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Uncle Sam Goes Pop - the story of V Discs

3 part documentary series for BBC radio 2

Grammy winner Patti Austin tells the fascinating story of a short period in the 1940s when an unholy alliance of recording artists, the army and the unions enabled the US Government to become the world’s most successful record company.

In 1941, leader of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) James Ceasar Petrillo, told the four major record companies of the day – RCA Victor, Decca, Columbia and Capitol Records – that unless his union members received higher royalty payments, they would not produce any more recordings after 31 July 1942. The record companies refused, hoping a strike would be short. It lasted for two years!

Army Lieutenant George Robert Vincent, a sound engineer who had learnt his trade at the Edison Labs in New York and helped establish Armed Forces Radio, knew the soldiers longed for new music. He suggested that the military start a record company – V-Discs – and convinced the AFM to grant a special waiver to record for the army with a number of provisions: the recordings should not be used commercially or sold; and all V-Discs should be destroyed after the war. So on 27 October 1943 artists had an outlet - as well as a guaranteed, receptive, enthusiastic worldwide audience of soldiers and sailors.

When the USA entered the war, the nascent record label was faced with a problem: the supply of shellac, used to make 78 rpm records, ceased. After much testing, Vincent found that a combination of two resins – one of which was already used in the manufacture of “rubber” dingys – created a playable and sturdy record. V-Discs commissioned over 900 special recordings of the most successful and commercial artists of the day - the only record of great pop music during the ban. Vincent received the Legion of Merit award for his services and Steve Sholes, who produced and oversaw many of the recordings, returned to RCA where he recommended that they sign a kid named Elvis Presley!

After the programme ended, the AFM agreement was honoured and original masters were destroyed; leftover V-Discs at bases and on ships were discarded; and the FBI confiscated and destroyed some that servicemen smuggled home. One Los Angeles record company employee even did some jail time - for the illegal possession of over 2500 V-Discs. Nevertheless V-Discs' artistic legacy is not lost. The Library of Congress retains a complete set of V-Discs and several compilations of V-Disc records are commercially available today.

Built by Musecology [Natalie Hook]