Many of the most important recordings in blues history were made at the studio of Paramount Records, located here on the grounds of the Wisconsin Chair Company factory. Between 1929 and 1932 Mississippi-born blues pioneers including Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Skip James, Son House, the Mississippi Sheiks, Willie Brown and Henry Townsend traveled north to record here.
Paramount Records was founded by the Wisconsin Chair Company in 1917, during an era when 78rpm records were often sold at furniture stores to promote sales of phonographs and phonograph cabinets. A pressing plant was established at this location, and recordings were initially produced at its New York Recording Laboratories studio in New York City, and by the early 1920s at the Marsh Laboratories in Chicago, where African American producer J. Mayo Williams supervised many recordings. In 1929 a studio was opened at the facility in Grafton.
Paramount recorded a wide range of music, but today is most famous for the blues recordings it began making in 1922. Mamie Smith's 1920 hit, "Crazy Blues" on OKeh Records, had alerted record companies to the sales potential of female American American blues vocalists, and Paramount followed suit by recording leading vaudeville women including Ma Rainey and Ida Cox. In 1926 Paramount introduced a new phase in blues recording history when the success of its releases by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake revealed a market for male singers who accompanied themselves on guitar. The label's catalogue also featured the New Orleans jazz sounds of Jelly Roll Morton and religious recordings by the Reverend J.M. Gates, the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet, and others.
To locate talent in the South, Paramount employed field agents, including H.C. Speir, who owned a furniture and music store in Jackson, Mississippi. Speir canvassed the state for talent, made test recordings, and helped to arrange for artists to travel north to record. The most significant of his discoveries was Delta blues pioneer Charley Patton, who recorded over forty songs for Paramount. Other Mississippi-born artists who recorded for the label included Tommy Johnson and Ishmon Bracey, the most important bluesmen in the Jackson area; Henry Townsend, who became a leading bluesman in St. Louis; and Robert Johnson's mentor Son House, who traveled with Patton, Willie Brown, and Louise Johnson by car to a historic session in Grafton in 1930.
With the arrival of the Great Depression record sales declined significantly, and in the summer of 1932 Paramount closed its studio. The factory shut its doors the following year. Paramount subsequently achieved legendary status among historians and record collectors, including John Steiner, who purchased the label in the late 1940s, and John Tefteller, who decades later uncovered a treasure trove of Paramount advertising images. The Grafton Blues Association, founded in 2006 to celebrate Paramount's legacy, staged the first annual Paramount Blues Festival that year.
In 1929 Paramount released Charley Patton's second single, "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues," under the pseudonym "Masked Marvel." To promote the record in the Chicago Defender, a nationally distributed African American newspaper, the label created a mail-in contest in which customers who guessed Patton's name received a free Paramount record.
Paramount promoted its records with extensive newspaper advertising as well as catalogues, calendars, and a book of blues sheet music.
Many ads for blues records such as "Guitar Boggie" by Blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother from Mississippi appeared in the Chicago Defender. The Graves brothers' music has been described as a predecessor to rock 'n' roll. This ad, originally published in the No. 2, 1929 Defender, is also among the images pictured in a series of blues calendars produced by record dealer-collector John Tefteller. The Port Washington Herald newspaper created the original illustrated ads. The home offices of Paramount and the Wisconsin Chair Company were in Port Washington.
H.C. Speir, shown here in the late 1960s, worked as a talent scout for Paramount and other labels. Mississippi-born artists who recorded for Paramount included Skip James, the Mississippi Sheiks, Rube Lacey, Bogus Ben Covington, Geeshie Wiley, Gus Cannon (Banjo Joe), Lucille Bogan, Charley Taylor, Elvie Thomas, Henry Sims, and the Delta Big Four. (Photo courtesy Marsha Speir Pickard)
Henry Townsend (shown above in the mid-1940s) recalled that he stayed in this building at 1304 12th Avenue, which once housed the Bienlein (Central) Hotel, when he came from St. Louis to record for Paramount in 1931. Paramount's blues artists also stayed in boarding houses in Milwaukee. Townsend died on a return visit to Grafton on September 24, 2006, just hours after being honored on the newly unveiled Paramount Records Walk of Fame. He was the last surviving blues artist who had recorded for Paramount.
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Photos courtesy: Jim O'Neal, BluExtorica Archives, Grafton Blues Association, and John Tefteller. Research assistance: Kris Raymond and Alex van der Tuuk. Special thanks to the Grafton Area Chamber of Commerce and Cary Rentals.
The Mississippi Blues Trail traces the historical route of the blues from its Mississippi roots through its developments in other states. For more information Grafton's musical heritage, please visit the Paramount Plaza in downtown Grafton featuring the Paramount Records Walk of Fame.