On Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Vol. 1 (1917–1927)
I own a few Paramount 78-rpm records. A couple are rare enough, and in nice shape, too. I listen to them sometimes, though more often I slip them from their sleeves just to look at them. Looking at a Paramount, turning it to the light—especially a clean one; especially a rare one—can inspire awe, even trembling. The odds were stacked from the start against them surviving long enough for me to hold in my hands. First manufactured as a loss-leader for the cabinet phonographs sold by the Wisconsin Chair Company of Port Washington, Wisconsin, they were poorly recorded, poorly manufactured, and usually poorly cared for. But this is the case for so many records made between the end of the first World War and the nadir of the Depression. Why do Paramounts thus inspire?
The answer to this question would explain my—and so many others’—enchantment with these discs. It would also explain the twenty-pound wooden chest, emblazoned with a forged metal reproduction of the Paramount eagle-and-globe insignia and fitted with a steel briefcase-handle, that fills most of my field of vision. Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917–1927) is a collaboration between the Revenant label and Third Man Records. It was released roughly 80 years after Paramount, for all intents and purposes, collapsed. It’s been looming near me for some months now, demanding much of my attention—and getting it, with its opulent enormity.
This set—referred to by its producers, with dramatic flourish, as a wunderkammer (“cabinet of wonder”)—includes:
• Six long-playing records of brown-marbled vinyl, housed in a “white birch folio” and containing 80-some-odd Paramount sides selected by co-producers Jack White (of Third Man) and Dean Blackwood (of Revenant) and transfer and mastering engineer Christopher King;
• a red hardcover book containing a narrative, written by novelist Scott Blackwood, brother of Revenant’s Blackwood, concerning Paramount Records and its principal actors, administrative and musical;
• a blue softcover “field manual”—the most valuable textual component herein, featuring several hundred biographies and discographies of Paramount’s artists—written by an assortment of collectors, researchers, and scholars overseen by Alex Van Der Tuuk, who has literally written the book (Paramount’s Rise and Fall) on the subject;
• a selection of reproductions of period advertisements, catalogs, and ephemera;
• and the “Jobber-Luxe,” a USB drive—in “sculpted metal housing,” fashioned after the needle assembly of a Paramount phonograph—on which has been loaded 800 320kbps MP3 audio files selected from the first ten years of the company’s catalogs, and those of affiliated labels,* accessible through a digital player that launches on a computer as a local host.
There has not been, nor is there ever likely to be, a comparable temple erected to the competitor-contemporaries, loosely speaking, of Paramount Records: the Gennett label of Richmond, Indiana’s Starr Piano Company; the far-reaching Brunswick-Vocalion group; “race recording” pioneer OKeh—to say nothing of the industry leaders, Victor and Columbia. No small part of this owes to the fact that Paramount and its associated labels are peerless for scarcity, and thus value, among collectors. But this is largely an effect of the label's cause: no other record company focused as singularly on exploiting the African-American market during a transformational era of black music, and thus—through the decidedly second-class medium of “race records”—preserving a deeper or broader corpus of it.
And Paramount did it nearly unwittingly.
The label owed little to the savvy or suavity of its operators, none of whom knew anything whatsoever about the record business. “But,” Henry James wrote, “there is sometimes nothing like the imagination of those people who have none,” and it was a Hail Mary by the company's recording director, Maurice Supper, in 1922, to turn Paramount’s attention to the burgeoning African-American market for phonographs and the discs to play on them. As Otto Moeser, the Wisconsin Chair Company's CEO during the Paramount years, later reflected: “we could not compete for high-class talent with [the top labels] and we had inferior records**—so we went to race records.”
They would have failed utterly without J. Mayo “Ink” Williams in Chicago, a fresh Brown University alum and South Side gadabout who, in a cold-call, offered his services as a talent scout for Paramount’s race catalog. Cashing in on a connection to the recently defunct Black Swan label of Harry H. Pace—“the only record made and controlled exclusively by Negroes”—for whom he had worked as an accounts manager, Ink Williams saw to it that Paramount subsumed Pace's catalog of popular female blues singers, reissuing records by vaudeville-stage stars like Lucille Hegamin and Trixie Smith, as well as higher class cabaret talent such as Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter. Soon Paramount, with Ink’s guidance, began recording its own “race” artists in earnest.
It was the right time and place for Williams to work. “There was more talent than any one company could handle,” he recalled of Chicago in the ’20s. “I could have missed a whole hell of a lot of good singers because there were more artists than there were places to put ’em.” He set up his office in the middle of “the Stroll,” at 32nd St. and State, on the South Side, where he held court as the only black executive of a white recording company and the only “race” scout and producer in town. A college-educated, middle-class professional, Ink was turned off by the seedier entertainments of the Black Metropolis—the more rustic and sometimes dangerous diversions of the buffet flats (apartment brothels) and house-rent parties—and was more comfortable in establishment show-business venues like the Deluxe Gardens and Dreamland Café. But although his taste tended toward classical and operatic performances (such as the music made by his former fraternity brother Paul Robeson), he had a soft spot for his artists. When a friend disparaged his signees as dogs, Williams shot back: “My dogs are thoroughbreds.”
Ink Williams was single-handedly responsible for shepherding hundreds of artists into Paramount’s stables, dozens of whom would become hit-makers for the label. (His nickname was a tribute to his contractive acumen.) Rise and Fall, Volume One covers 1917 to 1927, the first ten years of the company's phonographic production, but it's the period of Williams’s tenure, from 1922 to 1927, that forms the backbone of the set. Its six LPs are primarily a dizzying assortment of his diverse signees: from hot New Orleans jazz transplants like King Oliver, Johnny Dodds, and Jelly Roll Morton, through the female “blues shouters” such as Ida Cox and Ma Rainey, who had cut their teeth on the black vaudeville (T.O.B.A.) circuit throughout the South and were now performing in South Side dives, to Paramount's first solo bluesman (although he sang much more than blues)—minstrel-show veteran Papa Charlie Jackson, whom Williams found, in 1924, busking on a corner in Chicago’s Jew Town. (He’d score again a couple years later with the discovery of another Southern migrant to the city: Newport News, Virginia’s Blind Blake.)
Unaccompanied vocal groups abound, singing both secular and sacred material, and there are preachers of every description and their testifying studio congregations. The young Rev. James Beard's rendition of “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today” (1927) was too much for Paramount's primitive recording technology to withstand; his shrieks overwhelm the microphone almost to the point of collapse. There are the one-off curiosities: the gender-indistinct lullaby yodeler J. Churchill; the Sunset Four’s “correct [vocal] imitation of P.T. Barnum's steam calliope”; and Homer Quincy Smith’s majestically funereal “I Want Jesus To Talk With Me.” Solo voice with organ accompaniment, it's one of the most eerie performances recorded by Paramount or, for that matter, any label, ever.
Once Paramount’s line of race records was in circulation, Maurice Supper realized that there was no way they could compete in the national market with major labels like Columbia, Victor, and OKeh—all of whom, by 1923, had launched their own race catalogs, and were already set up with complex distribution networks—so he instated a novel direct mail-order business. “Just send us the coupon,” Paramount’s ads instructed buyers, also offering them the opportunity to order wholesale quantities to sell to friends and family (“Live Salesmen Wanted”). The label, unlike most of its competitors, took no “field trips” South to record artists on their home turf, instead bringing them to one of Paramount’s studios in Chicago; Richmond, Indiana; or Grafton, Wisconsin. Its managers also nurtured close relations with local retailers throughout the South, and it was these “jobbers” who furnished the label with some of its best-known (if far from best-selling) artists and, in the long run, helped most directly to preserve regional performance styles and repertoires that might otherwise be lost to history.
Although Rise and Fall is unlikely to entice many “casual listeners,” those who exist would probably be familiar with Paramount by the music it recorded between 1927 to 1932. This is the period in which the label made its storied sides of Delta blues guitarists like Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, and Willie Brown, all of whom cut their records through the intercession of Jackson, Mississippi, talent scout H. C. Speir. But the earlier era covered by Rise and Fall, Volume One boasts its own redoubtable on-site blues or blues-related "discoveries." Both the LPs and Jobber-Luxe are stocked with sides by Ed Bell, Bo Weavil Jackson, and Buddy Boy Hawkins (all tapped in Birmingham by the wily salesman, scout, and songwriter Harry Charles); banjo-man Gus Cannon and the Beale Street Sheiks (Frank Stokes and Dan Sane), found in Memphis; and Paramount's most valuable provincial signee, Blind Lemon Jefferson, discovered in Dallas in 1925. It was the popularity of Jefferson's records that launched the pre-war record companies into a frenzy, seeking out and recording nearly every rural bluesman they could get their hands on, in the hopes—ultimately fruitless—of uncovering another who could move units like Blind Lemon.
Labels started making hay with niche catalogs of early country music in 1923, and in 1924 Paramount began inviting rural white players into its Chicago studios. Although most of the best of Paramount's old-time material is likely to appear in the forthcoming Rise and Fall, Volume Two (1927–1932)—as the label’s hillbilly-specific “Olde Time Tunes” catalog wasn’t launched till ’27—some choice characters show up in Volume One, like the trio fronted by prolific East Kentucky fiddler Doc Roberts, alternately known as the Kentucky Thorobreds, the Lone Star Fiddlers, and the Quadrillers; or Tarheel banjoist Wilmer Watts, whose early sides are included here. I tore into the Jobber-Luxe to hear the previously unissued take of Watts and company’s “Sporting Cowboy,” transferred for the set from the sole surviving test-pressing. Even by Paramount’s barrel-bottom standards of fidelity, it sounds dreadful, but it imparts delight.
The producers have also made available in the Jobber-Luxe a small selection of the popular (i.e. non-race or hillbilly) artists that were Paramount’s primary fare pre-1922. Harry McClaskey is here—under the pseudonym “Henry Burr” he sold hundreds of thousands of records in the late teens and their ubiquity remains the bane of every contemporary 78 digger—and his scoop of patriotic schmaltz, “Your Country and My Country,” is performed no less vigorously due to his being Canadian. Early silent-film organist Milton Charles churns out a solo rendition of the massively popular “Prisoner’s Song” (made famous in 1924 by the prolific faux-hillbilly singer Vernon Dalhart, who also appeared on three Paramount sides) that evokes the grandeur of the Million Dollar Theater in its salad days. A glance through an appendix in the blue book, however, at what is to date the most complete discography assembled of Paramount's efforts, illustrates just how many orchestral pieces, forgotten pop crooners, and assorted treacle goes unaccounted for in Rise and Fall. As for the 800 tracks on the Jobber-Luxe, the blue book is a cacophony of their artists’ biographies and discographies. It’s a vital reference and one that, after a few weeks of regular thumbing, begins to adopt the aged aspect of the “jobber field manual” it was designed to resemble.
Scott Blackwood’s narrative, in the red hardcover, provides an introduction to the Wisconsin Chair Company, Paramount Records, and the broad trends in African-American music—from blackface minstrelsy to hot jazz—that shaped tastes in the Black Metropolis. He tells a lot of the story and tells it well, despite some overworked prose and disorienting tacks between tenses. He leans heavily, rightly, on the two seminal works on Paramount: the serialized profile of the label written by the late Stephen Calt in 78 Quarterly magazine, and the Dutch researcher Alex Van Der Tuuk's aforementioned Paramount Rise and Fall. A smart move would have been to include these in the set, especially for the extended portraits they both offer of the fascinating Mayo Williams, who has never received a biography proper. Williams left Paramount in 1927, not long after launching his own short-lived Black Patti imprint. (Launched to compete with his former employers, Ink’s label fared poorly and thus produced some of the most unspeakably rare specimens to survive the 78-rpm era.) By that time, however, Paramount had decentralized from the Stroll, and was relying increasingly desperately on its network of regional talent scouts—an artful bunch who missed no chance to double-deal with the faltering, flailing label.
These first ten years of Paramount's stories and 800 of its songs can be yours, direct from Third Man Records via freight service (or nearly), for $400. Other outlets are charging up to $500. Make no mistake: Rise and Fall is a luxury item and, as such, it is as much a shrine to the music that Paramount recorded as it is to the gimcrack discs on which it released that music—discs that have become arguably the world's greatest phonographic extravagance. (One collector's acquisition in 2013 of a 1929 Tommy Johnson Paramount for over $37,000 is the most recent and most hysterical evidence of this.) And although the set’s producers are to be commended for rarely if ever expressing a preoccupation with the records’ often vertiginous value, the lavishness of the edifice seems a steady reiteration of exclusivity and rarity, down to the metal fastening inside the case that enumerates which set of the 5,000 produced you've been fortunate enough to obtain.
Although it can be hard to hear under the voices of its many contributors, the wunderkammer has a voice too. It speaks with an obsequiousness that evokes Jeeves, although it’s more the vision of Jack White doffing his hat and bowing low in the full soup and fish that comes to mind. It is deferential and eager to serve. It cares that you can navigate its contents, which it understands to be daunting: this landslide of audio files, discographical annotations, ephemeral reproductions, “rich woods,” “lush upholstery.” At times it displays a muted sense of humor about itself, as all ostentation ought. It's hard not to laugh when imagining the bemusement Paramount's principals would experience if, 80 years later, they encountered thismonument to their failed enterprise.
From an assemblage in which every element seems to be competing with the next for a more precious atavistic affectation, it’s the Jobber-Luxe—the USB drive—that wins the day. But paradoxically it’s the contents of this arch little objet d’art that will prove Rise and Fall’s most enduring element. Once the corporeal effects of the production have begun to disintegrate—the cabinet’s hinges have fallen off, the white birch LP folio has flaked to kindling, the drive itself has shed its metal housing—these 800 MP3s will go forth disseminating digital evidence of Paramount's accomplishments. The producers know this; the Jobber-Luxe is situated in the cabinet's innermost sanctum, retrievable only after every other object is removed. It provides a democratic experience, in which a listener can create her own playlists through the local host, or perhaps more an anarchic one: she can drag the audio into her computer or iPod and pack the drive back into its little cubby for good. She can pass the music onto her friends, who can duplicate it for theirs. She can upload tracks to YouTube. Many of these performances already appear there. Many more will follow.
There have been two separate lawsuits threatened against the producers of Rise and Fall, Third Man and Revenant Records, over the set. The claimants accuse them of bootlegging copyrighted works, both audio and visual (specifically the period advertisements). If the suits succeed, though, there's the sense that they'll be Pyrrhic victories; that this “content,” in the present ugly argot, can't be owned. That's bunkum, of course; legally speaking, a non-argument, but these records have endured so long, against all odds, that maybe they just might be entitled to an autonomy that transcends the claims of any collector, institution, or corporation.
Fans of music from the 78-rpm era will tell you that, after all, it’s the rickety, ravishing humanness that attracts them to the music captured on these fragile and fickle three-minute discs. And Rise and Fall is shot through with countless sparks of transcendent humanity. Like the huge, irresistible long O’s in the Norfolk Jazz Quartette's 1926 performance of, to borrow Twain's phrase, “the musical earthquake” that is the “Louisiana Bo Bo.” (“Some folks they like to one-step; some like to stop and strut / But that easy-going Bo Bo’s got ’em all locked up. . . . It’s called a Loo-see-anna, baby, BO BO BOOOO.”) Or the little titter emitted by Paramount’s house accompanist Lovie Austin after Ida Cox directs her to take a couple measures on their “Come Right In” (1923). “Bank that thing, Lovie, bank it,” Cox urges. The laugh that follows, barely audible above the piano and the grinding surface noise of the record, is a squeak of genuine joy.
Or the Reverend W. M. Clark, joined by an amen-corner of studio “Sisters,” singing and sermonizing on a 1927 recording entitled “The Word Eagle.” Two and a half minutes in, Rev. Clark has warmed utterly to his subject. He’s shouting, his voice cracking, but the unforgiving diktat of the technology gives him only thirty more seconds. It’s the first side he’s made—he'll make just three others—and he plays a high card: “You'll cry out: The Lord is my shepherrrrd / I shall not waaaant.” He draws out the last words like he's bawling for deliverance from the bottom of a well, or from someplace much lower. “The Lord is my SHEPHERRRRRD,” he howls again, and the last line concludes in a desolate, barely musical melisma: “I SHALL NOT WAAAAAANT.” A sister hurriedly mutters “Amen.” The record ends. Two copies are known to survive.
* The supremely arcane interplay between Paramount and a small, remote galaxy of hyper-regional record companies—among them Herwin, Claxtonola, and the most feverishly sought-after Black Patti—to whom it would license masters and/or receive them, is detailed as a primitively sketched appendix in the blue book. It helps to give it some consideration (if you’re into this sort of thing), as there are many inclusions of these client-labels’ releases in Rise and Fall that at first blush bear no relation whatsoever to Paramount.
** Paramount consistently produced one of the worst products on the market. There are reports of early clients of the Grafton pressing plant sending back entire runs of records due to shoddy manufacturing. Talent scout Harry Charles later complained to Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow that “you couldn’t get anything on a Paramount. I put some good songs on there; you’d never know . . . They had static in them when they were new.” Thus even the most pristinely preserved Paramount discs are decidedly inferior to the better-produced (and recorded) stock of most other labels of the day.
Mastering engineer Christopher King, then, is to be credited mightily for his success in teasing as much of the musical content as possible out of the 800 sides he sourced and transferred for the set without sacrificing much if any of it in the pursuit of “noise-reduction”—a bit of a goofy term, anyway, when applied to a Paramount record.