Seldom are the roots of blues music made so vivid. Record collector and historian Mike Hatfield gently places a well-worn 78 RPM disc of Ma Rainey's "Boll Weevil Blues" on a Victrola-style phonograph, cranks up the mechanism, sets the turntable in motion, and delicately positions the metal needle into the grooves. As Rainey wails her lamentations, an 80-year history is bridged. Of note, both the phonograph and record bear the same imprimatur: Paramount. Thus both testify to an era when the southeastern Wisconsin communities of Grafton and Port Washington were a fundamental part of the first decade of recorded blues music.
"Perhaps 20% to 25% of the most important blues recordings of the 1920s were on Paramount ," Hatfield stated. His assertion stems from almost a decade of intensive research, which he will share in a lecture at the Cedarburg Cultural Center on Thursday, April 24. "My interest in seminal blues began after I was dumped by a girlfriend," he said. "I listened to Robert Johnson, Son House, and many others – the sound, the lyrics, the feel of the music – I felt it was talking to me in those angst-ridden recordings." Hatfield turned to research books for more information. "Every one mentioned Port Washington and Grafton. I thought it was weird – why would blues music have anything to do with Wisconsin?" Hatfield 's job as a teacher gave him the opportunity to spend summers combing through libraries, courthouses, and historical societies across Ozaukee County. "Every time I would discover one bit of information, it would lead me to other things."
Hatfield's research has traced an entire corporate history – with beginnings that pre-dated recorded music. "In 1888, Fred Dennett incorporated the Wisconsin Chair Corporation in Port Washington," he said. As the corporation grew, its shops began to produce cabinets for the earliest phonographs. "In 1916, the patent laws for phonographs expired, and the company began to make its own phonographs." By 1917, the company had also set up a record pressing plant in Grafton, using recordings made in cities such as New York and Chicago; to add cachet, the recording unit identified itself as the New York Recording Laboratories (NYRL). "Most of the earliest records were on the Puritan label, but the Paramount label ultimately emerged as the company's primary label," Hatfield said.
The company's first recordings were mostly popular dance bands, vocalists, and some ethnic music. But the success of Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" on the Okeh label in 1920 led NYRL to also see a market for black performers. "In July of 1921, they issued Lucille Hegamin 's 'Jazz Me Blues' on Paramount – it was one of 14 labels that released that record," Hatfield said. One year later, the label began its own series of "race music." "The first record in that series was 'Daddy Blues/Don't Pan Me' by Alberta Hunter, backed by Eubie Blake," Hatfield said. For the next several years, a who's who of early blues and jazz musicians appeared on Paramount, including Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Trixie Smith, W.C. Handy (and his daughter, Katherine), Papa Charlie Jackson , Meade Lux Lewis, Jelly Roll Morton, and King Oliver 's Band (with a young Louis Armstrong). The label's early superstar was a guitarist from Texas, Blind Lemon Jefferson. He recorded numerous sessions in Chicago during the 1920s; his death there in late 1929 is an early chapter in blues folklore.
By 1929, NYRL decided to construct its own studio, rather than leasing recordings made elsewhere. "They had a contract to use the Gennett Studios in Richmond, Indiana, between March and October 1929," Hatfield said. During this time, a studio was constructed in an office building adjacent to the Grafton pressing plant. "The studio was on the uppermost floors of the office, and there was a catwalk connecting the two buildings," Hatfield said. The list of blues artists recording in Grafton is also amazing: Charlie Patton, Son House , Skip James, Blind Blake, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, and Ishmon Bracey are just a few of dozens among this formidable roll.
How did blues become such an integral part of a Wisconsin furniture manufacturer? "Major labels such as Victor and Columbia had contracts with the larger bands," Hatfield said. "Wisconsin Chair saw a gap in the marketplace and decide to fill it. In all, more than 1,200 'race' recordings were issued on Paramount. Many of the artists were recruited by the company's furniture salesmen in the south; the salesmen doubled as talent scouts for the company." And how did the musicians get from the south to Grafton? "Many took the train to Milwaukee, and then rode an electric interurban to Grafton," Hatfield said. "Many others were driven up by talent scouts."
But as early as 1930, Wisconsin Chair was looking to divest itself of the record business. "It was an easy target; it generated very little income but had great employee expenses," Hatfield said. "Mississippian H. C. Speir, Paramount's top talent scout, visited Grafton, but thought the price was too high." As the Depression deepened and radio became more prevalent, record sales plummeted. The studio's last recordings (the Mississippi Sheiks) were made in July of 1932; by September the recording operation folded. "I've been told that NYRL employees were paid their last wages in records," Hatfield said.
The Paramount story added a whole new section beginning in 1943. "A jazz record collector and University of Chicago professor of chemistry, John Steiner, arranged to reissue some of the most desired recordings on his own label (with partner Hugh Davis)," Hatfield said. "He also made the company aware of unauthorized reissues, and was contracted to assess the royalties owed on these reissues. By 1947, Steiner had a verbal contract to buy the complete assets of Paramount. In 1950, with the company finally in his possession, he started another series of at least 30 reissues, and also recorded new jazz groups – which were issued on clear red vinyl." Steiner's diligence was also useful in recapturing much of the company's "lost" material. "After he purchased the rights, he went door-to-door throughout the area, asking if people had anything from the company and offering to buy it," Hatfield said. "He recovered a lot; he even found some metal masters that had been used to patch a hole in a chicken shed. He also went to Gennett in Richmond, and used his ownership rights to leverage procurement of the many Paramount masters there."
Steiner's purchase price – "less than $1,000," Hatfield said, turned out to be an unexpectedly good investment. "ABC Records called its label ABC Paramount; Steiner had his lawyer write to them asking them to either cease, or to compensate him for the rights to the name. In the 1959 out-of-court settlement, Steiner earned thousands for selling them the naming rights," Hatfield said.
Hatfield bonded with Steiner during Steiner's final years. "In my research I found a letter he had written to the owner of a house built on the Grafton property," Hatfield said. "I wrote him asking if he would be interested in helping me with my research. I figured it would be a one-shot deal." Instead, the two had almost two dozen extended interview sessions over 3 ½ years that Hatfield recorded, and numerous other conversations. "In 1998, Steiner asked me to give a lecture with him on Paramount to the Association of Recorded Sound Collectors' international convention, held that year in Madison," Hatfield said, taking pride in this benediction. Steiner passed away a year later, at age 92.
What remains of the Paramount Corporation? Much like other dissolved corporations, its material has been cast to the four winds. "Steiner sold the rights to the material in 1970 to George H. Buck, Jr., a New Orleans businessman," Hatfield said. "He has released the material on the Black Swan label – first on LPs, now on CDs." And what became of Steiner's extensive collection? "Steiner retained editorial control over the music," Hatfield said. "I suggested to him that we use his existing metal masters and re-press a series of records with the highest-quality materials for the ultimate in fidelity. But he nixed the idea. He always said he only had a couple of these masters – but by my guess it was closer to a couple dozen."
After Steiner died, his collection was divided between the University of Wisconsin's Mills Music Library and the University of Chicago's Jazz Archive. "What concerns me and many other collectors and researchers is the possibility of theft from a disorganized collection with restricted access," Hatfield said. "It's been said that unscrupulous collectors have volunteered to 'organize' collections in the past, only to remove one or two of the rarest items before they get catalogued. I fear this may be the fate of some items from the Steiner collections." Hatfield also expressed some disappointment over Steiner 's selling off of some rare items in his collection before Hatfield could complete research for an upcoming book. "John seemed reticent about giving access to his rarest items," Hatfield said. "But it turns out he either donated to universities or sold off these rare items to collectors – posters, records, advertising, who knows what?"
That shroud of secrecy seems to have dropped over most collectors and researchers of the Paramount legacy. "Paramount was notorious for having retained very few business records – they literally threw their paper records out the window," Hatfield said. "So the information that people find is like the Holy Grail. There are also so few people still alive who remember the corporation – most of the information circulating is second- or third-hand. It really is a private eye investigation and in some cases you have to come to some conclusions based on circumstantial evidence." Hatfield hopes to break through some of that secrecy soon. "I've has a series of short articles on the corporation published in a phonograph collector's newsletter," he said, "and I hope to have my book out in two to three years."