Since the first round of 20’s blues reissue LP’s in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s (when I first discovered this music through Yahoo reissue LP’s, some of which I still own), the Paramount label has become associated in the public mind with the deepest and most pure blues music….Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Charley Patton, and hundreds of others. With the exhaustive reissue blues series on LP and then CD from Document Records, pretty much anything Paramount you ever dreamed of hearing was now available to us. Presently, JSP offers a number of inexpensive box sets with the better-known material in excellent sound, the Black Swan label (one of the labels associated with the late George Buck’s jazz empire and the present owners of the Paramount trademark) offers a number of fine one-volume samplers, and the old Document CD’s can still be had used or new from unsold record store stock. And then of course there are the two massive Third Man/Revenant Paramount boxes, together offering about 1600 tracks, but beyond most people’s budget (certainly beyond mine, but then, I have most of the Document reissues, so I may already have most of that material, minus the boxes and books and collector-artifacts). In short, unlike the hungry years of the 60s and 70s, now you can probably overdose on Paramount blues to your heart’s content…and that’s a wonderful thing.
HOWEVER, I wanted to alert readers to three albums which dig deeper into different aspects of Paramount’s deep catalog, the majority of which has not been reissued elsewhere.
RARE PARAMOUNT BLUES: 1926-1929 (Document DOCD-5277, CD, Austria), issued in 1994. This is a collection of VERY obscure performers whose recordings fall under the broadest interpretation of the term “blues,” many of which with performance styles going back to the pre-blues songster era. Someone like Sweet Papa Stovepipe and his songs about chickens might have been found playing for tips outside a small-town southern courthouse or playing at a backwoods fishfry circa 1920, while Charlie “Dad” Nelson and his kazoo put the listener into the world of low-rent 1920’s neighborhood-level “entertainers” with old-time roots, people who could keep them laughing with novelty songs and clever performance antics but who also had lyrics full of specific details of poor and transient life that would resonate with his audience. Closing the album, after varied selections from five other artists (and a reissue of the various artists Paramount promotional 78 ‘Hometown Skiffle’), we have the blues piano of Freddie Brown (a woman), who could be put on the same shelf with such performers as Will Ezell or Montana Taylor. I’ve always been the kind of person who prefers an odds’n’sods collection to a greatest hits collection, so RARE PARAMOUNT BLUES has been a regularly played album here for the last twenty years. Be warned, though: these are all journeymen (and women) performers. We get spoiled from reissues that cherry-pick the geniuses from the other 99% of performers–they don’t depict the reality of the situation. I’m someone who still catches live music in clubs/bars almost every week, and there is something unpretentious and vital and refreshing about the journeyman musical entertainer. You’ve got it in its purest form on this album, circa 1926-29.
note: here is a label scan of the Hometown Skiffle disc mentioned above. It’s commonly accepted that Blind Lemon Jefferson does NOT appear on this record; his riffs are played by Blind Blake. When I first heard this on an old Yazoo LP in the 70’s, I thought the Lemon riffs were well-played in a fluid style, but did not have the jagged quality I associate with Jefferson.
PARAMOUNT HOT DANCE OBSCURITIES, Volume 1: 1927-1928 (Jazz Oracle, BDW 8039, CD, Canada), issued in 2003. Readers of this blog are aware of Jazz Oracle since almost every year one of their albums is high on my Best Of The Year list. They set the standard for 1920’s reissues, both in terms of sound quality (this one was transferred/remastered by the late great John R. T. Davies, so no awful computer filtering here, just careful use of proper stylus and speed correction and mint copies to give the full frequency range of the original 78 rpm records which, because they ran at a fast rate, contained A LOT of sound information in the grooves, just waiting to be extracted for our enjoyment….after the passing of Mr. Davies, Jazz Oracle has continued in the same tradition, and hearing their releases is a joy….I believe that 1920’s music could have a much bigger audience if these releases got a fair hearing in the public marketplace) and historical research and presentation. The two bands presented here (in various permutations) were both Chicago-based and could best be described as jazz-influenced dance bands, upper Midwest Territory Bands who were earthier than, say, the Isham Jones Orchestra, but who did aspire to that level and who wanted to get in on that action in the clubs. Many tracks feature vocal refrains, and the better ones are in the Smith Ballew vein…although a few have a twist of the florid Irving Kaufman style. This music ALWAYS swings, in the pre-Swing Era sense, and this is STILL the pre-1929 era, so we have brass bass (tuba) as the rhythmic anchor and a banjo providing the pulse. The best material here has the cheerful sense of 1920’s feelgood glee one finds in the Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra, and one can easily imagine oneself listening to this on the radio in 1928, or if one had some money, taking in a night at a speakeasy or nightclub. Interestingly, most all of this material was issued on Paramount’s BROADWAY subsidiary (I’ve included a label scan of one of the the records below….both sides of this 78 are contained on the album). If you are not an aficionado of the 1920’s danceband genre, this album is as good a place to start as any. There are no Bix Beiderbecke or Eddie Lang-level genius performers here, which is what today’s listeners often expect from vintage recordings of this type since the few tracks they have heard DO feature such performers….no, these are working musicians like you could hear at a club of the day. It was a magical and exciting time, one of the THE most exciting periods of American popular music in one of the greatest-ever music cities, CHICAGO…and this album dips its ladle into that rich stew and provides an exciting and FUN listening experience…and a side of Paramount Records quite different than what you might expect.
ALEXANDER WHERE’S THAT BAND? PARAMOUNT RECORDINGS, CHICAGO 1926-28 (Frog DGF 13, CD, UK), issued in 1997. The British FROG label has issued a number of collections of super-obscure 20’s jazz 78’s, some based on locale, some just based on obscurity, some based on original label, such as this one. This is the flipside of the Jazz Oracle album….while that featured White artists, this one features Black artists, although if you are expecting pure King Oliver-style hot jazz, you’ll be somewhat disappointed as these artists have (at least) one foot in the Black vaudeville entertainment world of the day. 20’s music fanatics will find a number of familiar names peppering the personnel listings: trombonist Preston Jackson, pianist and bandleader Tiny Parham, pianist Richard M. Jones, pianist Mary Lou Williams back when she was still known by her maiden name of Mary Lou Burleigh, alto player Vance Dixon, vocalists Elzadie Robinson and Leola B. Wilson. As with the above album, all these recordings were made in Chicago. Imagine yourself in a second or third-tier Black nightclub in Chicago circa 1926-27, the kind of place that working people might go to if they happened to get a bonus at work for the holidays….hot and exciting jazz with an uptown feel, the kind of thing that could be included in a “revue” as part of a show. Thank the Lord (and Paramount Records) that someone documented this material, full of fire, loose and spontaneous but with the dynamism one gets from musicians working nightly in the clubs. Jaunty tunes, hot riffing, and colorful solos are in abundance. These records are yet another side of the multi-dimensional Paramount label.
All three albums are full of unfamiliar music, presented in good sound (as good as could be expected with the source material, with no filtering or digital artifacts to get in the way of the pure 78 sound and its full frequency range) with informative liner notes from the world’s experts in these specialized genres. They will transport you to another time and place, and they capture the color and flavor and excitement of the period like sound-lightning in a bottle. And they give a much fuller picture of the totality of what the legendary Paramount label was about…. dig in!!!
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL FROM KENDRA STEINER EDITIONS…..AND PARAMOUNT RECORDS!