Documenting the History of Paramount Records
Posted 12/16/2013

Fletcher Henderson, Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson are among the historic figures represented in a new box set from Revenant/Third Man. The Rise And Fall Of Paramount Records, Volume One is a six-LP set that comes encased in a replica of a portable Victrola cabinet made out of quarter-sawn oak.

The story of Paramount Records begins on Dec. 9, 1914, when the Edison Phonograph factory in New York burned to the ground. Shortly after the fire, the phonograph company subcontracted the Wisconsin Chair Company, located in a small town north of Milwaukee, to start building its phonograph cabinets. As part of the deal, the chair company gained equipment to make records.

By 1917, the Wisconsin manufacturer had launched the Paramount label. Over the next decade, Paramount would become a collector and disseminator of a broad array of musical endeavors, releasing music from artists like New Orleans-based cornetist Freddie Keppard, guitarist Blind Blake and pianist Jelly Roll Morton.

Paramount’s output at the time was “not exceeded by any other repository of uniquely American arts and letters,” said Dean Blackwood of Revenant, the label he cofounded in 1996 with the late guitarist John Fahey.

Revenant has released deluxe CD box sets of music by free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, blues guitarist Charley Patton and Fahey himself. The label’s combination of elaborate production values, enthusiastic scholarship and deep digging into once-hidden sound archives represents the acme of the box-set format.

“Boxed sets are a ghetto, limited by their category. It’s a thing with an ephemeral quality we wanted to get away from,” explains Blackwood. “We had to have something different. We didn’t want to imitate a form, but to achieve the form itself. It’s more like a piece of furniture, or a first edition book.”

It is all that and more. The set’s production and design were executed by a team led by Susan Archie, who won the Grammy Award in 2003 for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package for Revenant’s Screamin’ And Hollerin’ The Blues: The Worlds Of Charley Patton.

The Paramount cabinet is designed, says Archie, to “make the things look like they were made in the appropriate era, not from 2013.”

The set also contains two books, which feature contributions by a posse of music scholars led by Alex van der Tuuk and Guido van Rijn. They provide stories of nearly forgotten artists, reproduce art from 78-rpm record labels and lay out the stories of the social movements and individuals that shaped Paramount’s rather extraordinary development from a dodge meant to sell record cabinets to one of the premier purveyors of music from this period.

Part of what drew Blackwood and Third Man’s Jack White to Paramount’s story was its accidental quality.

“These guys really didn’t know what they were doing,” explains Blackwood. “They did not take a lot of care, they had no real interest in it as a cultural thing, and they had no idea what would sell. They didn’t understand their audience and they pursued everything on the cheap.”

Paramount recorded artists in studios located next to noisy Chicago train tracks, exercised no quality control over the talent scouts who picked their recording artists, and pressed legendarily low-quality records. “The quality of their shellac was the worst in the industry,” laments Blackwood.

The label recorded indiscriminately, putting out novelties and hillbilly string-band music as well as a veritable cross-section of African American sacred and popular music. There are sermons by rural preachers and slick urban gospel music, as well as obscurities like the unjustly forgotten clarinetist Jimmy O’Bryant and the uncategorizably bizarre singer Sweet Papa Stovepipe.

But six LPs barely scratch the surface of Paramount’s discography, so the set also includes a USB stick called the Jobberluxe, which contains 800 songs and 200 clips of the record company’s advertisements, which ran in the pages of the Chicago Defender newspaper at the time.

The Jobberluxe contains 21 songs that Fletcher Henderson recorded between February 1921—when he made a solo piano test recording of “Santana”—until April 1927, when he recorded “Off To Buffalo” and “Swamp Blues” with his orchestra. It also includes songs like “Everybody Loves My Baby,” featuring Louis Armstrong, recorded in 1924.

The app developer Jeff Economy designed a special player to allow listeners to effectively manage this trove.

“It was a tricky balancing act,” said Economy. “The app needed to be powerful enough to give hardcore collectors every conceivable option for sorting and arranging by any criteria they might desire, be it artist and label or catalog and matrix number, while also giving neophyte listeners multiple avenues for navigating Paramount’s world. On top of that, the app also has to be cross-platform, and simple enough to operate that virtually any luddite could run it on pretty much any computer that has a USB slot.”

The Jobberluxe is so versatile that users can even plug it into a car stereo.

One thing you won’t find on this set is the Mississippi Delta blues that is so closely associated with the Paramount name. Paramount’s association with bluesmen like Skip James and Charley Patton didn’t come until fairly late in its run. For that part of the story, fans will have to wait a year for the release of Volume Two.

Bill Meyer

The New York-based pianist and bandleader Fletcher Henderson is among the artists that Paramount recorded between 1917–1927. (Photo: Frank Driggs Archives at Jazz At Lincoln Center)


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