On the face of it, chairs and a famous jazz and blues record label don’t have much in common. Perhaps the managers of the Grafton-based Wisconsin Chair Company thought their customers should have something to do while using their product. No matter what the reasons, Paramount Records, founded as an offshoot of the chair-making company, became one of the leading labels in the production of what was called “race music,” jazz and blues by and for African Americans in the 1920s and ’30s.
On April 23-25, the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities will host a series of events called “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records,” examining the music, history and impact of the famous record label. Listening sessions, panels and workshops at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, UW-Madison and the Bubbler at the Madison Central Public Library will celebrate and explore Paramount’s continuing role in shaping today’s music environment.
The Wisconsin Chair Company began to explore recording music after the company was contracted to produce a number of wooden phonographs — early versions of record players. It founded the United Phonograph Corporation and the deceptively named New York Recording Laboratories, Incorporated, but neither took off. It was only after buying out the African American-produced Black Swan Records that the company finally hit its groove, so to speak.
Craig Werner, professor of Afro-American studies at UW-Madison, will be a guest at the event, titled “The Containment and Commodification of Paramount Records,” addressing how the music recorded by Paramount Records was vital to that time period.
“It’s just great what music Paramount got on record,” Werner says. “It’s music that still speaks to people, if they take the time to listen to it. Students are still blown away by what they hear. It speaks to basic human issues, and it’s part of our heritage.”
According to The New York Times, Paramount Records eventually recorded over 10,000 tracks of blues, hot jazz, hillbilly, treacly pop and ethnic music before the Depression. The label recorded such visionaries as Louis Armstrong, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Alberta Hunter, Charlie Patton and King Oliver. Because the producers — let’s not forget they were initially chair makers — had little knowledge of music, they stumbled upon artists and genres other labels disregarded.
“Paramount recorded music that was very unlikely to survive,” Werner says, “and they played a central role in preserving and documenting our music heritage.”
Jeremy Morris, assistant professor of media and cultural studies at UW-Madison, will be a guest at the event “Sounds Transformed: From Analog Capture to Digital Formats,” which will examine the transition from physical to digital media.
“Almost unwittingly, Paramount Records stumbled its way into recording some of this country's greatest black performers and musical artists,” Morris says. “They didn’t seem to know or care what they were releasing, so long as it would help sell phonograph furniture and so long as they could do so cheaply. But the blues, gospel and jazz tunes they recorded and sold went on to influence the shape of music in the country for years and decades.”
Many modern artists attribute musical influence to Paramount. Because of that historical and musical significance, two record labels — Third Man Records, owned by Jack White, and Revenant Records — have collaborated on a two-volume collection of words, images and music called “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932.”
Dean Blackwood, owner of Revenant Records, will appear as a special guest at the Paramount events, along with Amanda Petrusich, author of Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78 RPM Records.
Revenant Records describes the collection as “a two-volume omnibus of words, images and music, housed in a limited-edition, hand-sculpted cabinet of wonder.” Together, the two volumes consist of 1,600 newly remastered tracks, 290 fully restored original Paramount ads and images, 760 pages of discography and artist portraits and an art book detailing the history of the company.
The collection is capped at 5,000 copies and is priced at over $400 dollars. Madisonians unwilling to invest that much can get a free dose of history and immersion at any of the Paramount happenings spanning four days.
“The collection gathers a rare piece of musical history, and it has local links that I think would be of interest to Wisconsinites,” says Morris. “Getting to know the musical history of the region in which you live is part of understanding its current musical cultures and infrastructures.”