Another Take on James Petrillo

Was he actually a champion of all musicians?

Volume 116, No. 9September, 2016

Jay Berliner
James Petrillo in 1948.

James Petrillo in 1948.

Harvey Mars’ article in the July/August issue portrays James Caesar Petrillo, the AFM president from 1940 to 1958, as an heroic figure to whom “musicians throughout the country owe a huge debt.” Unfortunately, Mr. Petrillo was no hero to the recording musicians of that era; he was, to put it bluntly, their enemy.

Throughout his 18-year presidency, Petrillo waged a relentless – indeed, fanatical – war in favor of “live” music and against all types of recorded “canned” music. In the process, it became a war against all recording musicians.

On Aug. 1, 1942, Petrillo called a strike against the record companies. All recording was banned. There were no exceptions; not even symphony orchestras, name bands and solo instrumentalists could record. The strike lasted for over 27 months, costing the striking musicians millions of dollars in lost wages. The settlement reached in November 1944 called for royalties to be paid on recordings, not to the musicians who played on those recordings, but instead to Petrillo’s Recording and Transcription Fund, which he had established to fund his fight for live music. Petrillo had sole discretion over the use of the money in that fund, thanks to Article 1, Section 1 of the AFM bylaws, which gave him dictatorial powers. Most of the money was distributed to tens of thousands of “non-employed” “live” musicians in small locals who were supposedly suffering losses caused by “canned” music. The great majority of these recipients earned their living in professions other than music. They were, at best, part-timers. In the big city locals, it was widely believed that the fund was being used as a political slush account whose purpose was to get Petrillo re-elected as AFM president at the annual Federation conventions.

On Jan. 1, 1948, Petrillo called a second strike against the record companies that was settled on Dec. 14, 1948, resulting in more royalties to be paid not to the musicians, but rather to the Music Performance Trust Fund, which replaced the Recording and Transcription Fund – which had been found to be illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act.

In total, in the 1940s, recording musicians were on strike for one-third of a decade, during which time they were out of work and forbidden by their own union to work. They made this sacrifice only to see all of their royalties end up in Petrillo’s fund.

In 1951, Petrillo negotiated an outrageous deal with the four television networks, which called for a 5 percent upfront fee, based on a television show’s overall budget, which had to be paid by a television producer before any musicians could be hired. If the show was reused, an additional 5 percent payment was due. These payments went into Petrillo’s trust fund. This was highway robbery to the producers and by 1955, 80 percent of those TV shows were using “canned” library music from overseas. How ironic!

In 1955, the $25 payment to film musicians for every film sold to television was diverted by you-know-who into you-know-what!

In 1956, the Reader’s Digest ran a featured article by Lester Velic entitled “The Union that Fights Its Workers.” It was a devastating report about Petrillo and the AFM.:”Last year, $2,080,000 withheld from the musicians who earned it, was dribbled into 654 areas in which the union’s locals were located. The money was slivered among 179,000 beneficiaries, giving each an average $11.60 ‘unemployment benefit.’” This article ran in the December issue, just in time for Christmas! Around that time, it came to light that Petrillo had diverted $275,000 from the MPTF into a pension fund that served only top union officials and their dependents.

In the press, which referred to Petrillo as “Little Caesar,” “musical Hitler,” and the “U.S. Music Czar,” he was quoted as referring to “those selfish Hollywood musicians” and “$800-a-week communist fiddle players.” To a complaining recording musician, Petrillo was quoted as saying “Well, kid, cinch up your belt, ‘cause it’s gonna get a lot tougher.”

Finally, a disgusted group of Los Angeles film and television musicians, along with several brave souls from New York City, staged a revolt and filed four lawsuits against the Federation, seeking $15 million in damages. Led by Cecil Read, an outstanding session trumpet player, they founded the Musicians Guild of America. In July 1958, the Guild (as it was affectionately called) succeeded in becoming the bargaining agent for the television musicians, thus superseding Petrillo and the AFM. In a negotiation with the producers, the Guild was able to obtain a guarantee of at least one recording session for each 13 episodes of a television program in exchange for getting rid of the hated 5 percent upfront payment.

Time passed. Petrillo was long gone. He was succeeded by Herman Kenin, who saw the Guild as a prime example of dual unionism, which was a big no-no at the Federation (as was the term “guild” – which the Guild was!). But seeing the success of the Guild, he decided to try to bring the Guild members back into the Federation. So in 1961, in New York City, Henry Kaiser, the AFM general counsel, approached a visiting group of Guild officials and told them President Kenin was hopeful that a deal could be reached to disband the Guild and bring everyone back into the AFM. After a long negotiation lasting several months, the Guild members agreed to rejoin the Federation. The Guild was disbanded; it had served its purpose.

In a now historic letter dated Sept. 5, 1961, Herman Kenin carefully spelled out the agreement in great detail.

  1. The MPTF would be split in half, with 50 percent of the money payable to the MPTF going to the musicians who contributed to the making of the records.
  2. Guild musicians who have been expelled from the AFM and Local 47 will be reinstated to full membership. All fines will be nullified.
  3. All musicians employed in the fields within the AFM’s jurisdiction will have the right to ratify all contracts it negotiates.
  4. A recording musician advisory committee will be established in Los Angeles. A representative or representatives of the committee shall serve in an advisory capacity at all Federation collective bargaining negotiations.

In addition to the letter, Kenin abolished Article 1, Section 1 of the AFM bylaws, began reducing contributions to the Trust Fund, rerouted to musicians the wage increases that had gone into the Trust Fund, and, most important, established a pension plan for casually employed musicians. The lawsuits were eventually settled for $3.5 million.

Petrillo lived to be 92 years old. It was said that he sometimes listened to recorded music, but he never wore cans!

Jay Berliner has been a member of Local 802 since 1961. He served as the international secretary for the RMA from 1985 to 1995. About this article, Jay says, “I used the following books for reference: ‘The Musicians and Petrillo’ by Robert D. Leiter; ‘Music Matters: The Performer and the American Federation of Musicians’ by George Seltzer; and ‘For the Record’ by Jon Burlingame. I also used my own memories and experience. I knew a few of these Guild heroes. I got started doing session work in the early 1960s and was involved in the jingle negotiations from the early 1970s to the mid-90s. I saw Henry Kaiser in action many times when I sat at the bargaining table.”

Local 802 counsel Harvey Mars replies: “I found Mr. Berliner’s detailed historical account of the recording industry strikes to be fascinating and that it certainly added a new dimension and perspective to these events. I reviewed the same secondary sources as he (and some primary ones as well). Whatever can be said of Mr. Petrillo, no one could say that he didn’t evoke strong feelings in our membership.”