During the 1920s and early 1930s, the Wisconsin Chair Co. made much more than furniture.
Its subsidiary built the foundation of American pop music with a treasure trove of early African-American blues, jazz and gospel recordings — the subject of a Webster’s Bookstore Cafe event on Nov. 22.
Paramount Records, nestled in Grafton, Wis., from 1917 to 1932, recorded one legend after another: Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Charley Patton, Son House and Skip James, to name but a few. The label also preserved the music of as many brilliant figures destined to remain in obscurity.
Today, roots-music collectors covet original Paramount 78 rpm records. Some discs, with only a handful of copies known to exist, can fetch thousands of dollars.
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Alex van der Tuuk, a Dutch author and musicologist, became fascinated with Paramount 20 years ago after delving into prewar country blues. Interviews with former company employees in Wisconsin led to articles and then the 2003 book, “Paramount’s Rise and Fall.”
Considered the leading expert on the label, van der Tuuk said Paramount’s meteoric arc — white executives jumping into the burgeoning “race records” market, the rapid assemblage of talent recorded as cheaply as possible, the plunge into bankruptcy during the Depression — made for a captivating tale full of romance and mystery.
“At first it was its history. Why did this company rise? Why did it fall?” van der Tuuk said in a recent phone interview. “There were so many questions that I had that I couldn’t find in books about blues and jazz.”
“From there, I picked up CDs first. Soon enough, I had my first Paramount (record) in my hand, and 20 years later, I’m hooked on everything Paramount.”
At Webster’s Bookstore Cafe, van der Tuuk will discuss the famous label and the latest tribute to it: “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932,” a box set that may be the most lavish reissue project ever.
Van der Tuuk served as co-producer of the brainchild of Revenant Records and Third Man Records, former White Stripes guitarist Jack White’s label.
Housed in an oak box crafted to resemble an antique portable phonograph case, the $400 set limited to 5,000 contains six LPs, two books and an ornate thumb drive full of 800 songs and 200 Paramount ads and other images.
“It took me an hour of gasping to look at the box and all the pieces,” van der Tuuk said of the first time he saw the finished product.
Penn State professor Jerry Zolten, a musicologist, author and longtime record collector, contributed to the project, writing more than 30 biographies of Paramount artists, including the influential but obscure Rev. T.T. Rose. Recruited by van der Tuuk, Zolten unearthed previously unknown material about Rose and his life.
Zolten will join van der Tuuk at Webster’s to talk about the Paramount project — and his own release. A few years ago, Zolten recorded “Chimpin’ the Blues,” a collaboration with artist R. Crumb during their radio show about prewar blues on WPSU. The album, featuring tracks from both of their collections and excerpts from their conversations about them, will be released on vinyl and CD on Dec. 10.
For their Webster’s appearance, the scholars will play samples of blues, jazz and gospel songs and show photos and graphics, such as Paramount label advertisements, from the music’s era.
“We’ll relate any stories we have about the artists,” Zolten said. “Alex and I will try to bring the artists to life.”
Fundamentally, the discussion will explore the “roots of American music,” Zolten said. Paramount’s cultural role came to an end in 1933 with disgruntled employees tossing records given to them in lieu of final wages off the roof of the company’s plant.
Decades later, van der Tuuk jumped at the chance to restore the legendary label to prominence.
“Without a doubt,” he said, “this is the thing I’ve been waiting for for 20 years.”