It was, without doubt, one of the strangest episodes in the history of the record business. Twice in the 1940s — from August 1942 to November 1944 and from January 1948 to early 1949 — the American Federation of Musicians banned its members from entering the recording studios. On the first occasion James C Petrillo, the union’s president, took action because believed that musicians were losing jobs as places of public entertainment closed and radio became a dominant medium; in compensation, he called for royalty payments by the record companies to the AF of M.
It took a while to get them to the negotiating table. Before the first ban ended, following piecemeal agreements with individual companies for royalties of between 0.25 and 0.5 cents per disc, a great deal of interesting music had gone undocumented. In particular, I think of the young Charlie Parker’s stints with the Earl Hines Orchestra between December 1942 and May 1943 and with the Billy Eckstine Band between April and August of 1944, neither of which were recorded; his fellow members of these fascinating aggregations included Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Harris, Fats Navarro, Wardell Gray, Oscar Pettiford, Shadow Wilson and Art Blakey, while the Eckstine Band’s book included arrangements by Gillespie and Tadd Dameron. An important period in Bird’s career was lost.
(Singers, curiously, were exempted from the ban, which is why Frank Sinatra’s first solo recordings for the Columbia label, made in 1943, featured strictly acapella treatments of such songs as “People Will Say We’re in Love” and “Oh! What a Beautiful Morning”, suavely arranged for the singer and the Bobby Tucker Singers by Alec Wilder.)
By the time the second ban loomed, imposed by Petrillo as a protest against the Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947 to restrict the power of labour unions, the labels had their pre-emptive plans in place. The appetite for recorded music was huge, and to stockpile the material that would enable them to meet it they scheduled round-the-clock sessions — with the willing collaboration, it seems, of the musicians whose services were about to be withdrawn. Most of the companies tried to stash away enough material to keep them supplied with new releases for what turned out to be a rather shorter recording hiatus.
Among those getting busy were the Bihari brothers of Los Angeles, who had started their Modern Records label three years earlier, concentrating on making records for the black audience, which Jules Bihari had encountered while servicing juke boxes in Watts. Their first hit, in their initial year, had come with “Swingin’ the Boogie” by Hadda Brooks, an accomplished pianist and a sultry singer, and their roster had expanded to include the Ebonaires, a vocal quartet, the gospel singer Madam Ira Mae Littlejohn and bandleaders such as the guitarist Gene Phillips, the drummer Al “Cake” Wichard, the saxophonist Little Willie Jackson and the trumpeter-singer Butch Stone.
All these were pressed into service to build up a stock of material for however long the ban lasted, but since it ended after barely a year, most of the sides went unreleased. Now Tony Rounce of Ace Records, which has licensed the catalogue of Modern and its associated labels for the past 30 years, has delved into the vault to assemble 49 of the 80-odd tracks recorded during that burst of activity, all but 10 of which are seeing the light of day for the first time, on a two-CD set titled Beating the Petrillo Ban: The Late December 1947 Modern Sessions.
Apart of from its curiosity value, the compilation provides a marvellous snapshot of black popular music at a time of change, when mainstream jazz styles were starting to mutate into early rhythm and blues. So most of the music is an invigorating combination of big, burly blues shouters — half a dozen tracks under Wichard’s leadership feature the young Jimmy Witherspoon — and excellent jazz soloists, all of whom, sadly, go uncredited, since no personnel information has survived the intervening 66 years.
The leaders’ names will be unfamiliar to many people, but the quality of the material and the musicianship is invariably high. So is the recording quality: most of the tracks could have been recorded this week. The offer of a dozen new tracks by the gifted Ms Brooks (born Hattie Hapgood) and her excellent accompanists is too good to refuse, and the four sides by Gene Phillips and his Rhythm Aces (pictured above, in a photograph taken from the well annotated and illustrated CD insert) are notable for the leader’s eloquent guitar playing, particularly on “Gene’s Guitar Blues”, where he plays in a Hawaiian style that Chuck Berry later utilised on his instrumental “Surfin’ Steel”.
But the real find, for me, is Madam Ira Mae Littlejohn, whose six tracks expose us to a gospel singer of quite staggering power. “The technology has only just arrived to allow us to copy what was once an extremely bent and unplayable acetate,” Rounce says, further informing us that these may have been her only recordings. Thank goodness for digital technology, then, allowing us to discover Madam Littlejohn’s raw, throat-tearing delivery, accompanied by rudimentary piano and acoustic guitar and occasionally by a handful of supporting voices. The rest of the set would make a fine addition to the collection of anyone interested in the music of the period, but this is real treasure.
James Caesar Petrillo, by the way, died in 1984, aged 92. He had started life as a trumpeter before devoting himself to union affairs, ran the Chicago branch for 40 years, and once wrote to Benito Mussolini to complain that the city’s Italian consul had hired a non-union band. He took control of the national body in 1940 and the recording bans quickly made him a national figure, but in the mid-Fifties there were attempts to dislodge him, led by Local 47 in Los Angeles and Local 802 in New York — two branches in which jazz musicians were prominent. He resigned from the presidency in 1958 and was ousted from the leadership of Chicago’s Local 10 four years later. The bandshell in the city’s Grant Park bandshell was named after him.