The Furniture Company That Sang The Blues

Feb 16, 2015

Paramount Records, founded in 1917 by a furniture company in Wisconsin, found itself in a curious position by the mid-1920s: it was the leading blues label in America, and selling lots of records. J. Mayo "Ink" Williams, the first black record executive in America, had used his street smarts to attract a number of artists, and his best-seller was Blind Lemon Jefferson. Then, suddenly, Williams quit in 1927. But Paramount's greatest moments were yet to come. Third Man and Revenant Records have been documenting this label with huge collections of music and graphics, and their second and last set was released late in 2014, with six LPs and a USB drive featuring 800 classic recordings. Fresh Air music historian Ed Ward has the story today.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Paramount Records, which was founded in 1917 by a furniture company in Wisconsin, found itself in a curious position by the mid-1920s. It had become the leading blues label in America and selling lots of records. J Mayo Ink Williams, the first black record executive in America, had used his street smarts to attract a number of artists and his bestseller was Blind Lemon Jefferson. Then suddenly, Williams quit in 1927, but Paramount's greatest moments were yet to come. And that's the period, 1928 to 1932, covered by the second in a two-volume collection documenting Paramount Records. Volume Two, which was released late last year by Third Man and Revenant Records, includes six LPs and a USB drive featuring 800 classic recordings. Rock historian Ed Ward has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEE THAT MY GRAVE IS KEPT CLEAN")

BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON: (Singing) Well, there's one kind favor I ask of you. Well, there's one kind favor I ask of you. Lord, there's one kind favor I'll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean.

ED WARD, BYLINE: When Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" in early 1928, he had just over a year to live, although he was only in his late 40s. Paramount Records looked like it was headed the same way, but instead something wonderful happened. It's largely attributable to one man, H.C. Speir, who ran a general store in the black section of Jackson, Miss., and was a huge fan of the blues music played in that part of the world. Speir bought a little disc cutting machine and because he sold records in his store, he knew what labels were interested in this music. He'd get musicians to cut a side or two, then ship them off to a record label and see if they were interested. If they were, he pocketed a finder's fee.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLEY PATTON SONG)

WARD: One of the most successful finds he sent Paramount was Charley Patton, a towering figure who was looked up to by most of the other Mississippi bluesmen, although he didn't strictly play blues but mixed it with older forms. Once his records began to sell, Patton would load up a car with his friends, his girlfriend's, his ex-girlfriends and some whiskey and head to Grafton, Wis., to record. One of those friends was Son House.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BLACK MAMA (PART 2)")

SON HOUSE: (Singing) Well, I solemnly swear, Lord, raise my right hand that I'm going to get me a woman, you get you another man. I solemnly swear, Lord, I raise my right hand that I'm going to get me a woman, you get you another man...

WARD: House outlived Patton by many years. And after he was found living in Rochester, N.Y., in the early '60s, enjoyed a new career on the folk circuit and filled in a lot of gaps in researchers' knowledge of Delta blues. Another artist Speir sent to Wisconsin was Nehemiah Skip James, an odd, violent, guilt-driven man with a guitar style utterly like any other.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SO GLAD")

NEHEMIAH SKIP JAMES: (Singing) I'm so glad, and I am glad, I am glad, I'm glad. I don't know what to do, don't know what to do, I don't know what to do. I'm tired of weeping, tired of moaning, tired of groaning for you. And I'm so glad, I am glad, I am glad, I'm glad. I'm tired of weeping, tired of moaning, tired of groaning for you. And I'm so glad, and I am glad, and I am glad, I'm glad.

WARD: None of James's haunting records sold. And Speir was about to see if another label could get him out there when James had a religious experience and ran off to preach and make whiskey with his father. He too would be rediscovered in the '60s. Some of the records Paramount made during this period sold so badly that they're extraordinarily rare. And as a result, we know next to nothing about the artists who made them. Geeshie Wiley, who recorded with a second guitarist named L.V. Thomas, is one of them and another whose music came from another dimension.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST KIND WORDS")

GEESHIE WILEY: (Singing) The last kind words I heared my daddy say. Lord, the last kind words I heared my daddy say. If I die, if I die in the German war, I want you to send my body, send it to my mother, Lord. If I get killed, if I get killed, please don't bury my soul. I'd prefer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole.

WARD: Recently, The New York Times Magazine published the story that shed a lot of light on these two women, including a photograph of L.V. Thomas in old age. But other performers who recorded for Paramount are total mysteries.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GONE DEAD TRAIN")

KING SOLOMON HILL: (Singing) And I'm going way down. Lord, I'm going to try to leave here today. Tell them I believe I'll find my way and that train is just that way. Got to go on that train, I said I'd even broke my jaw. Boys, if you out and running around in this world, this train will wreck your mind. Your life, too. Lord, I once was a hobo.

WARD: King Solomon Hill is a complete cipher. Some say he was a Louisiana man named Joe Holmes, but the evidence is shaky. Besides blues, Paramount recorded gospel music, early jazz and some hillbilly music between 1927 and 1932 when it ceased operations. The Depression hit the record business hard starting with its poorest customers, and Paramount catered largely to them. At the employee Christmas party in 1932, Paramount announced it was going out of business. As the party wore down, a group of the newly unemployed gathered on the roof of the factory and started skimming records and pressing plates into the river like Frisbees. Paramount was over, but the music lived on.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Austin, Texas. All the music he played is from "The Rise And Fall Of Paramount Records, Volume Two." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Richard Price, the author of the novels "Clockers," "The Wanderers" and "Lush Life." He also wrote for HBO series "The Wire." His new novel is about police detectives. Michael Chabon described Price as one of the best writers of dialogue in the history of American literature. He's also a terrific interviewee, and it will be great to have him back on the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.