In 1942, Robert Vincent was assigned to the Army’s Morale Branch, Radio Section. He was a friend of the son of Thomas Edison, would be known as a pioneer in sound recording, help to establish Armed Forces Radio and, later, serve as a sound engineer on the Nürnberg Trials. The Army had been sending entertainment to overseas personnel since the establishment of the Morale Branch in 1940, but in 1942, two major musicians unions, engaged in a strike against all four U.S. record companies, imposed a recording ban that was to last until 1944. In pretty short order, the supply of music available to send to the soldiers dried up and shipments slowed to a crawl.
Lt. Vincent visited the Pentagon, asking approval for his plan to create records especially for military personnel, to be sent in monthly care packages. Permission granted, he was transferred to the Music Section — to offices on 42nd street in New York City — where he brokered a compromise amongst the two unions, the four record companies and the US government: Artists wouldn’t be compensated, the Army would pay for production and distribution, and the record companies would give up royalties and forgive copyright obligations. To keep the record companies on board, a key provision was that the records were to be treated as government issue, reserved for military purposes only. They were neither to be bought nor sold, nor ever made available, under any circumstances, inside the territories of the United States.
Pursuing agreement amongst the Pentagon, the unions and the record companies wasn’t difficult enough; the recently-promoted Captain’s road was not yet smooth. The next challenge needing to be met was getting the material with which to make the records. Shellac, which was required for the production of records, was strictly rationed. It came from Japan and Japanese-occupied French Indochina; there was none to be had during the war. An alternative, Union Carbide’s product Vinylite, was also difficult to lay hands on, being reserved first for life rafts and electrical insulation. Ultimately, a subsidiary of Monsanto provided a product called Formvar, and they were in business. Precious, fragile records were packed twenty or thirty to a container, in shock-proof boxes that were then dipped in wax. The records were shipped, many out of the Port of Brooklyn, to the headquarters of the theaters of war. By the time the program ended in 1949, eight million V-Discs had been distributed to soldiers scattered all over three continents. A wonderful story on the blog Keep(it)Swinging about finding V-Discs in a Christmas Island bunker, can be read here.
In an amusing example of art imitating life, a little movie called Duffy’s Tavern is one of a number of pictures produced especially for the military, and features a plot that hinges entirely on the rationing of shellac. Perhaps the team of writers had the ear of Private Frank Loesser, who was assigned to V-Disc HQ in New York, and was doubtless all too familiar with the problem. In the movie, Duffy’s tavern is the spot where the out of work veterans gather; they’d been employed at a phonograph factory, but shellac rationing shut its doors. Archie, at the tavern, has the idea to put on a show to save the factory. Cue production numbers. The show is bursting with stars: Bing Crosby, Paulette Goddard, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake — and Hollywood’s top contract artist of the moment, Betty Hutton, who did her bit for the boys both in movies like this one, and on a number of V-discs.
The Victory Disc Program, meanwhile, which started as a hand-to-mouth, shoestring operation, quickly became selective. The best acts of the day were released by their management companies and unions and rushed to volunteer: Hoagy Carmichael, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Martha Tilton, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, Billie Holiday, Dinah Shore — everybody who was anybody — gathered at V-Disc recording sessions held at the CBS Theater in NYC, where David Letterman plays today, and the NBC studio in LA; sessions were also held at New York’s Liederkrantz Hall, the CBS Playhouse (or Studio 54) and even on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, while the Met was playing in Philadelphia.
With no contract restrictions, artists could choose anything in the repertoire and collaborate with artists ordinarily outside their professional circle. In what was described as a friendly and collegial atmosphere, they played and sang ad-hoc versions of all the great songs we still love – the standards – in performances that could never be re-created – these unique moments were broadcast over Battleship loudspeakers and in Quonset hut rec rooms, and were a rousing success overseas.
Taking advantage of recording technology developed by the Army, V-Discs were 12”-inch 78 rpm records, which could run as long as six and a half minutes, as opposed to the standard commercial record of the time, which only ran about three and a half minutes. This meant that the musicians could take much longer solos than had previously been available to them; it’s possible that the first extended solos on big band records, were recorded by the government.
And what do we suppose happened to these eight million records after the program ended? The parties honored the terms of the compromise: The military confiscated and destroyed the records; production plants destroyed the masters; the Provost Marshall stopped soldiers smuggling records home; the FBI got involved, when they prosecuted an employee of a record company for the illegal possession of 2,500 V-Discs. However, we’re all lucky, because our soldiers are sneaky, sneaky; our fighting men and women foiled the Military Police, the Provost Marshall and the FBI, and smuggled enough V-Discs home that, today, the Library of Congress has a complete set. Also, the National Archives managed to save a few of the stampers, and it’s no longer a crime to buy and sell these records.
This post was adapted from a fuller post from the website of Kathryn Allyn, a jazz singer and musician. Kathryn will be performing a set of songs from World War II in her cabaret show “V is for Victory: Doing it for Defense,” which will play at Stage 72, 158 W. 72nd Street, on July 25 and on August 1. To buy tickets, click here. To review her set list, and read the piece in its entirety, click here