Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


PETRILLO, James Caesar

(b 16 March 1892; d 23 October 1984) Trumpet player from Chicago who became president of the American Federation of Musicians and perpetrated disaster upon it. (His older brother, Caesar James Petrillo, was a pianist, bandleader and songwriter.)

Record labels bore the legend 'unlicensed for public broadcasting', which was ignored; Second Circuit Federal Judge Learned Hand had ruled in 1940 that copyright was not infringed by the playing of a record on the radio. The suit had been brought by RCA (see Fred Waring) and the decision was wrong, the opposite of the decision preceding the formation of ASCAP (which see), but broadcasting helped to sell records. Petrillo had been president of the then-violent and racist Chicago local in 1934 when the band co-led by Harlan Leonard got kicked out of town (see his entry), and led the national musicians' union from mid-1940; a combative little man who refused to shake hands for fear of germs, he commissioned bandleader Ben Selvin, experienced in both recording and radio, to determine whether records were putting musicians out of live work: Selvin reported to the AFM convention in 1941 that record labels paid millions of dollars to musicians and that union action was not the answer to problems caused by mechanization of music. Selvin got a standing ovation, but Petrillo demanded that record companies refuse to allow records to be played on the radio and juke boxes without additional royalties being paid, though they'd already tried that and it hadn't worked; then he ordered musicians to stop recording on 1 August 1942. Decca caved in September 1943, Capitol a month later; RCA and Columbia in November 1944; the union got a tax on recording dates to pay for free concerts so that the best professional musicians subsidized the rest, while according to a War Labor Board report, two-thirds of the union's rank-and-file membership did not depend on music for a living anyway.

The bandleaders had not wanted the strike, knowing that records were good for business; the strike was a good example of an action having unintended effects. Along with other factors the strike was a blow for the Big Band Era (which see): rising bands, as well as established bands in interesting transition periods, did not record (Alvino Rey, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Boyd Raeburn, Woody Herman etc) but vocalists, not allowed to belong to the union, became stars; records made during the strike with a cappella backing are now mostly forgotten, but that they were cheaper to make (later with studio musicians on salary) than recording name bands was not lost on the record companies, who also cut back on recording of minority musics following the strike to concentrate on the mass market.

Just in case he hadn't done enough damage, Petrillo called a second recording ban in 1948, when many of the bands had already folded. Many veteran musicians raised a glass when he died, yet he hadn't been totally useless as an old-fashioned union boss. Charlie Barnet told the story of the Las Vegas club owner who wanted him to play in a parking lot; Petrillo wired: 'Special scale for bands playing in a parking lot: leader $50,000.00, sidemen $1,500.00.' 'We never played in the parking lot,' said Barnet. Red Callender's autobiography Unfinished Dream '85 tells good stories: it wasn't the union who integrated white and black locals, but the musicians themselves; and they had to sue their own union to get money they had earned out of one of Petrillo's trust funds.