Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Victory Music

QUESTION: I was helping my mother clean out my grandmother’s house after she died when I found several old records that said V-Disc on the label stuffed in a trunk in the attic. I’ve never heard of a company with a V-Disc label and neither had my mother. One of them seems to have two songs sung by Frank Sinatra—“What Makes the Sunset?” and “I Begged Her.” It also says the record was produced in cooperation with the War Department, Special Services Division. Can you tell me anything about these records? Do they have any value or are they just old records and should be tossed?

ANSWER: It seems you found some little treasures during your cleaning. V-Discs were a special type of record made for servicemen serving abroad in World War II. Most soldiers and sailors joined up thinking that the war would be over in a short time. Little did they realize that it would drag on for several years. Weary and often disheartened, they needed a moral boost, and the V-Disc was it.

The records were 12-inch, 78 rpm messages of music, hope and comfort from America's top musicians. Starting in 1943, and for seven years afterward, the United States Armed Forces sent packages of V-Disc records to ships and bases to all war locations.

It was Army Lt. George Robert Vincent who first got the idea for V-Discs. He worked in Thomas Edison's phonograph laboratories before the war. In 1943, Vincent asked his supervisor if he could put together a special recording project to provide current music to the troops. He eventually received a $1 million startup budget from the U.S. Army and undertook his new military career as head of the V-Disc  program.

At the same time, the American music industry was in turmoil. When Japan attacked French Indochina, the record companies lost their source of imported shellac. And even if they could manufacture records with recycled shellac, the musicians, themselves, had gone on strike against the major record companies.

Vincent's V-Disc staff first had to find a substitute for shellac. Eventually they discovered that vinylite, a Union Carbide polymer, not only could be pressed into records with minimal surface noise, but also the finished product resisted breakage, cracks and fractures. Once they resolved the record material problem, they convinced the American Federation of Musicians and their leader, James Caesar Petrillo, to perform for V-Discs as volunteers, offering their services gratis to the military wanted to hear new songs and recording artists and that all V-Discs would be destroyed after the War.

V-Discs enabled servicemen to hear new and special releases from the top bands of the day. The program provided a variety of music, including big band hits, swing music, classical performances from the best symphonies, a little jazz thrown in for good measure. There were even selections of stirring music from military bands.

Every month, The RCA Victor record factory in Camden, New Jersey, sent a V-Disc kit of 30 records to ports of call and bases around the European and Pacific bases of operations. Each kit, included not only the V-Discs, but an assortment of. steel phonograph needles, a set of lyric sheets, and a questionnaire for soldiers to fill out and return, asking what they liked best, what they liked least, and what they wanted to hear in the future.

During the first week of the V-Disc project, RCA shipped 1,780 boxes of V-Discs to the troops. Within a year, production of the V-Discs had tripled, to supply members of each branch of the military. Even the Office of War Information and Office of Inter-American Affairs wanted V-Discs to use as propaganda materials broadcast to Latin American and European countries, a counterbalance to Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose.

But V-Discs had a very special feature—spoken-word introductions by the artists. Before beginning a song, artists would take a few moments to identify themselves, acknowledge the soldiers, give them a few kind words or inspirational thoughts, kind wish them a safe and speedy return home. "Hiya, men," said Frank Sinatra as he introduced his version of ‘That Old Black Magic.’” "I hope you like these tunes that I've chosen to do for you on these very wonderful V-Discs. And I hope you get as much of a kick out of hearing them as I do out of singing them for you." Other artists added their own special touches to their V-Discs.

Other sources of material for V-Discs came from radio networks, who sent their live feeds to V-Disc headquarters in New York—the AFM strike didn’t affect live performances. Artists gathered at several V-Disc recording sessions in theaters around New York and Los Angeles, including CBS Playhouse No. 3, now the Ed Sullivan Theater, NBC Studio 8H, the home of Saturday Night Live, and CBS Playhouse No. 4, reborn in the 1970s as the infamous Studio 54 disco.

One of the conditions under which AFM musicians would record V-Discs was that the records couldn’t be reproduced or resold, and that the discs had to be destroyed after the V-Disc program ended. After the program ended in 1949, the armed forces honored their request by destroying original masters and record stampers and by discarding V-Discs left behind at bases and on ships. The FBI and the Provost Marshal's Office also confiscated and destroyed V-Discs that servicemen had smuggled home. An employee at a Los Angeles record company spent time in prison for his illegal possession of more than 2,500 V-Discs. 

Today, music-lovers and World War II memorabilia collectors covet V-Discs. Near-mint copies of  V-Discs are hard to find, and most copies would be graded "good" to "fair" condition due to surface scuffs and 60 years of storage. Common titles sell for $5-10, while name artists such as Frank Sinatra or Arturo Toscanini can command $25-40`for their V-Discs, depending on condition and rarity of title. A V-Disc containing the classic Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" comedy routine, backed with a version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame as played by baseball organist- Gladys Gooding, is worth up to $75 in near-mint condition: Unopened packages of V-Disc needles sell for $5-10, and a spring-wound V-Disc phonograph can run from $250-340 in working condition.

So you see, it seems your grandfather smuggled the V-Discs you found and kept them all these years as a remembrance of his time in the War. They worth far more in sentimental value—real treasures of times past.

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