IMAGINE a mess hall or a hospital - somewhere in Europe during World War II. You hear the strains of ``Chattanooga Choo Choo'' by the Glenn Miller band. The music is coming from a wind-up ``his master's voice'' Victrola, and the record is a ``V-disc'' - one of the more than 8 million records distributed, along with 125,000 phonographs, to boost the morale of servicemen and women. Now imagine another scene: It's one o'clock in the morning, sometime in 1943, and a group of musicians are finishing up their big-band job for the night and rushing off to a hotel room somewhere to lay down some songs for a V-disc. By the time they finish it's 5 a.m.
The V-disc project was one of those little humanitarian miracles that left a lasting impression on thousands of members of the armed forces. The V-discs were the only music recorded during a recording ban that extended from August 1942 to November 1944. The ban was instituted by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) because radio stations and juke box operators refused to pay royalties to musicians.
Now, in this 50th anniversary year of America's entry into World War II, some of these V-discs are being reissued on cassette and compact disc in a package titled ``Celebrating V-disc,'' by E.P. ``Digi'' DiGiannantonio, the naval officer in charge of the US Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard V-disc programs. Although the records - which constituted more than 35 percent of all the recordings sent overseas as part of the V-disc program - were ordered destroyed after the war, Mr. DiGiannantonio had pulled the first or second records off the production line, and then stored them away. All are in mint condition, and DiGiannantonio is reissuing them as is, with no electronic enhancement.
With the war in the Middle East, DiGiannantonio has been toying with idea of sending cassette V-discs to US troops. He is not sure, however, if the young soldiers would appreciate the music of another generation. ``I don't know if the kids today even know what a clarinet is,'' he says.
Among the artists who appear on the V-disc reissues are Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Guy Lombardo, Jo Stafford, Connie Boswell, Kay Kyser, Hoagy Carmichael, and Ella Fitzgerald. Along with the music are comments and messages directed personally to the troops. In a telephone interview from his home in Virginia, DiGiannantonio, who is now in real estate, commented on the unusual circumstances surrounding the recording of the V-discs. Aside from being recorded during the ban, DiGiannantonio said, ``...[AFM President] Petrillo permitted us to use any artist for any session regardless of which contract they were under. If they worked for Victor or Decca or Columbia, they could all sit together and play. In normal times this could never happen.''
The most unusual pairing was of the Jimmy Dorsey and Tommy Dorsey orchestras. At that time Jimmy was under contract to Decca Records, and Tommy was on RCA Victor.
Did the circumstances of the recordings have an effect on the music?
``Oh, my goodness yes,'' said DiGiannantonio. ``Instead of being in a sterile studio situation, these guys would come in, or we'd go to them, and they'd be all hepped up to do something for the war cause - it was dynamic. It was live and very vibrant compared to going in and sitting in a studio and doing a normal routine session.''
The Boston-born DiGiannantonio, a former engineering student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was chosen to head the V-disc program while he was recuperating from having been blown overboard from the USS Vincennes on Aug. 9, 1942. It was discovered that he had a background in electronics, a ham radio operator's license, that he was an amateur musician, and that he had recorded shows for Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman in Boston.
Part of DiGiannantonio's motive for re-releasing the V-discs, is to give the musicians who were involved with the project their due.
``All these musicians contributed their time and talent for free. We released 2,686 records.... They were done in hotel rooms, studios, ballrooms, night clubs, ship bases, hospitals, all over the place ... so it's about time that we give thanks to a great group of guys who 50 years ago gave their all....
Profits from the sales of ``Celebrating V-disc'' will go to the musicians' union retirement fund, to the artists, their families, or their estates.
For information write to: V-disc, P.O. Box 6, Springfield, VA 22150.