Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



V-Discs are gramophone records specially made for US Service personnel during WWII. The ancestor of the American Forces Radio Service got started in Alaska before WWII, where military disc jockeys asked the record companies to donate records. After the USA entered the war late 1941, AFRS became the biggest broadcasting network in the world (still serving the forces and their families today with both radio and TV; though the network has shrunk since the end of the Cold War, in the 1990s there was still a big European headquarters in Frankfurt).

For a while the government bought records in bulk, but in early 1942 it started shipping 16-inch 33rpm shellac records to the troops, mostly radio programmes and military bands. Needless to say, many of them were broken in shipping. Then in mid-1942 a musicians' union strike against the record companies stopped all commercial recording (see James Petrillo's entry), so the miltary set up its own V-Disc label, and Lieutenant George Vincent of the Army's Special Sevices Division struck a deal with the union: no royalties were to be paid, no profits were to be made and all the masters were eventually to be destroyed. (The government's wartime labour relations department could not force Petrillo to settle his strike, but the union could not refuse to make the V-Disc deal without seeming to be unpatriotic.)

At the same time, the Japanese had overrun the world's sources of shellac in southeast Asia, so the V-dics were made of Vinylite and another resin called Formvar, a Canadian plastic, all similar to that later used to make modern long-playing records. They were 12-inch 78s with the grooves cut close together to get up to 6.5 minutes on a side, they had red, white and blue labels, and they were distributed by the American military from October 1943 extending to occupation forces until 1949 (thus encompassing Petrillo's second strike against the record companies). One source says that eight million copies of 900 records were distributed (1800 78rpm sides) comprising over 2700 songs (many sides contained more than one tune).

The 'V' of course stood for victory, but the Lieutenant once joked that it stood for Vincent. Among the record industry people who were involved was Private Steve Sholes, who ten years after the war convinced RCA to sign Elvis Presley, and music journalist Corporal George T. Simon. The V-Discs reportedly included polkas, Irish tenors, light classics and singalongs, but the largest number were American pop of the period, including a lot of jazz. The records had red, white and blue labels; they were shipped out monthly to all the theatres of war in shockproof boxes sealed with waterproof glue. Some of the recordings were transcribed from domestic broadcasts: ABC's 'Esquire All-American Jazz Concert' in January 1946 was recycled in this way, with tracks by Duke Ellington, Nat Cole, Woody Herman and the occasional voice of emcee Orson Welles; but a great many were specially made in V-Disc studios. Most remarkably, a lot of the best black talent was recorded: Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Louis Jordan, Benny Carter and a great many others contributed. Count Basie's 'Red Bank Boogie' was renamed 'G.I. Stomp', while one of Fats Waller's items included 'Bouncin' On A V-Disc' and 'The Reefer Song' ('I dreamed about a reefer five feet long...' Waller recorded over 20 sides, his last recording sessions before he died of pneumonia at age 39, but most of them were not issued, including 'The Reefer Song'. He drank steadily during the session and his language became more and more blue.)

The V-Discs became well known in various circles outside the U.S. military. There is a story that as the war was ending, when Oberlieutenant Dietrich Schultz-Köhn was negotiating a truce with local American forces in Germany, he asked them if they had any Count Basie V-Discs.

The records had been shipped in decreasing numbers, and finally tape recording was more practical from Armed Forces Radio's point of view; and when the project had come to an end, a stack of metal masters was piled up in 1949, with observers from the record industry invited to see them being smashed, according to the deal originally made with Petrillo. But huge numbers of the records themselves were in circulation, and are still changing hands today, and not all the masters were destroyed. The Library of Congress is said to have a virtually complete collection of the discs, and some of the masters as well. Best of all, Lieutenant Ed "Digi" DiGiannantonio, a ham radio operator and recordist before the war, had got involved with V-Discs in 1943, and was ordered by a superior to preserve one copy of each. Not knowing what to do with them, he shipped them home when his time was up, in custom-made dustproof cabinets. Later, Digi spent twelve years writing letters and complying with copyright requirements, so that some of the material could be reissued. He died in early 2000, but had finally seen some of the material released on the Collectors' Choice label.

A four-CD set from Milano Jazz '96 compiled some nice tracks but was very short measure (an entire disc taken up with speeches from French generals and Liberation Radio broadcasts), and there were other Italian compilations, mostly poor transfers. Jasmine issued a four-CD set called Swinging On A V-Disc. Frank Sinatra: The V-Discs is a two-CD set on Columbia, including a topical song about his competition of the period ('Dick Haymes, Dick Todd And Como ... They're breathin' down my neck...' Todd was a Canadian baritone whose fame didn't last.) Woody Herman And His Orchestra: The V-Disc Years 1944-46 on Hep is also a two-CD set, with the First and Second Herds romping through some of their best arrangements, making fascinating comparison with the studio recordings of the same tunes. Two CDs on Hep by Sam Donahue's Navy Band are from V-Discs, as is Groovin' High in L.A. 1946, a compilation of tracks by the bands of Wilbert Baranco, Benny Carter, Jimmy Mundy and Gerald Wilson, dubbed from Jubilee broadcasts. (This was a 30-minute broadcast made in Hollywood for the Armed Forces Radio Network and shipped overseas for the servicemen, featuring almost exclusively black talent.)  But a proper complete reissue series of V-Discs is still a pipe dream.