no union musician could record for any record company.[1]

The strike did not affect musicians performing on live radio shows, in concerts, or, after October 27, 1943, on special recordings made by the record companies for V-Discs for distribution to the armed forces fighting World War II, because V–Discs were not available to the general public. However, the union did frequently threaten to withdraw musicians from the radio networks to punish individual network affiliates who were deemed “unfair” for violating the union's policy on recording network shows for repeat broadcasts.

Background to the strike

Petrillo had long thought that recording companies should pay royalties. As head of the Chicago local chapter of the union in 1937 he had organized a strike there. He was elected president of the American Federation of Musicians in 1940.[2] When he announced that the recording ban would start at midnight, July 31, 1942,[3] most people thought it would not happen. America had just entered World War II on December 8, 1941 and most newspapers opposed the ban. By July it was clear that the ban would take place and record companies began to stockpile new recordings of their big names. In the first two weeks of July, these performers recorded new material: Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby, Charlie Barnet, Jimmy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, and Glenn Miller, who recorded his last records as a civilian bandleader. Recording during the last week was a long list of performers, including Count Basie, Woody Herman, Alvino Ray, Johnny Long, Claude Thornhill, Judy Garland, Crosby (again), Glen Gray, Benny Goodman, Kay Kyser, Dinah Shore, Spike Jones, and Duke Ellington, among others.[4]

During the strike

At first, the record companies could release these new recordings to meet listeners’ needs from their unissued stockpiles, but eventually this supply was exhausted. The companies also re–released deleted records from their back catalogues, including some from as far back as the mid-1920s (the dawn of the electrical recording era). One re–release that was especially successful was Columbia’s release of Harry James’ "All or Nothing at All", recorded in August 1939 and released before James' new vocalist, Frank Sinatra, had made a name for himself. The original release carried the usual credit, "Vocal Refrain by Frank Sinatra" in tiny type. It sold about five thousand copies. When the record was re–released in 1943 with Sinatra given top billing, and "Acc. Harry James and his Orchestra" in tiny type below, the record was on the best–selling list for 18 weeks and reached number 2 on June 2, 1943.[5]

As the strike extended into 1943, record companies bypassed the striking musicians by recording their popular vocalists singing with vocal groups filling the backup role normally filled by orchestras. Some of the recordings made this way included:

Frank Sinatra was a special case. He left the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1942 and signed with Columbia on June 1, 1943, with the strike ten months old. And while no new records had been issued during the strike, he had been performing on the radio (on "Your Hit Parade"), and on stage—his historic smash opening at New York's Paramount Theater occurred December 31, 1942. Columbia wanted to get new recordings of their growing star as fast as possible, so Sinatra persuaded them to hire Alec Wilder as arranger and conductor for several sessions with a vocal group called the Bobby Tucker Singers. These first sessions were on June 7, June 22, August 5, and November 10, 1943. Of the nine songs recorded during these sessions, seven charted on the best–selling list.[8]

The strike had an effect on radio shows that used recorded music due to the limited amount of new recordings. Radio programs that relied mainly on records found it difficult to keep introducing new music to their listeners. Martin Block, host of WNEW's Make Believe Ballroom radio show, circumvented the ban by having friends in England send him versions of records produced in the U.K., where the ban was not in effect.[9][10] He was forced to discontinue this practice after the station's house orchestra staged a retaliatory strike, which was settled when WNEW agreed not to broadcast records made after August 1, 1942.[11]

Ending the strike

Some recording companies did not have an extensive backlog of recordings and they settled with the union after just over a year. Decca Records and its transcription subsidiary World Broadcasting System settled in September, 1943, agreeing to make direct payments to a union-controlled “relief fund”,[12] followed shortly by the new Capitol Records, on October 11, 1943. Capitol had only issued its first records on July 1, 1942, 30 days before the strike began.

Other recording and transcription companies continued to pursue the case with the National Labor Relations Board and the National War Labor Board, culminating in a WLB directive demanding that the AFM rescind its ban on musicians recording for those companies. When the AFM refused to comply, the matter was referred to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wrote to James Petrillo:

In a country which loves democratic government and loves keen competition under the rules of the game, parties to a dispute should adhere to the decision of the Board even though one of the parties may consider the decision wrong. Therefore, in the interest of orderly government and 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.

— Roosevelt's telegram to Petrillo, October 4, 1944[13]

The union refused to budge, and with competing companies having made new recordings for more than a year, RCA Victor and Columbia finally capitulated, agreeing to substantially similar terms as the other recording companies, on November 11, 1944.[14] The new contract included language releasing artists from exclusive recording contracts should the AFM strike those companies.[15]

The end of the strike was not the end of the royalty issue, however. As television was beginning, there were questions regarding musicians and royalties from this new medium, and a similar strike was called for 1948,[16] lasting close to a year, ending on December 14, 1948.[1][17][18]


Over the long term the record companies were not hurt by the strike. In 1941, 127 million records were sold; in 1946, two years after the strike, that number jumped to 275 million and it jumped higher in 1947 to 400 million.[19]

Decline of the big bands

One unexpected result of the strike was the decline of the importance in popular music of the big bands of the 1930s and early 1940s. The strike was not the only cause of this decline, but it emphasized the shift from big bands with an accompanying vocalist to an emphasis on the vocalist, with the exclusion of the band. In the 1930s and pre–strike 1940s, big bands dominated popular music; after the strike, vocalists dominated popular music.[20][21]

During the strike, vocalists could and did record without instrumentalists; instrumentalists could not record for the public at all. As historian Peter Soderbergh put it, "Until the war most singers were props. After the war they became the stars and the role of the bands was gradually subordinated."[19][22]

It should be pointed out[according to whom?] that before the strike began there were signs that the increasing popularity of singers was beginning to reshape the big bands. When Frank Sinatra joined Tommy Dorsey's band in 1940, most selections started with a Tommy Dorsey solo. By the time Sinatra left in 1942, his songs with the band began with his singing, followed by any solos by Dorsey or others.

Some critics see the defining moment in the shift to be Sinatra’s performance with Benny Goodman and his Orchestra at New York City's Paramount Theater on December 30, 1942. Sinatra was third–billed on the program and although he was America’s most popular singer, Goodman had never heard of him. Goodman announced him and the audience roared and shrieked for five minutes. Goodman’s response was, ”What the hell was that?” Once Sinatra started to sing, the audience continued to shriek during every song. As a saxophone player said, "When Frank hit that screaming bunch of kids, the big bands just went right into the background."[23]

The other major cause of the decline of the big bands is World War II itself—and the resulting loss of band members to the military, curtailment of traveling by touring bands because of gasoline rationing, and a shortage of the shellac used to make records.

Lack of recordings of early bebop

A second consequence of the ban on recording was that a new musical style, known later as Bebop, developed by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and others during the period of the strike, was not recorded and was not available to the general public. James Lincoln Collier says, "By about 1942 it was clear to musicians that here was something more than mere experimentation. Here was a new kind of music. Unfortunately, we cannot pinpoint these developments [because of the strike]. As a result there are few commercial recordings of any of the bop players during the years they were working out their innovations."[24] As Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns put it in "Jazz: A History of America's Music“, "And so, except for a handful of dedicated collaborators and a few devoted fans, the new music Parker and Gillespie and their cohorts were developing remained largely a secret".[25]


External references

  • Reproduction of Down Beat magazine article on the start of strike
  • Billboard, July 26, 1947-Wither Disk Biz, Petrillo? Article discusses second AFM strike which would take place in 1948.
  • Time, December 27, 1948-One for Harry Time Magazine's account of the settlement of the second AFM strike in 1948.

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