Blues music is arguably America’s greatest cultural gift to the world. Without the blues, music as we know it could not exist.
Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards once said, “If you don’t know the blues…there’s no point in picking up the guitar and trying to play rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”
Yet many people don’t realize the role a Wisconsin company played in the early days of the blues recording industry.
Some say this small record label was able to “build one of the greatest musical rosters ever assembled under one roof.”
How a Chair Company Started Producing Blues Music
The Wisconsin Chair Company was making furniture from a factory in Port Washington, Wisconsin when someone in the company had an idea that would forever make an impact on the face of the blues.
In addition to its wooden rocking chairs, the company also made cabinets for phonographs (record players to you young whippersnappers). So why not make actual record albums people could purchase and play?
Paramount Records was founded during the 1910s in Grafton, Wisconsin. The first albums under the Paramount label came out in 1918. They were recorded and pressed by a subsidiary called The New York Recording Laboratories, Incorporated. But don’t let the name fool you..
Even though advertising stated “recorded in our New York Laboratories, ” the records were produced and manufactured in Wisconsin.
While Wisconsin may not have reflected the ideal image of a home for a record company, the city of Grafton was close enough to the blues scene in Chicago to be the perfect place for artists to come and launch their careers. Of course, many of those artists were African American performers – who may have had a hard time getting their music recorded with mainstream labels.
Paramount Records produced music from legendary blues artists like Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Charley Patton – who is often recognized as “the father of the Delta Blues.” At the time, this type of music was known commercially as “race records.” and was marketed mainly to African Americans.
So you have to wonder…what exactly do a bunch of white people at a furniture manufacturer know about producing blues music?
“Ink” Williams – The Brains Behind Paramount Records
Paramount Records didn’t exactly experience overnight success. The first albums, released under other brand names, were complete flops. Throughout its existence, there were also issues with the quality of the recordings.
In 1923, Paramount purchased a floundering label called Black Swan Records. Black Swan is known as the very first widely-distributed record label to be owned and operated solely by African Americans – producing music for the black community.
But perhaps the biggest influence on Paramount’s eventual success came from a black record producer named J. Mayo Williams. He earned the nickname “Ink” because of his ability to get the best blues artists to sign deals.
While the music industry was Williams’ true passion – he was a groundbreaking American for another reason.
Williams was one of three athletes who were the first African Americans to play in the National Football League during its first year in existence. He’s now a member of the NFL Hall of Fame.
But his talent for finding talent – was his greatest contributions to popular culture in America.
While Williams never had a defined role at Paramount Records, he was undoubtedly a major influence on the label’s financial success. Williams would discover performers in Chicago, and then bring them to studios in Grafton where he would produce the recordings.
His biggest discovery was most likely Ma Rainey. She was a popular live performer in Chicago’s blues scene. Paramount Records marketed Rainey as “the mother of blues.”
Rainey would record more than 100 songs over five years – including songs with Louis Armstrong. She made enough money working for Paramount to buy a bus with her name on it.
“Ink” Williams is also credited with discovering other early blues legends such as Papa Charlie Jackson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. When Williams left Paramount Records in 1927 – he took Blind Lemon Jefferson with him.
Williams first attempted to start his own record company and a label called Black Patti.
It lasted less than a year, and he joined Okeh Records, eventually moving on to produce blues music with Decca Records. Later in his music producing career, Williams even worked with a young Muddy Waters.
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The Demise and Revival of Paramount Records
Williams’ departure may have been the beginning of the end for Paramount Records.
Music historians say the audible difference between a recording of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Matchbox Blues” drastically pales in comparison to a version J. Mayo Williams produced with Okeh Records.
Paramount’s biggest hits came with what are known as the “1200 Race Series.” It’s “20000 popular series” was a failure. Then the Great Depression hit the United States – bringing tough times to many record labels – as Americans simply didn’t have money to spend on music.
Paramount Records went out of business in 1932.
It’s believed many of the original metal masters were sold for scrap. Others say that disgruntled employees tossed some of the originals into the Milwaukee River after Paramount closed. That prompted an investigation involving dive teams, which was featured on the PBS program History Detectives. Unfortunately, the divers found nothing.
Despite all of that – Paramount Records’ groundbreaking tunes and artists artists are being reintroduced to a new generation.
That’s partly in thanks to one of the biggest names in independent music.
Musician Jack White’s label, Third Man Records, released Volume One of its Paramount Records Wonder Cabinet in 2013, with Volume Two set to come out in November 2014.
It includes 800 remastered tracks from 172 Paramount artists on six vinyl LPs. Plus, there’s also restored advertising, an encyclopedia of performers and more – all housed in a miniature oak cabinet.
You can watch Jack White discuss this project in an episode of Charlie Rose that’s available on Hulu.com.
Discover even more in an NPR story about the history of Paramount Records.
Check Out Paramount Records Artists for Yourself!
We found some of the most-famous Paramount Records blues artists on YouTube. You can listen to three hours of music from Ma Rainey. Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton below.