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Massive Paramount Records trove has an ear for history
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Massive Paramount Records trove has an ear for history

Critic's Notebook: A furniture factory became a wide-ranging purveyor of music, especially by African American artists — sounds shared on 'The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932, Volume 1.'

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.


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