If it wasn’t for the Armed Forces Radio Service, started during World War 2, a vast treasure trove of our cultural heritage would be lost forever. Because the service was aimed at troops and those serving in the military during the war, and because it was aimed at boosting morale, every radio network contributed shows, normally run domestically, to be made available to military installations and outposts throughout the war zones. And because it wasn’t practical to broadcast live, those programs were recorded and preserved and pressed on what was a new and more sturdy material at the time; vinyl (actually, a forerunner of vinyl, but one that was capable of a wide range of physical conditions). The radio networks at the time broadcast live, and were not pre-recorded, so any actual record of a performance was either made as a matter of reference by the networks or the individual radio stations, and because tape hadn’t been invented yet (not till after the war) and because the metal used as the basis for the large “transcription discs” was now a much needed war resource, the discs used for the reference recording these shows were cut on an acetate-coated piece of glass. Reasonably cheap to produce but fragile like any thin pane of glass would be.
And so The Armed Forces Radio service pressed these discs and distributed them to bases, outposts and ships; anywhere more than a platoon of soldiers or sailors were stationed – many of these shows were pressed in the hundreds and shipped overseas where they became a vital source of morale boosting for the Military during the war. In addition to the network-based shows, AFRS originated much of its own programming, usually borrowing facilities provided by the networks themselves.
And even though many were destroyed, many more survived – you find them on E-Bay and thrift shops, garage sales and swap meets – anywhere anybody who knew anybody who had anything to do with playing these discs to the military kept a bunch as mementos. The drawback was that the discs made up until the early 1960s were primarily 16 inches in diameter. Much bigger than any average record player at the time. So unless you had a way of actually playing them, you were out of luck and could only imagine what was in those grooves. The upshot was, these recordings represent a part of our culture that was not preserved to any meaningful extent at the time. Only a scant few of those Network discs made it – most were destroyed, many (the wartime glass discs) broke when badly handled, many were tossed in the trash when a radio station was sold or a Network wanted to do a little housecleaning. And so in many cases, particularly with music, these Armed Forces Discs are the only known example of an artist or group in a live setting. So what started out as a morale boost wound up being a preserved glimpse of history in a way we would normally not be able to witness.
All that said – Jubilee was originally a CBS Radio series done expressly for the African-American audience, beginning in the late 1930s as a show called Blueberry Hill. Remember, there was segregation in music – not only commercial recording sessions but in broadcasting – very few Black artists appeared on White shows, usually at the insistence of a notable White performer or advertiser. Jubilee made an easy transition over to the Armed Forces Radio service and was one of the most popular shows with troops during the war. Eventually the show became integrated (Les Paul appears as guest on this one), but early on, it was one of the great radio showplaces for Black entertainment in America at the time.
This episode, broadcast on October 16, 1944 features Lionel Hampton, along with The Town Criers, Les Paul and the legendary Dinah Washington, who had not yet crossed over to the more mainstream (i.e. White audience) at the time. Washington has been considered one of the most popular Black recording artists of the 1950s, but in the 1940s she was getting her reputation together and building an audience.
The usual cast of characters, with Ernie “Bubbles” Whitman emceeing the ceremonies. This is a slice of history that could have slipped through our fingers – lucky we get to share it.