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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, founded 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 with 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 with the "Paramount" label. They were recorded and pressed by Chair Company subsidiary "The New York Recording Laboratories, Incorporated", which despite its name was located in the same Wisconsin factory complex as the parent concern (advertisements, however, stated somewhat misleadingly, "Paramounts are recorded in our own New York laboratory").
In its initial 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, but 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 at low prices.
The Paramount Record's of Grafton, WI, pressing plant was contracted to press discs for Black Swan Records. When that later company floundered, Paramount bought out Black Swan and thus 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 (their legendary 12000 series).
Paramount's "race record" series was launched in 1922 with a few vaudeville blues songs by Lucille Hegamin and Alberta Hunter. It 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 had no official position with Paramount, but was given wide latitude to bring African-American talent to 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 he was essentially keeping the label afloat.
Problems with low audio fidelity and poor pressings continued. Blind Lemon Jefferson's big 1926 hit, "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, Mayo 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 their dime-store label, Broadway, a label taken over by Paramount following the collapse of Bridgeport Die & Machine Company in 1924. Besides making their own recordings of regional bands and popular artists, Broadway issued scores of records from leased master including those from Emerson, Banner and later Crown. Alternate takes were often found on Broadway. (Based on the number of Broadway Records still found in junk shops, they appeared to have sold rather well.)
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. Riverside 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 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.
In 2013, Jack White's Third Man Records announced a comprehensive re-release of Paramount Records' catalog in two volumes. The two sets will contain the music, remastered, on several vinyl records containing key tracks. All tracks (800 recordings in Volume 1) are included on a USB flash drive for digital listening.
- 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.
- 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