The Blues Trail: Paramount Records
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
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,
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
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.
Welcome to one of the many sites on the Mississippi Blues Trail Visit us online at www.MSBluesTrail.org
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.
Erected 2010 by Mississippi Blues Commission. (Marker Number 112.)
Marker series. This marker is included in the Mississippi Blues Trail marker series.
Location. 43° 18.581′ N, 87° 57.108′ W. Marker is in Grafton, Wisconsin, in Ozaukee County. Marker is at the intersection of Green Bay Road and Falls Road, on the right when traveling north on Green Bay Road. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Grafton WI 53024, United States of America.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 2 miles of this marker, measured as the crow flies. Chair Factory History (a few steps from this marker); Lime Kiln Dam Removal (approx. 0.3 miles away); Lime Kiln Dam (approx. 0.3 miles away); Grafton Lime Kilns (approx. 0.4 miles away); Paramount Records Legacy (approx. 0.6 miles away); Origin of Cedar Creek / Mills on the Creek (approx. 1.9 miles away); The First 100 Years (approx. 1.9 miles away); Cedarburg Mill (approx. 2 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Grafton.
Categories. • African Americans • Arts, Letters, Music • Entertainment • Industry & Commerce •
Credits. This page was last revised on June 16, 2016. This page originally submitted on August 9, 2015, by Devon Polzar of Port Washington, Wisconsin. This page has been viewed 259 times since then and 17 times this year. Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4. submitted on August 9, 2015, by Devon Polzar of Port Washington, Wisconsin. • Bill Pfingsten was the editor who published this page.