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Wed August 6, 2014
Music

A Label Paramount To Early Blues And Jazz

There's nothing a certain type of record collector likes better than finding a stack of 78s on the Paramount label. Between 1917 and 1932, the label, which was one of several run by a furniture company in Grafton, Wisc., released thousands of records, but its real accomplishment was recording some of the greatest early blues and jazz performers.

Jack White's Third Man Records has joined with the reissue label Revenant to release the first of two packages documenting the label, with 800 songs from the label's first ten years on a USB drive packed with several books and packages of graphics, in a hand-made, velvet-upholstered oak box. Fresh Air critic Ed Ward has the story.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. There's nothing a certain type of record collector likes better than finding a stack of '78s on the Paramount label. Between 1917 and 1932, the label, which was one of several run by a Wisconsin furniture company, released thousands of records. But its real accomplishment was recording some of the greatest early blues and jazz performers. Jack White's Third Man Records has joined with the reissued company Revenant to release the first of two packages documenting the Paramount label. Volume one includes a USB drive with 800 songs from Paramount's first 10 years, six vinyl recordings as well as several books and a collection of graphics. They're all contained in a handcrafted oak box. Rock historian Ed Ward has a review.

ED WARD, BYLINE: In 1917, somebody at the Wisconsin Chair Company in Port Washington, Wisconsin had a brilliant idea. The new Victrolas appearing on the market were not only engineering feats but also fine furniture, so they started making them. What was lacking was enough recorded music at a reasonable price. So why not start a record company or 10? A recording studio, which they called The New York Recording Laboratories - because who had ever heard of Port Washington - was established, and musicians started recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARAMOUNT SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA MEDLEY, "THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER" AND "AMERICA")

WARD: Paramount's first record was a medley of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "America" played by the Paramount Military Band. But the earliest recording I have is this, made in America by the Paramount Symphony Orchestra, who were very likely the same people. From there, the floodgates opened, and Paramount released hundreds of popular tunes, quite a few semi-classical numbers, comedy routines - some in blackface and Jewish dialect - Hawaiian tunes, Souza marches, Irish novelties, Negro spirituals and not a few marimba orchestra records. In 1920, Okeh Records released "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds, a record that was neither blues nor jazz. But both Mamie and her band were black, and even more importantly, the record sold 75,000 copies in one month. Paramount was paying attention, and in 1922, announced that it was entering what was known as the race market.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN HEARTED BLUES")

ALBERTA HUNTER: (Singing) Gee, but it's hard to love someone when that someone don't love you. I'm so disgusted, heartbroken, too. I've got those down hearted blues. Once I was crazy about a man. He mistreated me all the time. The next man I get, he's got to promise to be mine, all mine.

WARD: Alberta Hunter's recording of "Down Hearted Blues," probably with Eubie Blake's Orchestra, wasn't the blues hit Paramount was looking for, But the company continued to record Hunter and made her a star. The real event that turned Paramount around was the appearance of a young, middle-class black man named Jay Mayo Williams, a former NFL player who'd attended Brown University. He just walked into Paramount one day in 1923 and asked if he could have a job. He knew the black music world, or so he said, and they needed someone to supervise their new studio in Chicago. Just like that, he was hired. Williams didn't actually like blues; his background inclined him toward classical music. But he did feel that it was part of his heritage. With complete control over his Chicago studio, he pulled important artists in for sessions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SALTY DOG BLUES")

PAPA CHARLIE JACKSON: (Singing) Won’t you let me be your salty dog. Don’t want to be your man at all, you salty dog, you salty dog. Oh honey babe, let me be your salty dog. You salty dog, mama you salty dog. Said it ain't but the one thing grieve my mind. All these women and none is mine, you salty dog, you salty dog. Why don't you let me be your salty dog? Don't want to be your man at all. You salty dog, mama you salty dog.

WARD: Papa Charlie Jackson is almost forgotten today. But he was a Chicago street performer from New Orleans and recorded dozens of sides, all of which sold well. Williams worked hard, arranging sessions for Ma Rainey, Fletcher Henderson, Ferdinand La Menthe, better known as Jelly Roll Morton, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, Freddie Keppard and King Oliver, to name just a few. But two artists he found the streets of Chicago were important precursors of rock 'n roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTHUR BLAKE SONG)

WARD: Almost nothing is known of Arthur Blake, or Blind Blake as he's known to the many guitarists who've tried to learn his complex ragtime picking style. But we're lucky that Paramount recorded him as much as they did, and store in Dallas that was selling Paramount records alerted them to a street singer who always did good business in the black part of town. He was blind and usually had a young kid helping him get around. Paramount paid for him to come to Chicago, and soon he was recording for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT BLACK SNAKE MOAN")

BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON: (Singing) I, I ain't got no mama now. I, I ain't got no mama now. She told me late last night, you don't need no mama no how. Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin' in my room.

WARD: Blind Lemon Jefferson would be a mainstay of the Paramount catalog for as long as the company existed. Many record companies were concentrating on the kind of black music played in the cities, with orchestras and female blues singers. But Paramount, under Mayo Williams, had other ideas. As incredible as their output had been by 1927, when this collection ends, the best was yet to come.

GROSS: Ed Ward reviewed the "Rise & Fall of Paramount Records Volume 1." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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