Strange Music co-founder Travis O’Guin made his fortune in the furniture repair business by age 22, and used the millions he’d earned fixing damaged goods for major retail chains to launch an independent hip-hop empire with Tech N9ne. But as it turns out, the intertwining history of the furniture and music businesses has deep roots going back nearly 100 years.
The first furniture company to make significant inroads in the music business was Wisconsin Chair, which founded Paramount Records in 1917. The core business was constructing cabinets to hold phonographs — and the 78 rpm records were a way to keep customers returning to the furniture store.
By a collection of happenstance, open-door policies and a fire that ravaged Thomas Edison’s manufacturing plant, Paramount went from nearly shutting its doors in 1922 to recording the greatest blues and jazz artists of their time. Charley Patton, Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake and Alberta Hunter all recorded for the most important pre-World War II blues label.
“Paramount would record and release almost anything,” says Dean Blackwood, who co-founded Revenant Records with the late John Fahey and continues to run the label. “Not only did they not know what would sell, they didn’t know what qualities made the big sellers. They didn’t have any commercial instincts, and it led to kind of capturing America in all its multitudes unfiltered.”
Together, Revenant and Jack White’s Third Man Records released the first of two behemoth boxed sets dedicated to music issued by Paramount, on the latter label’s website on Oct. 29. “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records: Part One,” limited to 5,000 copies, includes 800 recordings made between 1917 and 1927 packaged together on a USB drive, six LPs, a 250-page clothbound art book and an encyclopedia-style guide with a full Paramount discography. Housed in a handcrafted quarter-sawn oak cabinet with velvet upholstery and custom-forged metal hardware, it will be released worldwide on Nov. 19 and retail for about $400. “Part Two” will be released next year and include many of the blues and jazz recordings from the 12000 series that collectors covet.
Between the two sets, Revenant and Third Man will include about one-tenth of all the recordings Paramount released, mostly in the Midwest, South and Northeast. “Great or highly interesting [recordings] were our governing criteria for inclusion,” Blackwood says, noting the set is designed to collectively showcase the music, advertising art and craftsmanship.
Blackwood and White met in 2000, introduced to one another through the European distributor who handled their labels. White was a fan of the blues on Paramount and he wrote a rave review of Revenant’s 2001 boxed set, “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton,” which would win Grammy Awards for historical album, special limited edition package and album notes.
Led by White and Blackwood, a team of between 30 and 50 people worked on the set with the idea of presenting all of the elements of the Paramount story in a single package. The story has been told largely piecemeal: A furniture company makes $100 cabinets for gramophones, creates a label that finally starts to have “hits” — records that sold about 10,000 copies — when it makes so-called “race records” for African-Americans in the early 1920s, and stays in business after Edison contracts the company to produce furniture under his name.
Artists were directed to Paramount from talent scouts in such cities as Chicago and Dallas, and their recommendations were good enough for the Wisconsin executives. While other labels required a test recording, Paramount and its subsidiary labels paid for recordings on the basis of those recommendations and, if they sold, the artist would get to do a follow-up.
“A lot of detective work has been done, but to tell the story in a way that’s less about the details of its operations and more about why people should care hasn’t,” Blackwood says. “I feel like this is placing it in history, bringing out the label as a metaphor for America during the Great Migration.”