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Paramount Records was an American record label, best known for its recordings of African-American jazz and blues in the 1920s and early 1930s, including such artists as Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Paramount Records, first located in Grafton, Wisconsin, was founded in the 1910s as a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company of Port Washington, Wisconsin, Fred Dennett Key, director. The chair company had made some wooden phonograph cabinets by contract for Edison Records. Wisconsin Chair decided to start making its own line of phonographs, creating a subsidiary called the "United Phonograph Corporation," at the end of 1915. It made phonographs under the "Vista" brand name through the end of the decade; the line failed commercially.
In 1918, a line of phonograph gramophone records was debuted under the "Paramount" label. They were recorded and pressed by a Chair Company subsidiary called "The New York Recording Laboratories, Incorporated", which, despite its name, was located in the same Wisconsin factory complex as the parent concern in Port Washington, Wisconsin (advertisements, however, stated somewhat misleadingly, "Paramounts are recorded in our own New York laboratory").
In its early years, the Paramount label fared only slightly better than the "Vista Phonograph" line. The product had little to distinguish itself. Paramount offered recordings of standard pop-music fare, on records initially recorded with average audio fidelity, pressed in average quality shellac. With the coming of electric recording, both the audio fidelity and shellac quality went downhill to well below average (although an occasional well pressed record on better shellac have been seen and collected).
In the early 1920s, Paramount was still racking up debts for the Chair Company while producing no net profit. Paramount began offering to press records for other companies on a contract basis at low prices.
Paramount was contracted to press discs for Black Swan Records. When Black Swan later company floundered, Paramount bought out Black Swan and thereby got into the business of making recordings by and for African-Americans. These so-called "race music" records became Paramount's most famous and lucrative business (especially its legendary 12000 series).
Paramount's "race record" series was launched in 1922 with a few vaudeville blues songs by Lucille Hegamin and Alberta Hunter. The company had a large mail-order operation that was a key to its early success.
Most of Paramount's race music recordings were arranged by Black entrepreneur J. Mayo Williams. "Ink" Williams, as he was known, had no official position with Paramount, but was given wide latitude to bring African-American talent to the Paramount recording studios and to market Paramount records to African-American consumers. Williams did not know at the time that the "race market" had become Paramount's prime business, and that he was essentially keeping the label afloat.
Problems with low audio fidelity and poor pressings continued. Blind Lemon Jefferson's big 1926 hits, "Got the Blues" and "Long Lonesome Blues", had to be hurriedly rerecorded in the superior facilities of Marsh Laboratories and subsequent releases used that version. (Since both versions appear on compilation albums, they may be compared.)
In 1927, Ink Williams moved to competitor Okeh Records, taking Blind Lemon Jefferson with him for just one recording, "Matchbox Blues". Paramount's recording of the same song can be compared with Okeh's on compilation albums, to Paramount's detriment. In 1929, Paramount was building a new studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, so it sent Charlie Patton — 'sent up' by Jackson, Mississippi storeowner H.C. Speir — to the studio of Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana, where on June 14, he cut 14 famous sides which led many to consider him the "Father of the Delta Blues".
As the 12000 race series sold well, Paramount's 20000 popular series floundered. Paramount turned to its dime-store label, Broadway, a label taken over by Paramount following the collapse of Bridgeport Die & Machine Company in 1924. Besides making its own recordings of regional bands and popular artists, Broadway issued scores of records from leased master recordings, including those from Emerson, Banner and later Crown. Alternate takes were often found on Broadway. Montgomery Ward sold Broadway Records, but it is not known if they had an exclusive contract. (Based on the number of Broadway Records still found in junk shops, they appeared to have sold rather well.) As a label, Broadway outlived Paramount when ARC took over the label in the early 1930s and in 1935, Decca issued a number of records on Broadway, as well (probably fulfilling the Wards contract).
Depression, closure, reissues
The Great Depression drove many record companies out of business. Paramount stopped recording in 1932, and closed down in 1935.
In 1948, the remains of the Paramount Records company were purchased from Wisconsin Chair Company by John Steiner, who revived the label for reissues of important historical Paramount recordings, as well as new recordings of jazz and blues. In 1952, Steiner leased reissue rights to a newly formed jazz label, Riverside Records, which reissued a substantial number of 10" and then 12" LPs by many of the blues singers in the Paramount catalog, as well as instrumental jazz by such Chicago-based notables as Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (which included a very young Louis Armstrong), Johnny Dodds, Muggsy Spanier, and Meade Lux Lewis. The Riverside label remained active until 1964.
The rights to Paramount's back catalogue were next acquired by George H. Buck in 1970. Buck continues to reissue Paramount recordings as part of his Jazzology Records group, but use of the name "Paramount Records" was purchased from Buck by Paramount Pictures, a previously unconnected company.
As happened with a number of record companies in the Great Depression, the majority of Paramount's metal masters were sold for their scrap metal value. Some of the company's recordings were said to have been thrown into the Milwaukee River by disgruntled employees when the record company was closing down in the mid-1930s. In 2006 an episode of PBS television show History Detectives had local divers searching the river to try to find Paramount masters and unsold 78s, but they were unsuccessful. When Riverside records re-released the original recordings they used some records from John Hammond's collection.
John Fahey's Revenant Records and Jack White's Third Man Records began a comprehensive re-release of Paramount Records' catalog in two volumes called "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-27)" and "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume Two (1928-32)." The two sets contain the music, remastered, on several vinyl records containing key tracks. All tracks (800 recordings in each of Volumes 1 and 2) are included on a USB flash drive for digital listening. Each volume of the collection features 800 songs (volume two, was released on December 4, 2014), 200 restored original ads and images in volume one and 90 ads in volume 2, two books – one a history of Paramount, the other a field guide to the artists and recordings – and six 180-gram vinyl LPs, all of which come in a hand-crafted oak case modeled after those that carried phonographs in the 1920s.
- Barlow, William. "Looking Up At Down": The Emergence of Blues Culture. Temple University Press (1989), p. 131. ISBN 0-87722-583-4.
- The Delta Blues (blog), Charley Patton and Gennett Records
- Stefan Grossman, Stefan Grossman's Early Masters of American Blues Guitar: Delta Blues Guitar. Alfred Publishing, 2007, p.41
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, PBS show investigates Grafton records legend. June 9, 2006
- Hudson, Alex (September 24, 2013). "Jack White's Third Man Chronicles Paramount Records with Massive Box Set Housed in "Wonder-Cabinet"". exclaim.ca. Retrieved October 30, 2013.
- "Jack White's Third Man Records to Co-Release Paramount Records Set; They've teamed with John Fahey's Revenant Records for a massive 800-song archival project 'The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-27).'" By Jon Blistein, September 24, 2013, Rolling Stone magazine.
- Online Paramount Discography at the Mills Music Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Paramount Album Discography mostly on later Paramount; has some of the label's history wrong