Oddly in a written piece about early blues music this particular note begins in the north, with a white man, and with a chair company. While those items may not seem to add up to country blues, indeed, they added up to the greatest collection of early blues recordings known. Let's go to Wisconsin, shall we?
Fred Dennett was an enterprising and usually successful white businessman residing in Sheboygan Wisconsin where in 1888 he established the Wisconsin Chair Company. Within a few years he had started a knitting company, several sawmills, and a factory that manufactured couches. He also began manufacturing cabinets for the Edison Companies phonograph machines. The company that made these cabinets became, in 1916, the United Phonograph Corporation, which also produced records under two label names, Puritan and Paramount. The records would be produced by the New York Recording Laboratories in nearby Grafton. It seems that Dennett felt that the New York City moniker would sound more successful, more uptown, than Grafton Wisconsin.
By 1922 Paramount, under the lead of Art Satherly an Englishman who had been hired in 1919 to head the labels, was a quarter million dollars in the red. The output thus far had been primarily quite forgettable. To stem the financial landslide the label looked for assistance to one Mayo Williams, a Black man from Chicago with connections to the growing Black music industry often called "race records". Williams created a vital role for himself by establishing a network of talent scouts to refer musicians to the label. (Along side his work for Paramount Williams sold gin during Prohibition and sold nickelodeons to speakeasies and brothels.) Satherly's role within the company was diminished and Paramount became a major player in early blues recording. There is no doubt that Paramount created the most valuable catalog of blues recordings during this period even though it was never considered to be one of the major recording labels.
When Paramount was making records the masters were cut into a disc of hard beeswax that was 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick. From this master a pressing mother was made. From this pressing mother the actual commercial records were pressed, and in the case of Paramount the shellac compound used had very poor quality filler. As one writer puts it, Paramount records, "even when new varied in sound from a light bacon and tomato fry to an extended reproduction of the Mount St. Helens eruption". Talent scout H C Speir said that Paramount recordings had a "tin pan tone".
With the rapidly growing market for phonographs and phonograph records and the increasing need to fix the bottom line, those at the top of Paramount were seemingly willing to record anything. Prior to the success of many of the race records released between 1925 or so and 1932 Paramount and the other labels associated with the New York Recording Laboratories released popular song and dance music, hillbilly
recordings, German and Spanish music, Polish music, classical music (remember that these recordings couldn't be much more than 2 1/2 minutes long so these were really short classical pieces), and songs from musicals. Due to the location of the company musicians from Wisconsin (certainly not a hotbed of blues musicians) were heavily represented. Paramount, however, did its best to have its finger in the classic blues pie. Remember that classic blues refers to the show-tuney band-based material of artists like Ma Rainey and Ida Cox. But there is no doubt that Paramount excelled, as few other record labels would, at presenting something fairly far removed from classic blues.
"Honey blues" - Lottie Beaman
"You can't keep no brown" - Bo Weavil Jackson
"Mama don't you think I know" - Para Charlie Jackson
Next time, Part 2 of the Paramount Records story, featuring Paramount's first big star.