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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, under the management of its director, Fred Dennett Key. The Wisconsin Chair Company had made wooden phonograph cabinets under a contract with Edison Records and started making its own line of phonographs, in the name of its subsidiary, 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 gramophone records debuted on the Paramount label. They were recorded and pressed by a Chair Company subsidiary, the New York Recording Laboratories, Inc., which, despite its name, was located in the same Wisconsin factory as the parent concern in Port Washington (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 the shellac quality declined to well below average (although some Paramount records were well pressed on better shellac and have become collectible).
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 the Black Swan company later 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, which 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", were hurriedly rerecorded in the superior facilities of Marsh Laboratories, and subsequent releases used the rerecorded version. (Both versions are available on compilation albums and can thus 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 Charley 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 issued on the Broadway label. Montgomery Ward sold Broadway records, but it is not known if they had an exclusive contract. (Broadway records can still found in junk shops, which suggests that they sold well.) Broadway outlived Paramount; the American Record Corporation took over the label in the early 1930s, and in 1935 Decca Records issued a number of records on the Broadway label (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 in 1935.
In 1948, the remains of the Paramount Records company were purchased from the Wisconsin Chair Company by John Steiner, who revived the label for reissues of important historical Paramount recordings and 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 catalogue, 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 acquired by George H. Buck in 1970. Buck continues to reissue Paramount recordings as part of his Jazzology Records group, but the use of the name "Paramount Records" was purchased from Buck by Paramount Pictures, a previously unconnected company.
Like other record companies during the Great Despression, Paramount sold most of its master recordings as scrap metal. Some of the company's recordings were said to have been thrown into the Milwaukee River by disgruntled employees when the company was closing in the mid-1930s. A 2006 episode of the PBS television show History Detectives showed divers searching the river for Paramount masters and unsold 78s, but they were unsuccessful. When Riverside re-released the original recordings, they used some records from the collection of John Hammond.
John Fahey's Revenant Records and Jack White's Third Man Records issued two volumes of remastered tracks from Paramount's catalogue, "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917–27)" and "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume Two (1928–32)", on vinyl records (with a USB drive for digital access). Each volume features 800 songs, contemporary ads and images (200 in volume one and 90 in volume 2), two books (a history of Paramount and a guide to the artists and recordings) and six 180-gram vinyl LPs, packaged 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.
- Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 12. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
-  Archived January 25, 2010 at the Wayback Machine
- Stefan Grossman, Stefan Grossman's Early Masters of American Blues Guitar: Delta Blues Guitar. Alfred Publishing, 2007, p.41
- [dead link]
- "Orrin Keepnews, Record Executive and Producer of Jazz Classics, Dies at 91". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-03-12.
- 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.
- Blistein, Jon (2013-09-24). "Jack White's Third Man Records to Co-Release Paramount Records Set". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2015-03-12.
- 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
- "In A Few Fateful Years, One Record Label Blew Open The Blues". Tom Cole, NPR Weekend Edition, January 31, 2015.