In 1917, the Wisconsin Chair Company opened a record label called Paramount Records. Their approach to the record business was the kitchen-sink kind: In the name of selling as much as possible, while spending as little as possible, they pressed and shipped thousands of 78-RPM records from top-tier musicians, as well as anyone who threw down cash to take advantage of the label’s open-door policy.
Paramount’s catalog featured Louis Armstrong, Ma Rainey, Fletcher Henderson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Ethel Waters, to name a few – but because the label’s slapdash habits left no official or complete catalog, John Fahey’s Revenant Records and Jack White‘s Third Man Records have teamed up to release the next best thing, a massive archival release called The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-27), out October 29th on Third Man, with a worldwide release set for November 19th.
The collection features 800 songs (the imminent volume two, slated for a November 2014 release, will include the same number), 200 restored original ads and images, two books – one a history of Paramount, the other a field guide to the artists and recordings – and six 180-gram vinyl LPs, all of which come in a hand-crafted oak case modeled after those that caried phonographs in the 1920s. With so much music to explore, The Rise and Fall will also include a special USB drive containing a unique music and image app with myriad indexes that will let you easily explore the humongous collection.
If that seems a bit daunting, the six vinyl LPs contain a somewhat more manageable 87 cuts. Not necessarily a best-of, the records offer a look at the label’s pecuilar roster, mixing some of Paramount’s big names and what Revenant co-founder Dean Blackwood described to Rolling Stone as “not even one-hit wonders, they’re one or two recording wonders.”
The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records was a massive undertaking put together with the help of a team of 30 to 50 people, including artists, writers (Blackwood’s brother Scott wrote the label’s story), historians and record collectors. It’s also Revenant’s first release in a decade, a project that began about two years ago when Blackwood showed White a timeline of Paramount’s history he’d put together to get a better sense of the history of the label that had caught his fascination. “That was really the revelatory moment, just sort of staring at that timeline on my wall, like, ‘Why hasn’t this story been told?'” Blackwood says.
Though quite comprehensive, even Blackwood admits that the music collected on The Rise and Fall is most likely a fraction of Paramount’s total catalog, which thanks to their poor record keeping, will most likely never be totally filled in. It’s less a definitive box set, he says, and more of a mini-museum exhibit, something emphasized by the quarter-sawn oak case that houses The Rise and Fall.
“It’s funny,” Blackwood says. “You have people whose business it was, like the Library of Congress, to preserve these bits of, in this case, African American culture, and yet it was a commercial record company, like Paramount, who didn’t give a shit about any of that! They wanted to move a record, they only cared what was selling this week, and had no idea of any kind of preservation mentality, unless it was going to be useful to them to repress a record and sell it. They ended up unintentionally being this source for the greatest archive efforts in American arts.”