For decades, music collectors have scoured antique shops, used-record stores, basements and attics, hunting for vintage Paramount 78-rpm records and other memorabilia produced in the early 1900s by the Port Washington-based Wisconsin Chair Co.
Short of original collectibles, the ultimate treasure may have finally arrived — just in time for Christmas.
“The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One,” a boxed set that pays tribute to the legacy of the Wisconsin Chair Co.’s music division and discs produced at its Grafton factory, has been released this fall to rave reviews.
A far cry from most commemorative sets featuring compact discs, the Paramount salute comes in an oak cabinet resembling a portable 1920s record player. Inside the 22-pound, felt-lined cabinet are two boutique-quality books filled with artwork and photos, discographies and biographies of musicians; a laser-etched birch folio with six colored-vinyl albums containing nearly 100 classic Paramount tracks; and a USB flash drive with 800 MP3 music tracks and 200 original ads and images.
Besides legendary artists such as Ma Rainey, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters and Blind Lemon Jefferson, many lesser-known musicians are featured in the collection.
The boxed set, which has a list price of $400 and is limited to 5,000 copies, is a joint project of Third Man Records and Revenant Records. Musician Jack White, the founder of Third Man and a self-proclaimed Paramount fanatic, helped oversee the design and track selection.
“I’m very impressed,” said Port resident Dennis Klopp, who contributed some of the artwork used in the collection, described on an insert sheet as the “Cabinet of Wonder.”
“When I heard that Jack White was doing the production, I knew it was going to be great. He’s done some stuff that’s really out there.”
Klopp, a longtime collector of records and memorabilia from Wisconsin Chair Co. labels, has a family connection to the firm. Walter Klopp, his granduncle, was the Grafton plant manager and recording engineer.
Dennis Klopp is also a friend of Paramount historian and author Alex van der Tuuk, who helped produce the boxed set and a volume-two edition scheduled to beissued in November 2014.
Van der Tuuk, the author of “Paramount’s Rise and Fall,” an acclaimed history of the chair company and its music pursuits, is also pleased with the boxed set. It’s a collection, he said, that provides a detailed document of Paramount’s role in American music history for devoted fans and newcomers alike.
“This box has lifted Paramount’s history into the 21st century,” van der Tuuk said.
“It is at least the most extended way the Paramount story has ever been told in its various forms. You have a narrative that tells the story in a fluent and easy-reading way. It lists the most up-to-date release series of all known Paramounts from 1917 to 1932.”
The set contains never-before-seen color advertising material and an overview of record labels, van der Tuuk noted.
The mystique surrounding Paramount's Ozaukee County roots has been well-documented in recent years. Although a furniture company plant was an unlikely destination for musicians in the early 1900s, hundreds of them came to Grafton to record on Paramount and other labels until the firm closed the studio in 1932.
Among the most famous artists traveling to Grafton were African-American bluesmen such as Charley Patton, Son House, Blind Blake, Skip James and the Mississippi Sheiks. Issued in relatively small numbers, their original Paramount records are among the most coveted collectibles in American music history.
The company was also known for its eclectic repertoire of artists, ranging from jazz bands and gospel singers to ethnic folk groups and country fiddlers. All are being represented in the box sets.
Klopp recalled being told stories about many musicians who recorded in Grafton, including a country group from Sheboygan, of all places.
“When Alex asked me about what kind of music I thought should be in the boxed set, I told him to have a cross section,” Klopp said. “There was so much more than blues. It’s nice that they have a lot of other artists in there.”
Also impressed with the boxed set is Angie Mack Reilly, co-founder of the paramountshome.org website that pays tribute to Grafton’s musical legacy.
“I am in awe at how substantial this project is and the amount of hours, collaboration and dollars it took to produce such an excellent work,” said Mack Reilly, who contributed to the collection.
“It is completely worth the $400. I would venture to say that it is worth thousands more than that.”
After being initially sold only through Third Man Records’ website, “The Rise and Fall of Paramount” went on sale to the general public Nov. 19. Individually numbered, the sets are selling briskly despite the hefty price tag.
In an interview in the Oct. 24 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, White confessed to being apprehensive about the cost of the project but said he was determined not to cut corners.
“We were scared from the get-go,” White said. “But somebody sent me that recent Beatles box set of their vinyl albums, and that was $350.
“Those are just records. Think of what we’re trying to do.”
Van der Tuuk said the production team is determined to make the second part of the Paramount story even more impressive.
“Volume Two will be challenging to surpass the quality of this box, and we are already working hard to make that come true,” he said.
“Paramount’s cream of the crop is still to come.”
Image Information: “THE RISE AND FALL of Paramount Records, Volume One,” a boxed set released this fall, contains a wealth of material paying tribute to the Wisconsin Chair Co.’s music division. Port Washington resident Dennis Klopp (above) contributed some of the artwork for the collection, whose phonograph-styled cabinet contains two boutique-quality books and other printed material, a folio with six albums of Paramount tracks and a USB flash drive with 800 MP3 music tracks and 200 original ads and images. At right, etched metal pieces in the collection include a cabinet lid with the Paramount eagle insignia and the flash drive inserted at the bottom of the box. Photo by Sam Arendt