Chicago-born James Caesar Petrillo was arguably one of the most colorful,
powerful and controversial labor leaders of the 20th century. Beloved
by some, despised by many, Petrillo, as President of the American
Federation of Musicians, ruled the nation's professional musicians
with an iron fist from 1940 to 1968. As President of the Chicago
Federation of Musicians Local 10, he was boss of Windy City musicians
from 1922 until dissidents unthroned him forty years later.
From the late 1930's until the the early 1960's Jimmy Petrillo was a national figure, largely because of the total war he waged against the recording and broadcasting industries. He made the cover of Time Magazine as the man who twice pulled professional musicians from the nation's recording studios for extended periods. He made the pages of Life as the man who, along with President Harry Truman, gave the tune "Hail, Hail, the Gang's all Here" its most memorable (and probably worst) rendition. Congress passed legislation specifically aimed at curbing his powers. Within the popular media the name "Petrillo" was synonymous with "labor czar". Indeed, the name "Petrillo" was once a household word.
Though Petrillo's name has been on the Grant Park Music Shell since 1976, few remember the man behind the name. And with next year's opening of the Frank Gehry-designed music shell in Chicago's new Millennium Park (which will probably be named after a high-contributing corporate sponsor if the current trend endures), the Petrillo name may completely fade into oblivion.
James C. Petrillo was born on De Koven Street off Taylor in 1892. The son of an Italian born city sewer worker, Petrillo never made it past the fourth grade (and it took him nine years to get that far). He learned to play trumpet at Hull House (he claimed that Jane Adams herself gave him his first horn), but never well. In 1919, after realizing his musical talents were limited, Petrillo became an organizer and officer of the Chicago Federation of Musicians. The Federation elected him President in 1922.
Petrillo's organizing tactics included intimidation in large measure. His initial targets were hotels, theaters and other places of public amusement. By the mid-1920's he took aim at the emerging radio industry, eventually forcing broadcasters to hire large musical staffs (which remained on the payrolls until the mid-1960's). In the interim, his house was bombed and he was briefly kidnapped.
Petrillo first attracted national attention in the 1930's after he cabled Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, demanding that he reprimand the Consul General in Chicago for hiring a non-union band.
Petrillo's power within Local 10 was as absolute as that of Il Duce within Italy. Only once prior to 1962 was his rule challenged. After he defeated contender Angelo Cavallo in 1933, he ripped up the losers union card and banished him from the organization.
Petrillo was short, somewhat stocky, tough-talking and inclined to dress in ill-fitting double-breasted suits. He was deathly afraid of germs---so much so that he would shake hands only by extending the pinkie of his right hand.
Petrillo's greatest enemy was recorded, or what he called "canned" music. He specifically objected to the lack of compensation for musicians who lost work as a consequence of recorded music's displacement of live musicians.
In 1942 (a year-and-a-half after he was elected President of the national union) Petrillo barred musicians from making recordings. For nearly two years (during the darkest days of World War II) the nation's recording industry remained halted. Petrillo imposed a second recording ban in 1948 that lasted nearly a year. Late in 1948 Petrillo finally reached a permanent accommodation with the recording industry, the jointly-administered Music Performance Trust Fund. The MPTF allocates a small portion of the proceeds from the sale of all recordings to a fund that, in turn, pays musicians who perform at free public concerts. Some $300-million worth of free concerts has been provided since the fund's inception.
Petrillo stepped down from the national Presidency of the AF of M in 1958. Though he intended to remain chief of Local 10, dissidents soon challenged his one-man rule. The issue was not only union democracy, but union integration. For the members of Local 10 were white. Chicago's black musicians were part of Local 208, a separate organization. Both white and Black Chicago musicians of the era report that Petrillo rebuffed efforts of Local 208 members to merge with Local 10.
The dissidents fielded a rival slate in 1962. And, much to their own surprise, ousted Petrillo. One of their first actions was to begin negotiations for the ultimately successful merger of Local 10 and Local 208.
But Petrillo in 1964 made a remarkable and (in the minds of some) ironic comeback. At the AFM convention in Portland, he took to the podium and orated for an hour, blasting union dissidents as "traitors". The union then made him head of its Civil Rights Division, charged with ending segregation within its ranks.
Notwithstanding his opposition to merger of the segregated locals in Chicago, Petrillo traveled nationwide in the mid 1960's (including the deep South) and unified the traditional segregated locals of the American Federation of Musicians.
James C. Petrillo died of natural causes in 1984 at the age of 92. The germs never got him.
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