Paramount Records For Sale or: How to Sell Records PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 06 August 2006 00:00
Paramount Records For Sale or: How to Sell Records
Paramount Records For Sale or: How to Sell Records

By Alex van der Tuuk

Between 1917 and 1932 hundreds of thousands of records were pressed in and shipped from the Grafton Record Factory, as locals used to call the New York Recording Laboratories, Inc. (NYRL). The records were issued under a variety of labels, Paramount being the most popular one, but also on Famous, Puritan and Broadway. Many masters were leased or sold, sometimes exclusively, to other record companies like Blue Bird from California (!), Grey Gull from Boston. The NYRL not only used masters produced by them selves, but leased them from others as well, or had masters produced exclusively for them, like in the case of Gennett records from Richmond, Indiana.
Puritan was the first record label that was put on the market, originally credited to the United Phonographs Corporation (UPC) of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, only months later followed by the incorporation of the NYRL and the Paramount label.

Originally recording in New York and later in Chicago, masters were shipped by train to Grafton to press records from the masters. Original recordings were popular songs of the day by artists past their prime. The simple reason for this was that the record company, as part of the Wisconsin Chair Company, did not have the money to invest in big name artists. Within the next five years several series on the Paramount label appeared with both popular (Pm 2000, Pm 33000, Pm 20000 series), classical (Pm 50000 series) and some old time music (what we now call country music).

Advertising of records went through local record stores, who advertised in the Sheboygan Press, only mentioning the fact they sold Puritan phonographs and Puritan records. Sometimes they advertised in the trade journal The Talking Machine World, with the intention to get more pressing jobs. How on earth would a Wisconsin record company get its clients to buy their records?

Originally the UPC started producing phonograph cabinets and later complete phonographs under the Puritan brand. Local Sheboygan record and furniture stores sold the phonographs, like Brand, Prange and Sell Bros. By April 1917 the first Puritan records were being mentioned and within the next two years the phonograph business boomed Sheboygan’s welfare. The Sheboygan Press of June 28, 1919 has an article on business men from various sections of the country, “drawn here to see the plant of the United Phonographs Corporation, and witness the production of the Puritan phonograph that in less than two years has won recognition country wide. These men came from Illinois, Alabama, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Tennessee and Minnesota and during Thursday dividing their time between Port Washington, Grafton and this city inspecting the plants turning out the Puritan phonographs and records, the latter being manufactured at Grafton. At Grafton perhaps the greatest treat was afforded them, that of seeing records made”.

The Puritan phonograph became a big seller during the late 1910s and early 1920s, being branched out as far as Oakland, California. By 1922, Paramount phonographs were much more advertised in different models, together with Puritan records. Even an occasional advertisement for their Famous records was listed in the Stevens Point Daily Journal in 1922. So, although there were enough furniture stores and record stores throughout the country selling their phonographs, the records them selves were not.
By 1922, Paramount was on the threshold of bankruptcy. The WCC lost a lot of money on the record producing business, only compensated by the production of phonographs. A key figure in Paramount’s history was Maurice A. Supper. Supper not only designed the Paramount logo, a spread-eagle on a globe, but also may have been the one who advised to change goals, record-wise. Paramount started recording vaudeville artist Lucille Hegamin in 1921, possibly based on her successful recording career and as a trial balloon to see if African Americans were interested in records by their own race (hence the term “race records”). Paramount however was not the first one to record African American artists. Mamie Smith recorded two songs for the Okeh label in February 1920. The success of the record led to another recording session for Okeh in August of that year. Many companies followed after the initial success. The NYRL started a special series for recordings made by African American artists, recording jazz, blues, vaudeville and even some Cajun music during a ten-year period (1922-1932). The series is known as the Paramount 12000/13000 series.

The first recording session for this special series was by Alberta Hunter, who did several recording sessions for the label in their New York studio. Maurice Supper not only was present at several recording sessions but went on the road with his car loaded with Paramount records and acted as jobber to find customers to sell records to. Remember, phonographs at that time were considered to be a piece of furniture, so visiting furniture stores would be the most logical thing to do. Record stores, drug stores or any other place that sold records were visited, even churches! The problem was that major competitors like Victor and Columbia were franchise holders to a lot of record stores.

In order to solve this problem, Supper advised to advertise in news papers dedicated to the African American population. News papers like the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, The New Amsterdam News and others seemed to be just the right place to advertise their race records. From August 1922 until April 1930, Paramount Records were advertised in the weekly edition of the Chicago Defender. Sometimes full page size advertisements were placed at the cost of $1000, according to Art Satherly.
Just one month after Alberta Hunter’s first recording session for the NYRL, her first record appeared in the Chicago Defender of August 1922. She would remain Paramount’s main attraction until spring 1923, being advertised as an exclusive Paramount recording artist. Buyers of records would get a FREE photograph of Alberta to go with the record and could even become Alberta’s agent. This meant that Paramount executives were looking for jobbers, who would sell records to family, friends etc. Until May 1924 Paramount kept on following this policy, advertising their race records under the banner: “Paramount, The Popular Race Record”. By that time big time artists like Ida Cox and Ma Rainey made records for Paramount and you could become their agent as well!

To further exploit the product, there was a Paramount contest for Ma Rainey’s Mystery Record (Pm 12200). Contestants were asked via the Chicago Defender to come up with a name for the recording. ”. Prizes were advertised in the Chicago Defender, including phonographs. One Ella McGill eventually won the contest, supplying the title: “Lawd I’m Down Wid The Blues”.

Paramount even issued a picture label of Ma Rainey’s Pm 12098. In later years they did the same with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Birthday Record and Rev. O.J. Hanes.
One other contest took place in 1929. Readers of the Chicago Defender were asked to identify The Masked Marvel, a new recording artist in Paramount’s stable. A coupon was inserted in the record and buyers could fill in the coupon and either bring it to their local record store or send it to Port Washington, Wisconsin. At least 10,000 copies were printed from this coupon, indicating that the NYRL expected this record to be a seller (Pm 12805). The Masked Marvel appeared to be Charley Patton. The record was originally pressed under “The Masked Marvel” and later issues under Charley Patton, indicating that the record indeed sold well. A normal selling record during the mid-1020s was 5,000 copies. If a record sold this many copies, chances were fair that the artist was invited for a return recording session.
During the 1920s the NYRL at least produced three Paramount Books of Blues. Two of them appeared in 1924, one in March and one in May. Of the former only advertisements in the Chicago Defender proof that such a book was released. No actual copy has ever been found. By May 1924 the “Paramount-Black Swan Book Of Blues” appeared, after the NYRL had taken over business from Black Swan. In 1927 another “Book Of Blues” appeared, listing short biographies of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Elzadie Robinson, Blind Blake and others together with sheet music of some of their songs.

Another contributor in selling Paramount race records was the incorporation of the F.W. Boerner Company in Port Washington. Fred Boerner and his brother in law, Maurice Supper incorporated the business early 1925 together with Viola Boerner-Supper, Fred Boerner’s sister and wife to Maurice Supper. Based on the records shipped out from the pressing plant at that time, Boerner and Supper believed they could pick a grain. They started producing Dealers’ Lists and catalogs compiled from illustrations previously used for Paramount advertisements, well into the 1930s, even after the NYRL had stopped advertising in the Chicago Defender in 1930.

Many records were shipped from the back yard of Fred Boerner’s house. Even by 1945, when Paramount was out of business by more than a decade, he still had Paramount records stored in his back yard. When John Steiner visited his house in the 1940s on several occasions, he could easily get 50-100 different Paramount records. However, the last time Steiner came to the house, Boerner had burnt the remaining stock.

Sunday, 06 August 2006
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