Crumbling remnants of foundation are all that remains of the Wisconsin Chair Co. factory, hovering above a bend of the Milwaukee River in Grafton, Wis.
But what was made here will endure forever.
Not the furniture. The music.
The Port Washington, Wis.-headquartered Wisconsin Chair Co. didn’t just make chairs in Grafton. It pressed 78-rpm records from 1917 to 1932 at this site through a subsidiary company, Paramount Records. Amid the tens of thousands Paramount issued, it became the premier producer of music made by African-American artists of that era who would help shape the blues, jazz and rock as we know it. Artists included Ma Rainey, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, King Oliver, Ida Cox, Blind Blake and others.
Now, thanks to a small and eclectic crew of obsessives — including Grammy-winning rock star Jack White, the Port Washington-based grandnephew of Paramount’s recording engineer and a nurse outside Amsterdam turned spare-time historian — the Paramount Records legacy has been rebuilt through an ambitious, extensive, two-volume boxed set, “The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records,” co-released by White’s Third Man Records and Revenant Records, co-founded by late guitarist John Fahey.
Volume Two, released Nov. 18, covers 1928 to 1932 and includes recordings made by blues greats such as Charley Patton and Son House at a studio built at the Grafton facility in 1929.
“They captured a snapshot of American culture that ended up influencing the planet for the next 100 years,” White told Rolling Stone last year. “With all the racism of that time period, this was an equal playing ground for everybody. If you had a story to tell, they didn’t care. You could be poor, in a minority, and tell your story on a record that you wrote. And it would be sold to people? Think about how unbelievable that was.”
A SHOTGUN APPROACH
Evidence suggests, however, that Paramount’s owners “had no preservationist impulse, and they didn’t see themselves as purveyors of culture,” Revenant co-founder Dean Blackwood told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “They were trying to move widgets.”
“The records were such an afterthought,” he said. “They were trying to sell their phonograph cabinets, which they started producing after they first did some contract (phonograph cabinet) manufacturing for Thomas Edison. ... They went for the cheapest artist, the cheapest recording methods and the cheapest methods to press the records.
“The great irony, of course, is that they created the richest repository of early American vernacular music, what America sounded like, in that particular time. The Library of Congress had no field recordings until the 1930s.”
Paramount Records employed a shotgun approach, recording practically every genre of music at the time: country, classical, dance, regional marching bands and more. It floundered until it aped Okeh Records, which found some sales success in 1920 with a record called “Crazy Blues,” by African-American singer Mamie Smith. In 1922, Paramount had its first hit with Alberta Hunter’s “Downhearted Blues” and would release about 25 percent of what were deemed “race records.”
Just 15 years after its start, Paramount folded in 1932, a victim of the Great Depression, and the Wisconsin Chair Co. closed the next year. Many records were reportedly thrown in the Milwaukee River, and the recording ledgers and masters were sold during scrap drives in 1942 that were organized for World War II.
Fifty years later, music history obsessive Alex van der Tuuk, a registered nurse in the Netherlands, became fascinated by the Paramount story.
“It was specifically the mystery, because a lot of the information had been thrown away,” van der Tuuk said by phone. “In 1993, I tried to find books about the history of the blues. And there were some chapters about some history of Paramount, but some questions arose. What happened to the records? What happened to the factory? What happened to the metal masters? I tried to find new information, but it wasn’t in books. So it took me to Milwaukee.”
Between trips to Wisconsin and research from home, van der Tuuk gathered enough information to write his own book, “Paramount’s Rise and Fall,” released in 2003. His work helped spark a renewed interest in Paramount’s history in Grafton. In 2006, the village unveiled downtown Paramount Plaza, which includes informational placards and a “walk of fame” with annual inductions of famed Paramount artists. The Paramount Blues Festival began in 2006, and van der Tuuk helped create a self-guided walking tour in Grafton.
The book inspired Blackwood and White, both of whom read it about three or four years ago, Blackwood said. White in particular felt a connection to the Paramount story; before Third Man Records, he had his own furniture business, Third Man Upholstery.
When they launched the boxed set project, they brought van der Tuuk on as co-producer. He spent two years collecting artwork and recordings from around the world, including an unreleased test pressing, as well as fliers and images, from Port Washington, courtesy of collector Dennis Klopp, the grandnephew of Paramount’s recording engineer, Walter Klopp.
Each volume comes in a handcrafted case. Volume One (spanning 1917 to 1927), released November 2013, looks like an early 20th-century phonograph; Volume Two is housed in an art deco-inspired aluminum and steel cabinet. Housed inside each are 800 newly remastered digital tracks from more than 170 artists; more than 90 restored Paramount Records newspaper ads; six LPs with hand-engraved labels; a book (with pictures) chronicling the known history of the label; a manual with profiles of noted Paramount artists and a digital app that allows users to listen to songs while looking at Paramount ads.
Only 5,000 copies of each volume were made. The cost: $400 per volume, available at the Third Man Records website and select retailers. Blackwood suggested the entire project set them back $4 million.
“We basically have to sell out to break even,” he said. “Jack obviously is the key. He was willing to say these things need to exist, so it’s OK if it takes us 10 years to make our money back. It’s hard to imagine anyone else would do something like this.”
And for overjoyed obsessives such as van der Tuuk and Klopp — who, as a surprise, received a free copy of Volume One as a thank you — that significant investment is priceless.
“It is just unbelievable,” Klopp said. “A lot of times when you find one of those Paramounts, they have been played a lot, so it sounds like frying bacon in the background. Chris King, the sound guy, he just pulled the instruments out so you’ve got that in-the-same-room kind of feel.”
“And all these little stories I heard from my father and uncles, all of a sudden, more and more of this stuff, you can visualize it.”
©2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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