Banned in Boston and Everywhere Else For That Matter

While I was researching my last posts for music pertaining to D-Day, I became acutely aware that a significant number of songs were recorded a cappella in 1943. Vocalists such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Dick Haymes were singing without orchestral accompaniment and backed by a vocal chorus. I found out that these recordings were the result of a recording ban by the musicians’ union that began in 1942.

James Caesar Petrillo

James Caesar Petrillo

Why this happened is the subject of this post.

On 1 August 1942, the American Federation of Musicians, at the instigation of union president James Petrillo, called a strike against the major American recording companies because of disagreements over royalty payments. Beginning at midnight, 31 July, no union musician could record for any record company. The strike did not affect musicians performing on live radio shows, in concerts.

Petrillo had long thought that recording companies should pay royalties. When he announced that the recording ban would start at midnight, 31 July 1942, most people thought it would not happen. After all, the United States had just entered World War Two on 8 December 1941 and most newspapers opposed the ban. But by July, it was clear that the ban would indeed take place and record companies began to stockpile new recordings of their big names. In the first two weeks of July, for instance, these performers recorded new material: Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby, Charlie Barnet, Jimmy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, and Glenn Miller. Incidentally, in the case of Glenn Miller, these would be his last recordings as a civilian bandleader. By the last week of July, there was a long list of performers cutting records, including Count Basie, Woody Herman, Alvino Ray, Johnny Long, Claude Thornhill, Judy Garland, Glen Gray, Benny Goodman, Kay Kyser, Dinah Shore, Spike Jones, and Duke Ellington, among others.

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. 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, the label read, “Acc. Harry James and his Orchestra” in tiny type below. It was a portent of things to come. The re-released record was on the best–selling list for eighteen weeks and reached the number two slot on the Billboard charts.

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.

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 United Kingdom where the ban was not in effect. 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 1 August 1942.

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

Other recording and transcription companies continued to demand that the musician’s union rescind its ban on musicians recording for those companies.
But 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 11 November 1944. 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, lasting close to a year, ending on 14 December 1948.

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. 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 trombone solo. By the time Sinatra left the band in 1942, his songs with the band began with his singing, followed by any solos by Dorsey or others.

During the strike, vocalists could and did record without instrumentalists; instrumentalists could not record for the public at all. (Vocalists were not in the union as they were not considered musicians). Until the war, most singers were props. After the war, they became the stars and the role of the bands was gradually subordinated.
The other major cause of the decline of the big bands was 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.

One more devastating event, that actually predates the AFM ban, also had a tremendously negative impact on big band music and the Big Band era. This was the ASCAP – BMI war of 1941. ASCAP (American Society of Authors, Publishers, and Composers) wanted more money from the radio networks to use their member’s songs. The networks refused and for nearly a year all ASCAP songs were banned from airplay and remote usage. At first the music suffered greatly as BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.,) had nowhere near the list of talented, and well known, composers like the George and Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and others, as had ASCAP. In addition the networks imposed a “no ad-libbing” rule on broadcast performances! This rule required solos be written out and approved by the networks so no parts of ASCAP songs would seep into improvised solos! The loss in song quality, inspiration, and energy on live broadcasts was noticeable to the public. Then, not long after this obstacle was traversed, came the ill-timed recording ban described above.

Here is a sampling of these recordings made during the recording ban of 1942-1944.
Bing Crosby
If You Please
Oh What A Beautiful Morning
People Will Say We’re In Love
Sunday, Monday Or Always
Perry Como
Goodbye Sue
Have I Stayed Away Too Long
I Love You
Lili Marlene
Long Ago And Far Away
Frank Sinatra
Close To You
I Couldn’t Sleep A Wink Last Night
A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening
Oh, What A Beautiful Morning
People Will Say We’re In Love
Sunday, Monday Or Always
You’ll Never Know
Dick Haymes
For The First Time
I Heard You Cried Last Night
I Never Mention Your Name
In My Arms
It Can’t Be Wrong
Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey
Wait For Me, Mary
You’ll Never Know
Dinah Shore
I’ll Walk Alone
Ethel Merman
Move It Over
Ginny Simms
Irresistable You
The Song Spinners
Comin’ In On A Wing And A Prayer
Johnny Zero
The King Sisters
It’s Love, Love, Love
Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet
The Trolley Song
The Four Vagabonds
Comin’ In On A Wing And A Prayer

1 Comment

Filed under Pop Music

One response to “Banned in Boston and Everywhere Else For That Matter

  1. HFM

    Hallo.
    Such an interesting blog, thank you! I have also just read ‘Almost Remembering The Alamo’ and found the history of the song to be fascinating. I was searching the internet for info pertaining to the song ‘Across the alley from the Alamo’ as I had purchased a Mills Brothers album earlier this week. I found the tune to be quite catchy and wanted to know more about the song’s history.
    I’ll keep reading!
    Keep up the good work.

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