Recording of January 2014: The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records 1917–1927, Volume One

Various Artists: The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records 1917–1927, Volume One
Third Man/Revenant (6 LPs, USB drive). 1917–27/2013. Alex van der Tuuk, Jack White, Dean Blackwood, prods.; Christopher C. King, David Glasser, Anna Frick, remastering. A–D. TT: 4:12:39 (LPs only)
Performance *****
Sonics Historical

Launched in 1917, Paramount Records initially recorded conventional pop music, such as Arthur Fields's "Good Morning, Mr. Zip, Zip, Zip." But with the hiring of J. Mayo Williams as a talent scout and producer in 1924, Paramount became one of the leading suppliers of "race" records, as discs marketed to African-Americans were then called. For the next decade, Paramount recorded some of the most important blues, jazz, and gospel artists of the era, along with country and pop musicians.

Now, Third Man Records and Revenant Records have joined forces to release this lavish boxed set. The 800 tracks on the USB drive—87 of them are duplicated on the six LPs—don't come close to representing the entire catalog of Paramount and its subsidiaries during this period, but do include a few tracks made for non–Paramount-affiliated labels. The second volume, covering Paramount's continued production until it stopped recording, in 1932, is due for release in November 2014.

Among the more prominent blues and jazz artists presented here are Blind Blake, Johnny Dodds, Ida Cox, Duke Ellington, Papa Charlie Jackson, James P. Johnson, Freddie Keppard, King Oliver, Ma Rainey, and Clarence Williams, with Louis Armstrong playing a sideman role. Of equal interest are the numerous lesser-known performers, some slightly recognized—such as Lucille Bogan, the California Ramblers, Will Ezell, Coot Grant and Kid Wilson, Lucille Hegamin, and Frankie "Half Pint" Jackson—and many others quite obscure: Flo Bert, Jaybird Coleman (aka Rabbits Foot Williams), Voltaire De Faut, Side Wheel Sally Duffie, the Hotentots, Sodarisa Miller, Homer Quincy Smith, Elzadie Robinson, and Sweet Papa Stovepipe, a number of whom are represented by only a track or two.

Due to its use of cheap materials and inferior equipment, Paramount has become virtually synonymous with poor sound. The audio quality of these tracks varies greatly, depending on when, where, and how they were recorded, and on the degree of wear on the surviving discs from which they were remastered. Unlike some previous Paramount remasterings, these have not reduced the surface noise at the expense of the original signal—the performances come through vividly, even if a few tracks are more hiss than music. The LPs sound remarkably clean, presumably because cleaner original records were chosen; they constitute a reasonably representative sampling of the USB tracks, although one can certainly quibble with the choices. Why so much of Lovie Austin and Jimmy O'Bryant, for example, and so little of Blind Lemon Jefferson?

Overall, this musical trove offers a mind-bending journey into what some consider the golden age of American recording. Short on mainstream pop, it slants heavily toward the sort of blues, jazz, gospel, and country material most favored by critics and collectors today. There are classics by Blind Lemon Jefferson ("That Black Snake Moan"), Blind Blake ("Too Tight"), Jimmy Blythe ("Chicago Stomp"), Ida Cox ("How Long Daddy, How Long"), Fletcher Henderson ("Chime Blues"), Alberta Hunter ("Down Hearted Blues"), Papa Charlie Jackson ("Salty Dog Blues"), Jelly Roll Morton ("Mr. Jelly Roll"), Ma Rainey ("See See Rider Blues"), and Ethel Waters ("There'll Be Some Changes Made"), as well as ground-breaking hits like Rev. J.M. Gates's "Death's Black Train Is Coming" and Trixie Smith's "My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)." There are also such revelations as Big Bill Broonzy's first record, "House Rent Stomp," from November 1927, and the first recorded jazz flute solo, played by the Cuban-born Alberto Socarras on Clarence Williams's "Shooting the Pistol," from July 1927.

The country selections are generally weaker than their jazz or blues counterparts, notwithstanding strong offerings such as Frank Jenkins's sparkling solo-banjo version of "Home Sweet Home," and Sid Harkreader and Grady Moore's genially fiddled "Old Joe Clark." No such weakness afflicts the gospel tracks, which include ear-openers like the Norfolk Jubilee Quartette's richly harmonized "Wonder Where Is the Gamblin' Man" and the Biddleville Quintette's thrilling "Way Down in Egypt Land," a rare example of an early gospel recording featuring a handclapped backbeat. There are also fire-breathing sermons, such as Rev. M.L. Gipson's "Where the Black Man Comes From" and Rev. Johnnie "Son of Thunder" Blakey's "The Sainted Devil."

The blues tracks are particularly striking, including such gems as Ed Bell's "Mamlish Blues," Sam Collins's "Yellow Dog Blues," Gus Cannon's "Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home," Buddy Boy Hawkins's "Shaggy Dog Blues," and Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull's "Don't You Leave Me Here." All six of Reed and Hull's sides—among the items most coveted by 78rpm collectors—are included here; beautifully recorded for Mayo Williams's independent Black Patti label, they represent an early stage in the development of the blues. The set ends with a marvelous Delta-like blues by an artist who whose name remains unknown. Stay tuned for Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, Son House, and Skip James on Volume Two.—Larry Birnbaum