The ambitious new set "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932, Volume 1" comes packaged in a sturdy wooden suitcase dubbed "The Cabinet of Wonder," an apt title considering the awe-inducing sounds and history it resurrects.
A label whose ragtag story stars two white Wisconsin business partners more concerned with record player sales than music, an A&R man whose race and history as a Chicago bootlegger (and ex-pro football player) allowed him access to the clubs where unrecorded talent gigged and a roster of artists with equally fascinating biographies, the Paramount and affiliated labels' output during its 15-year life comprises more than 1,600 songs. They were released through a subsidiary of a Port Washington, Wis.-born furniture company during the rise of the phonograph era.
Ultimately, and seemingly against all odds, Paramount tapped into a huge market hungry for so-called race records, selling thousands if not millions of shellacs by some of the most important African American voices of the first recorded music era. Artists including Blind Lemon Jefferson, James P. Johnson, Louis Armstrong and Ma Rainey appeared on now-historic sides for Paramount or one of its numerous subsidiary labels, the most notable being a black music imprint, Black Swan.
It's an impressive object, the Cabinet, with the heft of a hellhound, but the true revelations arrive in the narratives held in this first of two volumes, released in November. The market is filled with so-called definitive box sets. Few, however, bring the musical past to life in such a surprising and revealing way.
Two books illuminate Paramount's history, context and graphic marketing style. A set of six vinyl-pressed albums curated by singer-guitarist and White Stripes co-founder Jack White and compadres offers a representative slice of the voluminous music. Newsprint circulars of sheet music and catalogs illustrate the notated and numbered specifics. Most impressive, a flash drive playfully dubbed "the Jobber-Luxe" comes loaded with 800 MP3s released in Paramount's first decade, delivering a huge swath of sound from the rise of the jazz and blues ages, in the process capturing the final years of the vaudeville era.
Plug the drive, designed in the shape of an old phonograph needle, into a computer and dig into the curated playlists, search by title, artist, catalog number, label or year — or drop a real needle on one of the 12 LP sides — and the beat of a rich and half-hidden American story starts thumping.
Which is to say, this volume, which extends through 1927, reveals the DNA of the American sound. Some numbers reveal the sprouting of jazz jumping into the present. Listen to the bawdy rhythm and blues, blackface minstrelsy, scat singing, hillbilly music, popular song, gospel, white spirituals, pre-war blues and various baffling one-offs and hear an echo of the big bang. In a few of the black "hokum" songs, most notably on Lil and Will Brown's "Save My Jelly," are the seeds of rock 'n' roll and hip-hop.
Voices eke out of the crackle, as if barely salvaged from the dustbin. The vocal group that offers "God's Gonna Set This World on Fire," called the Herwin Ladies Four, delivers a story of blazing portent that prompted a teary-eyed shudder the first time I heard it. The trumpet and clarinet wobbling through "Peepin' Blues" by Lovie Austin and Her Blues Serenaders seem to prevail though sheer force of will, and the song erupts when a muted trumpet burps out a wild solo.
The box, a joint release from White's Third Man Records and the John Fahey co-founded Revenant Records, based in Austin, Texas, is selling through Third Man's website, thirdmanrecords.com, for $400, the cheapest price on the Web. It's worth every cent because of the attention and care of Revenant's owner Dean Blackwood, the scholarship and writing by pre-World War II blues expert Alex van der Tuuk and others, White's purity of vision and the designers who crafted this thing.
Blackwood described during a recent conversation his desire to tell the Paramount story after concluding that the company was "this inescapable force in the universe, and every time you bump up against it you learn a little bit more about this curious tale. These guys were white men operating near Lake Michigan in Wisconsin at a furniture factory — didn't seem to have any aptitude or interest in records." Rather, they wanted to sell the more profitable phonograph cabinets, caring little about what buyers heard when they got them home.
Their carelessness allowed unfiltered recordings to hit the marketplace, and after hiring said bootlegger Mayo Williams, the company expanded into the "race record" business, eventually absorbing the Harlem-based Black Swan imprint after it couldn't pay its record-pressing bills. Alongside subsidiary labels Puritan, Famous and Broadway, Paramount advertised in newspapers across the country, most notably in black sheets such as the Chicago Defender, in the process starting one of the first music mail order businesses.
Paramount at various times shared artists with other labels that had found success selling to black audiences, most important among them Okeh and Gennett. But Paramount's seeming colorblindness — and aesthetic blindness — made it unique, said Blackwood.
"It's a case where their very cheapness and interest in getting stuff out as quickly as possible ended up unwittingly providing this platform with this incredible breadth to it — just in the diversity of sounds that were captured."
Nearly a century later the music feels safe again, even if some of the weathered recordings, despite being remastered, sound as old as they are.
"The Day of Judgment" offers a retelling of Revelation by Rev. W.M. Clark and his congregation, a peephole into a 1920s African American church. Ma Rainey does dirty in "Down in the Basement." "The Santa Claus Crave" is a desperate piano blues by Elzadie Robinson, a deep-throated singer who pleads with Santa Claus to bring her baby home. Eliose Bennett's "Sting Me Mr. Strange Man" is as weird as its title. Add in roughly 790 others and you've got yourself a holiday bounty.
Much of this stuff has been available in one form or another, but never before has the full Paramount story been told. Van der Tuuk told me that he's been researching the label and its affiliates for two decades and traveled to Wisconsin to interview former workers, artists and witnesses. He tells the full story within — including an incredible scene near the end of Paramount's life when residents used thousands of unsold records for some makeshift skeet-shooting.
Those in Hollywood looking for rich veins should expense this volume, limited to 5,000 copies. So vast are the mini narratives within the catalog of biographies in the "Field Manual" that you can imagine HBO or the Coen brothers drooling as they flip through it.
Mattie Dorsey, purveyor of "Love Me Daddy Blues," earned her keep in the mid-'20s as a male impersonator. Harry Reser, who recorded as Jimmy Johnston, bragged of first broadcasting from the Statue of Liberty in 1921. Scholars of gender and sexual politics should dig into this volume to better examine the out-and-open lifestyles of blues singers Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter. The namesake artist of Horace George's Jubilee Harmonizers stole whole hog a triple-clarinet trick (called in the book a "triple-licorice stick trick") from a competing player, which prompted a feud that culminated in a complaint to the National Vaudeville Assn.
With each turn of the page or album side too comes another prototype.
For example, Papa Charlie Jackson, according to Van der Tuuk, was "the first male who was recorded by a record company accompanying himself on a guitar — or a banjo guitar, in this case." Sales were so good on this and other blues and jazz titles that, said the scholar, "soon enough they figured, 'Well, we need to find more of these people.'"
They did, in the form of early recordings from rising cornetist Louis Armstrong, when he was a sideman in Joe "King" Oliver's band. "Riverside Blues," recorded 90 years ago, offers a glimpse of Armstrong as one among the many brilliant players in the band. Blind Lemon Jefferson too owes Paramount for his early success (even if it and other labels routinely stripped the artists of publishing and sales royalties) as the first country blues artist to see commercial success. He did so on a roster that also included Blind Blake and, later, Charley Patton.
The Depression wiped out Paramount and many other imprints — but that's for the second volume, due out in fall 2014 and offering 800 songs.
That's an overwhelming prospect, considering I've barely dented this volume. Amid the bounty, though, it's a few lesser-known sides that have popped the loudest. One is Sweet Papa Stovepipe's "Mama's Angel Child," a song that Blackwood too favored.
The first time he heard it he was awe-struck, he said. "It's like indie rock. What is this? How did it get recorded and who green-lighted it for release? That's one that both Jack and I went, 'Can you believe this?' How great is this? It sounds like he's gonna cry, and he's talking about how whatever happens to him, he's his mama's baby child."
It's true. Sweet Papa's forlorn moan seems to puncture the present. That something so old can retain so much heat is a wonder to behold. That it sits alongside so many other objects of equal density is remarkably and often fantastically overwhelming.