Alex van der Tuuk.
Paramount’s Rise and Fall: A History of the Wisconsin Chair Company
and its Recording Activities (Mainspring Press, Colorado). 243 pages.
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
Published in The Shepherd Express; Milwaukee, Wisconsin
June 15, 2004
One of the American people’s least proud traditions is that we are quick to discard that which no longer fascinates us. This is not a recent trend; in 1900 Mark Twain complained about America’s fickle obsession with new artists, comparing it with other countries’ ability to bestow lasting honors on their older performers. Evidence of this situation is seen in the modern era when one is forced to search-out foreign releases to find recording artists from America’s rich heritage. Germany’s Bear Family label leaps to mind for its dedication in making our own past available to us.
Now we gladly credit another international source, Holland’s Alex van der Tuuk, for providing Wisconsin with a focused and thorough look at its own legacy of recorded music. The story of Paramount Records, like most history, is complex. But in essence – the Paramount label was an appendage of the Wisconsin Chair Company, a major manufacturing firm based in Port Washington which at one time employed most of the town. The recording studios for Paramount were located just south of the chair plant, in neighboring Grafton.
Spanning a mere fifteen years (1917-1932), the Paramount label released 78 PRM records which are now feverishly sought on a global market. Blues legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Skip James, and Ma Rainey all made some of their first records in Grafton. Son House and Charley Patton also recorded on the banks of the Milwaukee River in this long closed studio. The Paramount discs were cheaply made and the sound inferior, even by standards of the day. Still, low fidelity notwithstanding, these Wisconsin-made recordings contained sounds found nowhere else, before or since.
Details about the Wisconsin Chair Company’s label have long been elusive. Even a list of all Paramount’s releases remains far from complete. But like an old film that has had some of its scenes deleted and lost, the book’s author is able to assemble and contextualize the fragmented pieces of information he has unearthed. More than a history of a single label, van der Tuuk’s book serves as an overview of the entire recording industry from the late teens through the 1930s. This was a tremendously important time, as the business of making records was experiencing huge changes in its technology while also struggling economically to stay alive during the Depression.
With over 150 photographs, the book is also visually appealing. The well reproduced graphics range from numerous advertisements for Paramount’s latest releases by its now famous artists to rarely seen photographs of the Port Washington/Grafton area. Yet while interesting, the book is not a casual read. The painstaking nature of van der Tuuk’s impressive research is evident throughout, but occasionally makes for some dry sections. The book also occasionally fights a static writing style, with some of these translated passages sounding stilted and academic. Yet the depth of information and its clear presentation are also the book’s great strength, with no related detail to the Paramount story too small for inclusion.
Quick to give credit to his many state-side sources, it was still van der Tuuk who pieced together often sketchy information into a successful and valuable book-length tribute to our region’s place in recorded music. Wisconsin historians, as well as music enthusiasts owe him a great deal.
Alex says that he plans to return to the area to continue his research on the Paramount label. Make him welcome when you see him. #30#