Sunday, February 03, 2008

Paramount Records - the Great Pre-War Blues Label.

One name is for many blues record collectors and for fands of the pre war music that was spawned in the Mississippi Delta and then took hold in cities like Chicago and Memphis is Paramount Records. The label was started around 1916 by the New York Recording Laboratory of Port Washington, Wisconsin. The company was a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company, who made not just chairs but also other furniture that included cabinets for phonographs. The idea behind Paramount was that they should give away records with their phonograph cabinets It was not the first label to start releasing records under the banner 'Race records', that was OKeh, who coined the name ‘race’ series to describe records made by Black artists for sale to what was almost exclusively a Black audience.

Paramount began releasing records by Black artists in 1922, a year after OKeh. They appointed Mayo Williams, a black college graduate, as its talent scout and he immediately signed a number of 'Classic Blues singers' and soon Paramount was releasing records by Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox and May Rainey.

Williams wanted to find a male singer and went to Maxwell Street in Chicago where he came across Papa Charlie Jackson and his 6-string banjo. Jackson’s success led to the company looking for other male talent and it was not long before Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake began recording for Paramount

Paramount used ‘field scouts’ to seek out new talent, although this was a somewhat grand name for men like H.C. Speir who ran stores, often selling hardware, in the South. These men kept their eye out for locals who could lay and it was through Speir that Paramount recorded Tommy Johnson, Ishman Bracey and most important of all, Charley Patton. In 1930 Patton took Son House, Willie Brown and Louise Johnson to Grafton to record in Paramount's new studios in 1930.

Paramount unlike most of its rivals did not undertake field recording trips, they preferred to bring their artists to Chicago (until it closed in 1929) and New York (which closed around 1926) and later Grafton. Paramount also had a number of subsidiary labels that it used to issue existing recordings using pseudonyms - kind of ecycling the Blues. Amongst them were National and Broadway. The Herwin Brothers in St Louis 'leased' Paramount recordings to issue on their had the Herwin label.

During its 10 years in business Paramount released over 1100 records, many of which are much prized by collectors today (as often as not because they sold in such small numbers). They are also amongst the greatest of the pre war Blues recordings. Its records were cheap and their quality was often poor with a high surface noise. Parmount stopped recording in 1932, like many Blues artists they too were a victim of the Depression.

Other Paramount artists
Skip James, Elzadie Robinson, Henry Sims, Ramblin Thomas, Big Bill Broonzy, Gus Cannon, Teddy Darby and Bumble Bee Slim

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