Petrillo became president of the Chicago Local 10 of the musician's union in 1922, and was president of the American Federation of Musicians from 1940 to 1958. He continued being the prime force in the Union for another decade; in the 1960s he was head of the Union's "Civil Rights Division", which saw to the desegregation of the local unions and the venues where musicians played.
The round-faced, bespectacled Petrillo dominated the union with absolute authority. His most famous actions were banning all commercial recordings by union members from 1942–1944 and again in 1948 to pressure record companies to give better royalty deals to musicians; these were called the Petrillo Bans.
Petrillo died October 23, 1984, at St. Joseph Hospital in Chicago. He was 92.
In popular culture
Petrillo was well known to the US and Canadian general public and referenced in pop culture of the era. For example, Phil Harris, the band leader on the Jack Benny radio show, claims on the show to have been married to his wife, Alice Faye, by Petrillo. When Jack Benny asks how Petrillo could do this, Harris replies "Why not? My dues was paid up!" On another occasion Rochester is asked to blow the car horn by putting it in his mouth, and he replies "Petrillo won't let me!"
In the 1945 Crosby/Bergman film The Bells of St. Mary's, when Crosby's character, Father O'Malley, is asked how he was successful in tracking down a long-missing musician, he points to the sky and quips, "I went straight to the top—Petrillo!"
In 1945 or 1946, Robertson Davies had his "alter ego" write in a newspaper column, later collected in The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks, "Then to a party, where I showed my prowess at those games where you have to fill out forms saying who Cain's wife was, and whether it was Lincoln or Petrillo who said 'We must save the Union at all costs.'"
In the 1950 Warner Brothers animated short Hurdy-Gurdy Hare starring Bugs Bunny, the cartoon ends with Bugs making large amounts of money by having a (presumably non-union) monkey turn a street organ and an ape collecting the money from the apartment dwellers, during which he quips, "I sure hope Petrillo doesn't hear about this!" (The 1948 strike was ongoing at the time Hurdy-Gurdy Hare was in production.)
In the 1950 burlesque revue Everybody's Girl the comedians Bobby Faye and Leon DeVoe, playing anti-nudist street preachers, mention that the Devil has "two horns." DeVoe then jokes, "Two horns? Brother, we'll have to speak to Petrillo about that!"
In the 1952 Hope/Crosby film Road to Bali, Hope shows Crosby an instrument he's been using in his snake-charmer act. He quips, "Hey, I've been playing this flute all night. Have to clear it with Petrillo." There is a similar reference in the Hope picture My Favorite Brunette.
In the musical Sugar, two musicians witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. The gangsters are issued instructions to search for them in the song "Tear the Town Apart", which ends with "I'll call Petrillo".
In the Lord Buckley riff "The Hip Gahn", there is a reference to "the Indian Petrillo" when the Indian people are planning a big musical party for Gandhi after independence is achieved.
- Macaluso, Tony, Julia S. Bachrach, and Neal Samors (2009). Sounds of Chicago's Lakefront: A Celebration Of The Grant Park Music Festival. Chicago's Book Press. ISBN 978-0-9797892-6-7.
- Reproduction of Down Beat magazine article on the AFM strike and recording ban
- Time, December 27, 1948-One for Harry Time Magazine's account of the settlement of the second AFM strike in 1948.
- James Petrillo inducted into Illinois Labor History Society Union Hall of Honor-2009