Here's an easy "pop quiz" for antique pickers: Appropriate attire for a day of springtime antique picking in Grafton, Wisconsin might include:
- Comfortable shoes, light jacket, and a hat.
- Wet suit, scuba gear, and fins.
For most of us "A" is the correct answer. But if you're a fanatical collector of Paramount 78rpm blues records from the early 20th Century, "B" seems like a perfectly reasonable response.
With prices for some Paramount records running as high as $37,000 USD I might be tempted to don scuba gear and take a dip into the Milwaukee River myself. Fortunately, I don't have to. Amanda Petrusich, author of "Do Not Sell at Any Price: the Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records" did that and came up empty-handed. It seems that prior to her dive a dam was removed and washed away whatever records might have been there. We will never know, I suppose.
To the uninitiated, diving for old 78rpm records might seem bizarre. Diving – especially in the murky water of a swift river – can be dangerous business. It's also expensive to rent equipment, hire a guide, and pay for transportation, meals, and lodging. Could there possibly be enough records in the river silt to make such an expedition profitable? Not all Paramount records sell for tens of thousands; most sell for under $50. And (this is what most folks want to know): are there actually records in the river, or is this just another urban legend?
Therein lies the mystique of Paramount Records. At one time the premier label for American blues, they sold hundreds of thousands of discs per year. After 1932 (so say the rumors), bankrupted in the Great Depression, terminated employees would fling records Frisbee-style into the river. It seems that radio had overtaken records as the primary source of home entertainment. In the depression, the audience for blues music didn't have an extra seventy-five cents to spend on a record, to say nothing of the hundreds of dollars required to buy a phonograph. Radios were relatively cheap to acquire, and free to use. The market for blues records dried up. At the time, the records were worthless.
According to music impresario Jack White, owner of Third Man Records, it didn't help that executives at Paramount cared nothing for the record business.
"They didn't really care about any of it; they just wanted to sell record players...and by accident, they captured Charley Patton and Mississippi Sheiks and Blind Lemon Jefferson and Son House and Skip James. I mean, these are the granddaddies of modern music."
What White says is true. Paramount's core business was furniture, not records. Their parent company, the Wisconsin Chair Company, had been building phonograph cabinets for the Edison Company. Victrolas, Gramophones, and phonographs were the "hot" new technology, but successfully selling these items required a constant stream of new records, artists, and songs. When WCC introduced their line of Vista phonographs in 1915, Paramount Records was established to boost phonograph sales. Vista was a commercial failure, and Paramount's early records – mostly military and brass-band groups – were a failure as well. In order to keep their record plant open, Paramount began to press records for other labels on a contract basis.
One of those labels was Black Swan, a leader in early blues, jazz, and spirituals (or, as they were known then, "race records"). Such records were made by and for African-Americans. Paramount eventually bought out Black Swan, and by doing so became the dominant player in the race record business. For a while, Paramount prospered. Eventually, they became another casualty of the Great Depression.
The hundreds of thousands of records that were in their warehouse when they closed seem to have vanished. Paramount records have been discovered in many parts of North America; it is believed that some were sold for pennies on the dollar to wholesalers and that the metal pressing masters were sold for scrap. Fortunately for musicologists, collectors bent on discovering the next rare Blind Lemon Jefferson or Ma Rainey record are uncompromising in their search. Thus began the diving expeditions, cross-country treks, and marketing campaigns to find rare Paramount blues records.
Are all Paramount records collectible? No, they're not. Most of the ones you find on eBay, at yard sales, flea markets, and antique dealers are commonplace and not very valuable. Occasionally, a collector may find a record that is scarce, and – if he's really lucky – find a rare issue. Most antique / vintage dealers don't know anything about 78rpm records. They don't know the labels or the artists. They don't know that most are made of shellac; they refer to them as "vinyl". The seller's ignorance feeds a collector's fortune. Pickers frequently see boxes of 78s marked at "50c each; whole box for $5".
Collectors can capitalize on seller's naiveté by looking for specific labels and artists. Paramount collectors would be wise to focus on the 12000 series records recorded from 1922-1927. A list of these can be found here.
eBay sales in the past thirty days show 142 Paramount singles sold in 225 auctions. That's a 63% sell-through, which is pretty good. Three records sold for over $1,000; four sold between $500-$999; forty-one sold between $100-$499, and the remainder sold for under $100.
A solid grounding in the history of Paramount Records can be found in the book "Paramount's Rise and Fall: A History of the Wisconsin Chair Company and Its Recording Activities" by Alex van der Tuuk. I believe that it is out-of-print, as I can find only used copies for sale. As of this writing, nineteen copies are listed from eight sellers on the addall.com book marketplace.
Along the way to acquiring a nice collection of Paramounts, you will likely accrue a lot of worthless discs. Please don’t throw them in a river. You might, however, try to "Frisbee" them into a trash dumpster.