When I was growing up and getting into music, I knew about the blues and some of it’s bigger performers from reading Guitar Player magazine and the occasional television performance of legends like B.B. King or Muddy Waters. Guys like Clapton and Stevie Ray talked about their heroes and influences but it was all so far removed from my small Wisconsin town that I may as well have been trying to split the atom. This was the 1980’s, long before the ever-so-easy information finder called the internet. As time went on I was able to gather more knowledge from the library, my friends and some recordings and I realized, or did not realize how far this music really went back. Then one day while looking up who wrote the song “I’m So Glad” on Cream’s first album, I found out who Skip James was. This was a door to the past.
Skip James originally wrote and recorded “I’m So Glad” back in 1931 for a record label called Paramount Records located in Grafton, Wisconsin. Finally, a connection I was familiar with and in my own state! I knew Grafton was on the way to Milwaukee from my town and I had to find out if the studio was still there. From what I had read they were long out of business but maybe there was something left behind for me to find. I soon found out that there was really nothing left of the recording facility, but the seed was planted to find out more, and I did. Let me give you a brief history of the record company that released some of the most influential blues the world has ever heard.
Paramount Records, located in Grafton, Wisconsin was started in 1917 under the Wisconsin Chair Company, which sold furniture and record players in nearby Port Washington, Wisconsin. The Grafton location of Paramount Records began only as a pressing plant for records. I should mention that the records I am referring to here are different than today’s vinyl. The speed of the records is 78rpm so they are referred to as 78’s. They only play one song on each side and they are made of shellac, which is a very rigid but delicate material. If you drop a 78 record it can shatter like a plate. The recordings Paramount made at this time were mediocre musically and the quality of the records themselves was below average.
Because of the poor quality recordings and cheaply made records, Paramount was losing money each year and by the early 1920’s was pressing other labels’ records as contract work to stay afloat. One of the contracts was for Black Swan Records which was recorded exclusively by and for African Americans. When Black Swan folded, Paramount bought them up and continued in the market known as race records. Race records is a term given to music that was recorded by and marketed to African Americans. Blues and jazz immediately fell into this category because of who played on the recordings.
The first blues recording is a song called ‘Crazy Blues’ by Mamie Smith for the OKeh label. It was a huge success and it got the attention of other record labels to start recording this style of music. A female vocalist singing blues was a moneymaker so that same year Paramount recorded some of it’s own female artists, namely Ma Rainey, Ida Cox and Alberta Hunter. These singers each
had bands and they were all vaudeville performers so this formula sold well. Then in 1924 Paramount started recording some solo male singers that would change the sound of blues.
Papa Charlie Jackson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake made many hits for Paramount starting in 1924 and they proved that a solo performer could make a big impression. All of them sang and played exquisite guitar for accompaniment. Lemon was from Texas while Papa Charlie and Blake lived in Chicago. Their styles were different but they went back and forth as top selling artists. Their solo styles gave the blues a personal touch with storied lyrics, catchy melodies and snappy guitar parts. These bluesmen showed Paramount that one man singing and playing his guitar could make just as much money if not more than the already popular female singers. By 1928, with the help of catalog and mail order sales, Paramount Records was rising. The company had a roster of exceptional talent that was selling very well. Then came an artist that would change the sound of blues once again.
Charley Patton was a one man blues machine from Mississippi that performed all over the south. He played guitar and sang like a demon out of hell. His style of blues was called Delta blues because of where it came from and for it’s style and subject matter. Raw, edgy guitar playing usually with a slide and dark, powerful lyrics that conveyed the world of the Deep South. Paramount was the only company that was recording this kind of music and people loved it.
The year was 1929 and Paramount had built a recording studio in their Grafton, Wisconsin pressing plant. It made sense; you minimize costs if you have the artists record right where you press the records. Before this new studio, all of the recording was done in other facilities under the Paramount name. Now they began to bring artists from the South to record in Grafton. Not only Charley Patton but Son House, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Skip James and many others. Paramount would bring the performers up to record then house them in a makeshift hotel.
Paramount was riding high only for a few short years. By 1932 they had stopped recording due to the Great Depression and by 1935 the whole operation was closed. It was the end of an era. It would take almost twenty years for another record label to have the kind of impact that Paramount had on the blues world, and it would come from Chicago by way of the Chess brothers.
The last ten years has seen a rise in interest and information about Paramount Records. There is now a yearly Grafton Blues Festival held on several stages with memorabilia and artifacts from the company, and recently an extensive two volume set of music with archival material has been produced by Jack White of the White Stripes and Third Man Records. People will always have the need to find out where the music they love began. Paramount Records, gone but not forgotten.