SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Imagine that all your favorite music was released by the same label - Wynton Marsalis to Kanye West. If you were an African-American back in the 1920s, odds are that was true. And it wasn't your standard record label; it was launched by a company that made chairs. Paramount Records and its roster eventually included Ma Rainey, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Ethel Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson - most of the top African-American blues and jazz performers of the day.
Despite that star power, the label folded after just 15 years in business. NPR's Tom Cole reports on why the label didn't last, and on a new reissue project that tries to recapture some of the Paramount magic.
TOM COLE, BYLINE: Our story begins this way.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) 1917. A young, black man on a train moving up the Illinois Central Line to Chicago. Outside the window, a great emptiness crosshatched with railroads, threaded by a river. A few no-account towns; a sea of prairie. He opens his trombone case across his knees. The brass glints. He feels the promise of the slide between his fingers. All of that space out there, concentrated into this.
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COLE: Words written by novelist and teacher Scott Blackwood in a book about Paramount's story that's part of the reissue.
SCOTT BLACKWOOD: My goal was to really find the real visceral stories that told us who these people were, and how this tremendous music came about - and who the Paramount people were.
COLE: They were, for the most part, a bunch of white guys in Port Washington, Wis., who made furniture - chairs and cabinets - for phonographs. Sam Brylawski, editor of the American Discography Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says they got into the music business for the same reason some of today's entrepreneurs have.
SAM BRYLAWSKI: How did iTunes start? iTunes started because Apple needed to have a supply of portable recordings to put on its iPods. iTunes was started in order to sell iPods, just like Paramount Records was started to help sell Paramount - or Wisconsin Chair Co. phonograph machines.
COLE: At first, Paramount didn't even have its own studio. The label licensed recordings from other companies, releasing whatever was popular - mostly dance bands, to start.
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COLE: Neither the company's records nor its phonographs were selling well. Then the blues craze hit. Paramount executives dove in, recording as many female blues singers as they could - Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWNHEARTED BLUES)
COLE: Almost by accident, Paramount became the leading producer of a new kind of record; and the women singers became pioneers, says Scott Blackwood.
SCOTT BLACKWOOD: These women were incredibly powerful at a time when women weren't able to control many aspects of their lives.
COLE: The discs they made came to be called race records. The term was used in ads Paramount placed in African-American newspapers, like The Chicago Defender. Alex van der Tuuk, author of the 2003 book "Paramount's Rise and Fall" and a co-producer of the reissue, explains the term and how, once again, Paramount's white executives became unwitting industry leaders.
ALEX VAN DER TUUK: They were one of the first, if not the first, to even use the slogan the popular race record; and race, of course, being used as a word of pride. And that was what the Chicago Defender also said - be proud of your race.
R. CRUMB: Because they specialized so heavily in that music, their ads were not insultingly racist, as were some of the other companies'.
COLE: R. Crumb, the seminal underground commix artist, was first attracted to the old 78s he now fervently collects by the graphics on their labels. It was only later that he saw the ads.
CRUMB: Paramount, for being this small company run on the cheap, certainly focused strongly on the graphic promotion of the record - more than any other company, I think, as far as blues goes, and all that. They really put out these lurid ads, which are great. But nobody knows who those artists were, the unsung heroes. I don't think any of the original art has ever turned up.
COLE: Nobody knows who many of the musicians were, either. Paramount kept lousy ledgers, and those that the label did keep were mostly destroyed in scrap drives during World War II. Guitarist and singer Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes and founder of Third Man Records, a label partner in the reissue project, says Paramount hustled as many musicians in and out of the studio as fast as it could.
JACK WHITE: People who recorded one record and no one knows who they are; there's no photograph of them, there's no history of them. They were in the studio for 10 minutes and left - and are gone. Who are they? We don't know, and we will never know. And that is unbelievable.
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COLE: Paramount recorded what others did not, says Sam Brylawski.
BRYLAWSKI: Paramount was the first to record a solo male singing blues with a stringed instrument. You know, this is what we think of, more often than anything, as blues. The first one ever made was made for Paramount.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SALTY DOG BLUES")
COLE: Papa Charlie Jackson was discovered on a Chicago street corner by a fledgling record producer who basically fell into Paramount's lap - knocking on the label's door one day, offering to run its Chicago operations.
SCOTT BLACKWOOD: So, we are at 36th and State. The Overton Hygiene Building is still here, which was Mayo's offices, where he would sometimes audition talent.
COLE: Scott Blackwood says Mayo Williams was a graduate of Brown University and had worked for other labels, selling their records. But like the men who ran the Wisconsin Chair Co., he had no real experience in the music industry. But he did have a vision.
SCOTT BLACKWOOD: His whole idea was to raise the consciousness of the race - was his goal. And he, you know, actively sought out and tried to recruit black opera singers, primarily because he thought as - you know, the refined culture was what African Americans really needed and wanted, if he could just get it to them.
COLE: But his customers wanted blues and jazz, and that's what he delivered. By some estimates, Paramount made more than 100,000 recordings. Documenting the label's accomplishments was one reason Dean Blackwood launched the current reissue project. He's Scott's brother, and the co-founder of Revenant Records, the other label partner in the project. The reissue includes six LPs; two books; and a thumb drive containing 800 tunes, and 200 ads and other images; all contained in an oak box designed to look like a portable phonograph case from the 1920s. It's being sold in a limited edition of 5,000, for a hefty $400.
DEAN BLACKWOOD: It's not just about the tunes. It's about this narrative that's told about these white men operating out of a chair factory, who really had no idea what they were doing. And that's what makes it all the more remarkable, that they almost inadvertently create one of the greatest repositories of early American music - albeit cheaply recorded, cheaply produced, cheaply pressed.
COLE: For such a remarkable story, Paramount's end was fairly prosaic. The company always struggled, its recording operation never profitable. Then the Great Depression hit. The label sold most of its metal masters for the copper in them. It gave employees records in lieu of a final paycheck. Here's how Scott Blackwood writes the end in his narrative.
SCOTT BLACKWOOD: (Reading) December 1933. Evening. Grafton, Wis. A knot of bundled-up white people, factory workers, clerks, even a few secretaries, are standing on the roof of the Grafton Record Factory along the banks of the Milwaukee River. They're angry. They've just been fired during the company's Christmas party. They sling the records into the dark, toward the river.
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SCOTT BLACKWOOD: They can hear some of them smash on the rocks along the riverbank. Others make it to the water; drift downstream, they imagine, or settle in the clay bottom. This is how the story ends, they're thinking. But the voices out there in the anonymous dark, drifting downriver, still have something to say.
COLE: Indeed, they do. Tom Cole, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.