Grafton, Wis., is an unlikely place to be the center of African American music. But for about a decade in the 1920s and early '30s, it was the home of Paramount Records — a label devoted to jazz and blues. Artists like Louis Armstrong, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Alberta Hunter and Ma Rainey all recorded there.
“Paramount Records at a time was the pinnacle of the recording industry,” says Kevin Ramsey, creator and director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's production of Chasin’ Dem Blues: The Untold Story of Paramount Records. “This little town was one contributor to the American sound."
Previously titled Grafton City Blues, this revival of a Milwaukee Rep premiere explores the history and sound of Paramount Records. Ramsey, a New Orleans native who describes his passion as merging history and music, has taken the musical to Delaware and Atlanta since its debut in 2008.
Ramsey noted that other research on Paramount has been done by Dutch author Alex van der Tuuk and Wisconsinite Angela Mac Reilly. Tuuk’s scholarship later informed two boxsets released Jack White’s Third Man Records.
Owned by the Wisconsin Chair Company, which made wooden phonograph cabinets, Paramount Records released a quarter of all "race records" between 1922 and 1932. But when the company closed in 1932, the masters were lost, and the history of what was recorded in Grafton was forgotten.
“They weren’t just recording the Joe Blow on the street. They were recording some of the top artists presenting this sound,” Ramsey says. “One of the fascinating parts was that idea that this Germany, Norweigan, Scandinavian town of about 30 immigrants had the wherewithal.”
“I found myself chasing history. Trying to figure out what happened," Ramsey adds.
Chasin’ Dem Blues: The Untold Story of Paramount Records runs at the Milwaukee Rep Jan. 17 - March 22.