When the Bands Played On
I’ve often pondered the rather lean representation of U.K. acts on the nation’s popularity charts prior to the British Invasion.
Unions Not Uniting
Looking a little deeper it appears there was more than a intercontinental lack of interest at play here. At play – more or less – was a long running feud between two powerful forces: In the U.K. it was the Musicians Union (MU) and in the U.S. the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).
The AFM was formed in 1896 and the MU in 1893. In the 1920’s the music loving public in Great Britain hungered for the live appearances of musicians from across the pond. The MU lobbied and obtain a ruling in the U.K. that if an American act was to perform in the U.K. then a counterpart act from the U.K. must be allowed into the U.S.
The AFM countered harshly and successfully blocked any U.K musicians from touring the U.S. No U.K. bands toured the U.S. during the 1920’s while more than 50 managed to enter the U.K.
It all came to a head in 1933 after Duke Ellington’s band was permitted to enter the U.K. The MU membership clamored about the denial of the U.S. to permit the U.K.’s Jack Hylton Orchestra to enter North America. Through the efforts of these two unions, all bands were blocked from entry to perform – a ban that lasted for the next two decades. (There were some exceptions being granted going forward to what were described as “variety acts”.)
Then in 1956, the MU and AFM came to a new agreement, bands could once again enter their cousin’s country but only on an equal exchange basis: One American Band enters the U.K. and one U.K. band enters the U.S.. An awkward agreement to say the least but progress was being made. The first exchange came with a Stan Kenton trade for Ted Heath. Also, the new agreement did not permit TV, radio or club performances – only full concert venues!
Just as this agreement was reached, Skiffle star Lonnie Donegan was permitted to come to the U.S. as a solo performer. The AFM astounded him by not permitting his use of a guitar. Only an American guitarist could be employed during his tour.
This proved to be very frustrating for Lonnie – forced to used studio musicians who didn’t employ a typical “skiffle” instrument approach to backing him. Jonah Jones and his band did a fairly ample job of providing backup due to their appreciation of rhythm and blues.
It was not until his arrival in Detroit to appear with other American acts that he received a refreshing reprieve. A trio of appreciative musicians sharing the bill with Lonnie approached him requesting that they back him on stage gratis of any fees.
Lonnie accepted and enjoyed a great five-performance run with Johnny and Dorsey Burnette along with Paul Burlison of the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio” – and in the process formed a strong bond and friendship with the group. A side note: In June of 1956 during the Donegan U.S. tour, the guitar restriction was finally lifted for him.
The exchange agreement between countries astonishingly lasted into the 1980’s! Little did we know that – say a group like the Supremes, were being exchanged for a British act like say – the Fab Four.
If the 1956 agreement had not come about – we probably still would have heard the recordings coming out of the U.K. – but – imagine – no Invasion!
Friend Country Paul Payton recently pointed out some notable exceptions including :
“Laurie London, who was 13 when “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands” made it to #1 in the US. Matt Monro scored with “Softly As I Leave You,” “Walk Away” and the ring-a-ding-era Sinatra-like “My Kind of Girl.” Frankie Vaughan charted – barely, at #100 – with “Judy” in 1958, although it got a fair amount of airplay and was a bigger seller in New York. Also, Monty Babson had “I Wish It Were You” in 1960, another low charter. All of these, except for Laurie London, were consistent pop (not rock) hit makers in England and Europe, but penetrating the US market was tough. Instrumentally, Chris Barber scored in the US with “Petite Fleur” in 1958. None of the above were predictive of what would happen stateside in 1964. Who would have thought it?!?”