Paramount Records Before the Blues (May 1918)

This stunning double-sided ad ran in the May 1918 Talking Machine World. Paramount had recently introduced 10″ discs to replace its initial 9″ offerings; the last of the latter appear in the No. 6 Supplement, alongside the 10″ offerings. At this early stage, the trademark eagle perched on a phonograph rather than the more familiar globe.

The large structure to the left is the Paramount pressing plant at Grafton, Wisconsin, a converted water-powered mill that already had a long and varied history when this ad appeared — you’ll find the whole fascinating story of the Grafton complex in the new expanded edition of Alex van der Tuuk’s Paramount’s Rise and Fall. The smaller structure to the right would eventually house the studio in which the likes of Son House and Skip James recorded.

In 1918, however, Paramount was recording exclusively in New York, and doing its best to imitate Columbia and Victor. Note the usual NYC studio free-lancers — Henry Burr, Collins & Harlan, Louise & Ferera, Arthur Fields, Grace Kerns, the Shannon Four, et al. Even some of the portraits are the same as those used in the major companies’ catalogs. Fortunately for posterity, the powers at NYRL eventually realized there wasn’t much money to be made by following the pack, and instead turned their attention to the new race-record market (although there wasn’t much money to be made there either, as it would turn out).

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Grey Gull Discovery: GG Masters in the Columbia Vaults (1953)

MSP_GG-logoWhere did the Grey Gull masters go? It’s been a tantalizing question for decades, and some pretty far-fetched theories have been put forth. But as it turns out, an obscure unpublished Columbia vault listing, recently discovered among the Bill Bryant papers, has held the answer all this time.

The listing was compiled in 1953, after Columbia employee Harry Flynn discovered a large cache of masters in the Bridgeport vault that had come from the Scranton Record (née Button) Company — a major independent pressing plant, which had gobbled up many failed record companies in the 1920s and early 1930s. For nearly two decades Scranton was the manufacturing arm of the Plaza / American Record Corporation group, the latter having been officially acquired by CBS on January 1, 1939.

Flynn allowed another CBS employee to make a partial listing of the non-Columbia masters, apparently without the knowledge or blessings of Columbia archivist Helene Chmura. In October 1955, the now-former Columbia employee (whom we won’t name, as he may still be alive) forwarded the list to researcher Walter C. Allen, with a request that it not be made public, “for it was ‘lifted’ while I was an employee!” Allen honored the request, and as a result, the final disposition of Grey Gull’s masters has remained a guessing-game, until now.

The list includes masters from Arto, Emerson, Federal, and Plaza — all of whose assets were acquired by Scranton — as well as the early “LL-” prefixed National Music Lovers masters and even some early-1920s Paramount masters with Bridgeport Die & Machine (Puritan) markings. (Scranton also held 50 late Paramount masters by some outstanding blues artists for a time, but that’s another story, which you’ll find in Paramount’s Rise and Fall.)

How masters from all of these companies came to reside with Scranton is easily explainable, given the in-depth knowledge we now have of the 1920s recording industry. But there was one totally unexpected surprise — A large number of electrically recorded Grey Gull masters, beginning with # 2728 and ending at # 3643. (The list was a random sampling, so the actual range could have been wider.) There had been a Grey Gull – Emerson – Scranton link until early 1926, when GG opened its own studio and pressing plant — But the masters in the Columbia vault dated from late 1927 through approximately September 1929, long after that link had been severed; and none of those listed had been leased to Emerson, which remained a Scranton customer but occasionally issued Grey Gull recordings in the later 1920s. Material on the list ranges from pop vocals and the usual studio bands to country and jazz. Complete sets of takes (some running as high as -D and -E) were preserved.

From this, it appears certain that Scranton ended up with a least a goodly portion of the electrical Grey Gull masters, if not all of them. Have any of these masters survived in the Columbia archives (now owned by Sony)? Pretty doubtful, given the material’s lack of commercial value, and CBS’s merciless master-scrappings at Bridgeport in the early 1960s; but hope springs eternal. We’re currently in contact with Sony staff to see if anything, including any original file documentation that might have come along with the masters, has survived. Stay tuned….

 

Paramount Records Before the Blues (1919)

Three Paramount ads from 1919. At that early stage, its race record series was still several years away, and other than the bold advertising graphics — a Paramount specialty from the start — there was little to distinguish the label from dozens of other start-ups. The bottom ad pictures the Grafton, Wisconsin complex. The long structure on the left is the pressing plant, in a converted fabric mill. The building on the right would eventually house the legendary studio in which the likes of Skip James recorded.

If you don’t already have a copy, be sure to check out Alex van der Tuuk’s epic Paramount’s Rise and Fall: The Roots and History of Paramount Records, with over 150 illustrations, available in a new expanded edition from Mainspring Press and many major libraries.

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