The story of Paramount Records is a fascinating one—the beginning is set about 100 years ago, in a Wisconsin furniture company that began pressing records in hopes that’d help them sell record players, which in their early years were indeed whoppin’ big ol’ pieces of furniture. The middle sees that furniture company curating and releasing a jaw-dropping and still legendary catalogue of classic early jazz and Delta blues 78s by the likes of Charley Patton, Ma Rainey, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. The end of the story sees the closing of the company and disgruntled employees flinging those now priceless shellac records into the Milwaukee River and melting down the metal masters for scrap. The whole story can be found in greater detail online, or in the books Paramount’s Rise and Fall and Do Not Sell At Any Price.
What concerns us here are the label’s print ads, which ran in The Chicago Defender. I’ve tried mightily to find the names of the artists who drew these. People in a better position to know than I assure me their identities are lost to the years, though they may have been staff illustrators at a Madison ad agency. The loss of that knowledge is a damned shame, because without knowing it, those artists altered the history of underground comix, by serving as an acknowledged influence on that form’s grand pooh-bah, Robert Crumb. Even a superficial glance at some of these ads reveals a precursor to Crumb’s famous signature style (it’s strikingly evident in the slouching posture of some of these characters), and Crumb paid direct homage to these artists in a series of trading card sets that have been compiled into the book R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country—the comix artist’s abiding passion for the music of the early recording era has never been a secret.
Here are a few of those ads. Where the ad copy is adequately readable, I encourage you to give it a look, because some of this stuff is priceless—I’m wondering how many old blues songs weren’t about wangs and adultery. Bear in mind, please, that the ads I chose to post here weren’t necessarily selected for resemblance to Crumb’s work. Some I simply felt like sharing because they were just too much!
Images courtesy of Third Man/Revenant
It’s astonishing that these have never been collected into a coffee table art book. The illustration work is wonderful, and for historical interest, these are hard to beat. The only place I know of where they’ve been compiled is in the insane Rise and Fall of Paramount Records box sets jointly released by Jack White’s Third Man label and John Fahey’s Revenant Records. These sets, I’m not gonna lie, are motherfucking pricey, but what you get is beyond exhaustive. Last year’s Volume 1 covers Paramount’s jazz, gospel, and vaudeville releases from the years 1917-1927 with 800 digital files, 6 vinyl LPs, and two books, all housed in an oak cabinet. This year’s Volume 2 contains the same amount of stuff, but covers Paramount’s blues records from 1928-1932, packaged in an aluminum replica of a portable gramophone.
It seems awfully indulgent until you stop to consider that actually collecting all these songs in their original physical media today would cost Learjet money and probably sound like hell—shellac records haven’t really held up well to the passage of decades. But that being said, I’d still be really tickled about it if the ads, labels, and other visual collateral were made available in a book just on its own. Crumb could even write the foreword, maybe?
This slideshow of Crumb’s blues-inspired works happens to be set to a Paramount record, Charley Patton’s “Down the Dirt Road Blues.”