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Label of a Paramount record from 1926
|Founder||Wisconsin Chair Company|
|Country of origin||U.S.|
Paramount Records was founded in 1917 by the Wisconsin Chair Company. The label's offices were located in Port Washington, Wisconsin and the pressing plant was in Grafton. The label was managed by Fred Dennett Key.
The Wisconsin Chair Company made wooden phonograph cabinets for Edison Records. In 1915 it started making its own phonographs in the name of its subsidiary, the United Phonograph Corporation. 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: "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 released pop recordings with average audio quality pressed on 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 accumulating debt while producing no 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 made records 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 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 he 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 keeping the label afloat.
Problems with low fidelity and poor pressings continued. Blind Lemon Jefferson's 1926 hits, "Got the Blues" and "Long Lonesome Blues", were quickly rerecorded in the superior facilities of Marsh Laboratories, and subsequent releases used the rerecorded version. Both versions were released on compilation albums.
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. In 1929, Paramount was building a new studio in Grafton, 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 Records, which was 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 Records, 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 Paramount was bought by John Steiner, who revived the label for reissues of important historical recordings and new recordings of jazz and blues. In 1952 Steiner leased reissue rights to a newly formed jazz label, Riverside Records. Riverside reissued 10" and then 12" LPs by many blues singers in the Paramount catalog, as well as jazz by such Chicago-based notables as Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (which included a young Louis Armstrong), Johnny Dodds, Muggsy Spanier, and Meade Lux Lewis. The Riverside label remained active until 1964. The rights to Paramount's back catalog were acquired by George H. Buck in 1970. 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 Depression, 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.
John Fahey's Revenant Records and Jack White's Third Man Records issued two volumes of remastered tracks from Paramount's catalog, 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.
- Rohter, Larry (25 October 2013). "Jack White Explores History of Paramount Records". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 July 2016.
- Barlow, William (1989). Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. p. 131. ISBN 0-87722-583-4.
- Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 12. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
- Grossman, Stefan (2007). Stefan Grossman's Early Masters of American Blues Guitar: Delta Blues Guitar. Alfred Publishing. p. 41.
- Sussman, Lawrence (9 June 2006). "PBS Investigates Grafton Legend". Google/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Chinen, Nate (1 March 2015). "Orrin Keepnews, Record Executive and Producer of Jazz Classics, Dies at 91". The New York Times.
- 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.
- Paramounts Home
- Online Discography, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- "In A Few Fateful Years, One Record Label Blew Open The Blues". Tom Cole, NPR Weekend Edition, January 31, 2015.