I remember the first time I saw the credit on an old blues record. It was a Blind Blake reissue in my friend’s LP collection and it read, "Recorded at Paramount Studios, Grafton, Wisconsin." I could hardly believe it.
I’d been to Grafton and, sure, it was nice, but it hardly looked like the home of the blues in the 1920s. But, as we all know, it was indeed a locus of blues recording during that era. And it was Paramount’s location that led to Blake making his home – and spending eternity – in Milwaukee.
This year, nearby Port Washington celebrates the centennial of the Paramount Records, which was founded there in 1917 (the recording studio later moved to Grafton), and which now hosts an annual blues festival to honor this connection.
A subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Co., Paramount recorded not only blues, but also jazz, gospel, pop and other performances during its 15 years in Wisconsin. Many of those sides were featured on "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, 1917-1932, Volume 1," released a few years ago on Jack White’s Third Man Records.
The label has become more legendary than ever with the resurgence of vinyl and a renewed passion among many collectors for the exceedingly fragile lacquer 78s issued by Paramount.
In addition to Blake, the likes of Louis Armstrong, Alberta Hunter, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jelly Roll Morton, "Ma" Rainey, Ethel Waters, Son House and Charlie Patton, among others, recorded for Paramount.
Legend has it that when it closed, Paramount pitched piles and piles of its master records into the Milwaukee River near its headquarters. Amanda Petrusich, while researching her book about collecting 78s, "Do Not Sell At Any Price," rented scuba gear and dove into the river in search of evidence. (No spoilers here, sorry; read the book!)
This year’s three-day Paramount Music Festival, held Sept. 1-3 at Port Washington’s Coal Dock Park will highlight the history of the groundbreaking Wisconsin record label.
On Friday, music starts at 4:30 p.m. with blues harp man Lil’ Davy Max, followed by guitarist Matthew Curry at 5:30, St. Louis guitarist Marquise Knox at 7 and Greg Koch with Jim Liban and Billy Flynn at 8:30.
On Saturday, Delta blues historian Gayle Dean, author of "Chasin’ That Devil Music: Searchin’ For the Blues," will talk about the history of the blues.
Music that day includes Starkweather Bay Blues Band with Phyllis Becker at noon, Cathy Grier at 12:30 p.m., Chicago’s acoustic duo of harp player Joe Filisko and guitarist Eric Noden at 2 p.m., Milwaukee’s Alex Wilson at 3:15, guitarist Davy Knowles at 4:45 and Shemekia Copeland at 6:45.
The festival’s big event takes place at 8:30 p.m. Saturday with a star-studded Chicago blues extravaganza, featuring harmonica master Billy Branch and Sons of Blues; guitarist Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater; former Muddy Waters and Magic Slim sideman, guitarist John Primer; ex-Howlin’ Wolf and Paul Butterfield Blues Band drummer Sam Lay; and harmonica legend Corky Siegel, of the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band.
A second stage on Saturday hosts Jonny T-Bird (1:30 p.m.), Katz Sass (4:15 p.m.), and the Water Street Hot Shots (6:15 p.m.)
Sunday includes performances by Harmonica/guitar duo "Big" Al
Dorn & Jonny T-Bird at 1 p.m.; Washington, D.C.’s Muddy Crows at 1:30 p.m.; Reverend Raven & Westside Andy, at 3:15; Nelson Street Revival, with Ellen Miller on harmonica, guitarist David Anthony Herrero, violinist Anne Harris and vocalists Peaches Staten and Cathy Richardson, at 5. Milwaukee’s Whiskey of the Damned is on at 6:30; and Columbus, Ohio band Starset is at 8 p.m.
Many of the artists at this year’s festival have promised to perform songs from the Paramount oeuvre.
Where: Port Washington Coal Dock Park
Hours: Opens Friday at 4 p.m.; Saturday at 11:30 a.m.; Sunday at 1 p.m.
Admission: Early bird tickets are $10 Friday; $25 for Saturday; $25 for Sunday; and a weekend pass is $55. Daily VIP admission including access to special reserved garden area, VIP-only portable toilets, concierge service, food and unlimited tap beer, wine and water.
For more information: paramountmusic.org.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.