J. Mayo Williams, Paramount's only Chicago talent scout
J. Mayo Williams, Paramount's only Chicago talent scout Credit: Public Domain

Among the more extravagant re­issues making a high-dive splash this Record Store Day is a vinyl version of the Flaming Lips’ 1997 album Zaireeka, whose four discs were designed to be listened to simultaneously—requiring precise queuing by four fingers on four CD players. A release that mandates synchronous play on four turntables is even more excessive, but it also points to the communal spirit and showmanship that surround Record Store Day. In Chicago we’re fortunate to have plenty of shops still in business, and their owners will certainly be happy to ring up deluxe box sets. And if there’s anything Record Store Day has done, it’s to model dozens of creative ways to collect those sales.

Record Store Day

I was recently put in mind of RSD when I came across some information on consumer buying habits from nearly a century ago. In 1924 consumers spent $72 million on phonographs in the U.S., compared to only $20 million on records. A 1922 survey addressing a sudden decline in record sales after a boom year in ’21 cited as the industry’s primary concern the perception that phonographs were a “luxury commodity,” exacerbated by the “high price of phonograph records.” Prices had to be slashed—movie tickets cost a quarter, while records, which often wore out after 50 plays or so, were three or four times as much.

I encountered these findings in a five-part series written by blues scholar Stephen Calt in the late 80s for 78 Quarterly, a long-­running but intermittently published magazine based in Key West, Florida, that delves into the furthest margins of prewar American music. Calt describes the rise and fall of Paramount, a short-lived record label that released some of the most significant blues recordings of the 1920s and early ’30s. Founded in 1917 and folded in 1935, Paramount was based in Grafton, Wisconsin, whose current population is just shy of 12,000. The label was a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company, located in nearby Port Washington. All that remains of that company’s original headquarters is a plaque on the site commemorating an 1899 factory fire that destroyed six square blocks. The facilities were immediately rebuilt, but after the furniture business closed in the late 50s they were razed.

With increasingly ornate phonograph cabinets anchored in affluent homes across the country—six million by 1920—it was only a matter of time before furniture makers got into the music business. Flush with orders for cabinets from the Edison company, the executives in Port Washington decided to eliminate the middleman and manufacture their own phonographs and records, even though their board of directors didn’t harbor a single notable music lover.

The Wisconsin Chair Company’s phonograph business never took off, but Paramount did much better. After early pop and country releases produced underwhelming results, in 1923 the label made the relatively bold decision to buy Harlem-based black-owned label Black Swan Records, a groundbreaking operation that had fallen into bankruptcy. Black Swan had helped show the music business at large that there was an untapped market for “race records” driven by word of mouth and strategic ad placements (which in the midwest mostly meant in the Chicago Defender). With chairs as a fallback, Paramount pounced.

While other labels that ventured into “race records” dispatched scouts throughout the south to capture field recordings or set up temporary studios, Paramount took an almost defiantly local approach—a product of stinginess more than civic pride. Talent had to come to them. Fortunately for the label, nearby Chicago was brimming with it.

Paramount’s lone Chicago scout and only black business associate, J. Mayo Williams, deserves a thick biography all his own. He’d go on to be one of the most successful independent producers of race records, but from 1924 to 1927, he worked with Paramount, operating out of a second-floor office in the Overton Bank Building at 36th and State, later renamed the Overton Hygienic Building (and now protected as a Chicago landmark). “Artists were so plentiful,” Calt writes in 78 Quarterly, “that [Williams] found little reason to leave his South Side office. . . . This sedentary scouting system was practical because he was virtually the only ‘race’ scout in Chicago, and because his office was situated in the heart of the black night-life district.” Williams’s approach pleased his employers back in Wisconsin, primarily because it kept overhead at rock bottom. And somehow Paramount emerged as the top label in its field, outselling competitors by releasing hit records from the likes of Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson. By the late 20s, after the label’s southern scouting efforts deepened, it would add legends such as Son House and Charley Patton to its roster.

When Williams ventured out of his Chicago office during his tenure with Paramount, it was often to haunt hotels, survey vaudeville theaters, or recruit the runners-up at singing competitions (he dismissed the prize­winners as too fussy to control). He routinely sat in on recording sessions, monitoring artists’ drinking habits or chirping about incorrect grammar. Son of an educated mother and husband of a schoolteacher, he once declared, “You didn’t have a chance with me if you split a verb, even if you were one hell of a singer.”

Williams kept a close watch on the sessions at Marsh Laboratories (located in the old Lyon & Healy Building on Wabash and run by Wilmette native Orlando R. Marsh), sometimes even halting takes while an el train roared by. However, the final product was often compromised by forces outside his control. “The cheap wind-up portables that were used by most ‘race’ consumers robbed even the richest ‘race’ voice of its power and timbre,” Calt writes—and Paramount’s notoriously shoddy discs made matters worse.

To modern eyes the record industry was almost unrecognizable before the Depression—a time when a chair maker battled for supremacy with a manufacturer of billiards and bowling equipment (Chicago-based Brunswick-Balke-Collender) and a piano company (Starr of Richmond, Indiana, which ran the Gennett label). Singles were distributed through jewelry stores, confectioneries, shoeshine parlors, department stores, and other outlets. Paramount gained an edge by selling records by mail and shrewdly enlisting regular customers to sell records door-to-door in southern neighborhoods for a slim commission, particularly when white store owners expressed fears that hot new releases would draw too many black customers. According to Robert Dixon and John Godrich in their 1970 book Recording the Blues, one Saint Louis-based label, Herwin, sold its 75-cent records primarily through farm catalogs.

As for Paramount, its corporate parent refocused on furniture once record sales dried up during the Depression. After the label went out of business in 1935, many of its masters were destroyed or neglected. On at least one occasion, overstocked records were used by disgruntled former employees for target practice. But some of the label’s output is still in print, re­issued on the Black Swan imprint of Jazzology, which bought the rights to the music in 1970.

We may nitpick about the occasionally indulgent gimmicks of Record Store Day, but it’s worthwhile to consider the ways its odd tactics parallel the music industry in its early days. And we have cause to be grateful that records today are infinitely more durable and reliable than Paramount’s 78s. The label cut corners even by the standards of its era, producing its records for abysmal wages in a retooled, water-powered factory once occupied by the Sheboygan Knitting Company. Among the unsavory materials used as filler agents in its records, according to 78 Quarterly, were “rotten stone and cotton flock,” and lampblack was added for coloring. Keep this in mind as you skim the ample aisles of vinyl across the city this Saturday—you may have doubts about the quality of the record you’re about to purchase, but at least there’s no need to buy four.