How did Paramount, a Wisconsin chair company, come to dominate the blues record market of the 1920s? The company’s bold pivot into the then untested market for records by African American blues performers proved instrumental in establishing the blues as the first original American musical art form.
The company is perhaps most famous for the legendary 14-song recording session with Delta blues pioneer Charley Patton. The chair-cum-record company used a clever advertising strategy to market Patton’s release of “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues.” The company released the first 10,000 copies of the song under the name “The Masked Marvel.” Through ads in various publications, record-buyers were invited to guess the name of the artist in exchange for a free copy of the disc.
Skip James’ 1931 recordings for Paramount rank among the rarest blues records. Due to poor sales during the Great Depression, James’ discs all but vanished after their limited release in 1931. While the Depression led to Paramount closure in 1935, internal incompetence had long been undermining the company’s viability. Sadly, James’, Patton’s, and many other artists’ unsold 78s were still sitting in the company’s warehouse when the company unceremoniously folded. A former Mayor of Port Washington, Wisconson, told a researcher that as a teen he took 78s out of the shuttered warehouse and flung them off the roof of Paramount—shooting them like clay pigeons as they spun through the air. Since the steel masters had previously been melted down for their scrap value, the remaining 78s were irreplaceable.
Beginning in 1948, several attempts were made to acquire and reissue Paramount’s catalog of recordings. Finally, in 1970, the rights to Paramount’s back catalog were acquired by George H. Buck. The use of the name “Paramount Records” was later purchased from Buck by Paramount Pictures, a previously unconnected company.
Marty Weil is the editor of @ChiBluesHistory on Twitter. Marty is a blues researcher, educator, and social media influencer.
Talking Blues: Conversations with Artists on “Blues from the Inside Out” Podcast
At Home Chicago Blues Instructor and Musical Director Dave Specter starts conversations on the Blues from the Inside Out podcast. In this episode, he interviews Donald Kinsey. These are great stories, please tune in.