In A Few Fateful Years, One Record Label Blew Open The Blues

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Charley Patton was the grandaddy of the Delta blues musicians, according to Jack White: "He's the one that all the other blues musicians looked up to. He's almost the beginning of the family tree." (Courtesy of the Revenant Archives)
Charley Patton was the grandaddy of the Delta blues musicians, according to Jack White: "He's the one that all the other blues musicians looked up to. He's almost the beginning of the family tree." (Courtesy of the Revenant Archives)

The story of Paramount Records is a story of contradictions. It was a record label founded by a furniture company, a commercial enterprise that became arguably the most comprehensive chronicler of African American music in the early 20th century. And yet, for Paramount's executives, music was an afterthought.

"They didn't really care about any of it; they just wanted to sell record players," says guitarist, singer-songwriter and music impresario Jack White. "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."

A little over a year ago, White's Third Man Records and Revenant, the label founded by John Fahey, put out the first volume of an exhaustive survey of Paramount's catalog, beginning with its inception in 1917 and covering its first decade. The second and final volume of The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records is out now, and presents what may be the label's greatest contribution to American music – the final five years of its brief existence, when it began to record the Mississippi music style that came to be called the Delta blues.

White says that Charley Patton was the acknowledged granddaddy of the Delta granddaddies: "He's the most important figure, in my opinion, in this whole Paramount world because he's the one that all the other blues musicians looked up to. He's almost the beginning of the family tree."

Patton is believed to have been born around 1891 and was possibly the first musician in the Mississippi Delta to make his living just by playing blues. Peter Guralnick, author of several books on the blues, says Patton was a hero to other musicians — but that the man was nothing like his music sounded.

A young H.C. Spier.
A young H.C. Spier.

"Just hearing the voice, you would think you were hearing someone who looked like Howlin' Wolf — you know, who was 6'3", 6'4", weighed 300 pounds, was jet black," Guralnick says. "And as it turned out, Charley Patton, as described by his fellow blues singers, was extremely light-skinned and he was a little guy! So this voice just comes out with this unbelievable energy, this focus and intensity. There's nothing else that's happening when he's singing."

Patton was also a consummate entertainer: He clowned around on stage, playing his guitar behind his head and between his legs. When Patton decided he was ready to record, he wrote a letter to a white man named H.C. Speir, who was a talent scout for Paramount.

In a 1968 interview, Spier proclaimed, "Patton was one of the best talents I ever had. And he was one of the best sellers, too, on record." Now housed in the archives at Middle Tennessee State University's Center for Popular Music, the interview was recorded by blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow. Wardlow says Patton went to Speir for a reason.

"The word was out all over Mississippi: If you want to get on record, you go audition for Mr. Speir. The word was he won't cheat you," Wardlow says.

Unlike a lot of the other record company scouts, Speir paid a flat fee for each song, usually around $50 — a lot of money for rural musicians who were lucky to make a dollar a day working in the fields. Spier had an ear for the music because he grew up in the Mississippi hill country hearing it. He also seemed to understand the musician's plight.

"Nobody was really recording the guitar bluesmen before Paramount," Wardlow says. "Your great Mississippi bluesmen all came through Speir, almost all of them."

One of them was guitarist, pianist and singer Skip James. Born Nehemiah Curtis James in 1902 in Yazoo City, Miss., he told an interviewer in 1964 that he got his nickname from all of the dancing around he did as a child: "I was very active in dancing and they called me Skippy!"

James learned piano and a little music theory in high school. Peter Guralnick also interviewed James and says the musician took his blues very seriously.

"Skip James was just a very cerebral, inward-looking person," Guralnick says. "And extremely generous in trying to explain himself, but under no constraint whatever to be self-deprecating. Skip James felt that he was making music of great impact and seriousness."

Even though he came out of the same fertile environment as Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, James didn't sound like anyone else. He tuned his guitar differently and would throw his voice into a high falsetto. He's credited with creating the first real guitar breaks in a blues song, making him, perhaps, the father of the guitar solo. A later master of that form, Eric Clapton, adapted James' "I'm So Glad" for his own band, Cream.

James said he recorded more than two dozen songs over the course of just a few days in Paramount's Grafton, Wisc. studio. What happened afterwards upset him, as he recalled in that 1964 interview, which is now housed in the Southern Folklife Collection's Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

"Didn't have but three minutes to make a record," James lamented. "I made 26 songs, eight on guitar and the rest on piano. And I got one consideration of a royalty out of all of those records. Well, that just discouraged me. I just give up music for a long time. Give it up completely."

It could be that James only got one royalty payment because it was 1931, the height of the Great Depression; no one could afford to spend 75 cents on a record anymore. The label made its final recordings the following year and again, the musicians were from the Delta: The Mississippi Sheiks. Then, Paramount folded.

Skip James lived to see his career revived during the folk boom of the 1960s. Charley Patton, a drinker with heart problems, died two years after Paramount closed up shop. H.C. Speir got out of the music business and eventually became an insurance salesman. Still, as Jack White affirms, what they and their record label accomplished was considerable.

"They were trying to make a dollar," White says, "and captured American history."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The story of Paramount Records is rich with contradictions. It was a record label that was founded by a furniture company, a commercial enterprise that became arguably the most comprehensive chronicler of African-American music in the early 20th century.

Now, the second and final volume of a huge Paramount reissue project features what may be the label's greatest contribution to American music. It's recordings of the Miss. style that came to be called the Delta blues. NPR's Tom Cole has the stories of some of the musicians and one of their champions.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: For Paramount executives, music was an afterthought.

JACK WHITE: They didn't really care about any of it. They just wanted to sell record players.

COLE: Guitarist, singer and songwriter Jack White founded Third Man Records, one of the partners along with Revenant Records, in the Paramount reissue project.

WHITE: And by accident, they captured Charley Patton and Mississippi Sheiks and Blind Lemon Jefferson and Son House and Skip James. I mean, these are - these are the granddaddies of modern music.

COLE: The acknowledged granddaddy of the Delta grand daddies was guitarist and singer Charley Patton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPOONFUL BLUES")

CHARLEY PATTON: I'm about to go to jail about this spoonful. (Singing) In all a spoon', 'bout that spoon. The women goin' crazy, every day in their life 'bout a...

WHITE: He's the most important figure, in my opinion, in this whole Paramount world because he's the one that all the other blues musicians looked up to. He's almost the beginning of the family tree.

COLE: Patton is believed to have been born around 1891 and was possibly the first musician in the Mississippi Delta to make his living just by playing blues. He was a hero to other musicians, says Peter Guralnick, author of several books on the blues. But he says the man was nothing like his music sounded.

PETER GURALNICK: Just hearing the voice, you would think you were hearing someone who was 6 foot 3, 6 foot 4", someone, weighed 300 pounds, was jet black. And as it turned out, Charley Patton was extremely light skinned, and he was a little guy. (Laughter) And so this voice - he just comes out with this unbelievable energy, this focus and an intensity. There's nothing else that's happening when he singing. That's it. He's there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH WATER")

PATTON: (Singing) Now, the water now, mama, done took Charley's town. Well, the tell me the water done took Charley's town. Boy I'm goin' to Vicksburg. Well, I'm goin to Vicksburg, for that high of mine.

COLE: Patton was also the consummate entertainer. He clowned around on stage, playing his guitar behind his head, in between his legs. When he decided he was ready to record, Patton wrote a letter to a white man named H.C. Speir, who was a talent scout for Paramount.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

H.C. SPEIR: Patton was one of the best talents I ever had. And he was one of the best sellers, too, on record.

COLE: That's Speir from a 1968 interview recorded by blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow, now housed in the archives in at Middle Tennessee State University's Center for Popular Music. Wardlow says Patton went to Speir for a reason.

GAYLE DEAN WARDLOW: The word was out all over Miss., that if you want to get on record, you go audition for Mr. Speir. The word was he won't cheat you.

COLE: Unlike a lot of the other record companies' scouts, Speir paid a flat fee for each song, usually around $50; a lot of money for rural musicians at the time. And he had an ear the music because he grew up in the Mississippi Hill country hearing it. He also seemed to understand musicians' polite.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPEIR: He's a human being. And when he's forced into things, he can take what we call the blues, you know, be blue. You can imagine that a child that was sick and the white man didn't do very much or couldn't get a doctor. That's what it is - what the blues is - and sorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SON HOUSE SONG, "WALKIN' BLUES")

WARDLOW: Nobody was really recording the guitar bluesmen before Paramount. And your great Mississippi bluesmen all came to Speir, almost all of them.

COLE: Gayle Dean Wardlow says one of them was guitarist, pianist and singer Skip James.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEVIL GOT MY WOMAN")

SKIP JAMES: (Singing) Well, I'd rather be the devil then to be that woman' man.

COLE: He was born Nehemiah Curtis James in 1902 in Yazoo City, Miss. He told an interviewer in 1964 that he got his nickname from all the dancing around he did as a child.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES: I was very active in dancing, and they called me Skippy.

COLE: James learned piano and a little music theory in high school. Peter Guralnick also interviewed James and says the musician took his blues very seriously.

GURALNICK: Sometimes it was just a very cerebral inward-looking person, but under no constraint whatever to be self-deprecating. (Laughter) Skip James felt that he was making music of great impact and seriousness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPECIAL RIDER BLUES")

JAMES: (Singing) I ain't got no special rider here. Ain't got nobody to love and feel my care.

COLE: Even though he came out of the same fertile environment as Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, James didn't sound like anyone else. He tuned his guitar differently and would throw is voice into a high falsetto. He's credited with creating the first real guitar breaks in a blues song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKIP JAMES SONG, "SPECIAL RIDER BLUES")

COLE: James said he recorded more than two dozen songs over the course of just a few days in Paramount's Grafton, Wis. studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES: Didn't have but three minutes to make a record. I made 26 songs, eight on guitar and the rest of them on piano.

COLE: What happened afterwards upset him as he recalled in that 1964 interview, which is now at the Southern Folklife Collection's Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES: I got one consideration as a royalty out of all of those records. Well, that just discouraged me. I just give up music for a long time. Give it up completely.

COLE: It could be that James only got one royalty payment because it was 1931; the height of the Great Depression. No one could afford to spend 75 cents on a record anymore. The label made its final recordings the following year. And again, the musicians were from the Delta, the Mississippi Sheiks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NEW STOP AND LISTEN")

MISSISSIPPI SHEIKS: (Singing) And I went to the graveyard of love, deep down in her pain. Now don't ya a-hear me talkin', pretty mama? Lord, I went to the grave alone, deep down in her pain.

COLE: Paramount records folded within the year. Skip James lived to see his career revived during the folk boom of the 1960s. Charley Patton, a drinker with heart problems, died two years after Paramount closed its doors. And H.C. Speir got out of the music business, eventually becoming an insurance salesman. Still, Jack White says what they and their record label accomplished was considerable.

WHITE: They were trying to make a dollar and captured American history.

COLE: Tom Cole. NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NEW STOP AND LISTEN")

MISSISSIPPI SHEIKS: (Singing) Well, I went to the church house, praying on my bending knees. Now don't ya a-hear me talkin', pretty mama? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.