This disc is the initial release in the series, "The Great Race Record Labels," which now covers three volumes. Catfish has released some incredible compilations in their relatively short history and this 3 disc set (each individually packaged) has success written all over it. Volume 1 is loaded with 24 tracks, detailed notes, and fine sound quality. These are all key ingredients to collectors and historians alike, and the period looking covers are beautiful.
While Paramount was not the first label to have what was known as a "Race" series (that dubious distinction went to Okeh - Volume 3 in the series), as Dave Moore points out in his liner notes; they may be closest to the hearts of Blues enthusiasts. A quick glance at their roster could be the only explanation necessary; Son House, Willie Brown, Charley Patton, Skip James, Blind Blake, Tommy Johnson, Ishmon Bracey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and others, all graced the grooves of Paramount label records early in the 2oth century. While not a complete all-star lineup, Paramount seems to have held a better percentage of those who would gain legendary status once Blues found a renewed success with the coming of the 'folk boom' in the 1960's. Son House and Skip James played large roles in that game, others like Bracey left music for the church and refused to play Blues, while Brown, Patton, and others died years before ever having a chance at a revived career.
"Blind Arthur's Breakdown" kicks off this disc in rousing fashion with some excellent guitar work and shows why Blind Blake was one on Paramount's bestseller list. Willie Brown's significance is of utmost importance although he remains 90% mystery. Years of research uncovered the distant pasts, photos, and documents of many of these artists, but Brown left little except for a couple of brilliant sides, and his stunning "Future Blues" is nothing short of monumental. From the same session that produced some of Son House's memorable work, Willie Brown captured the essence of the Mississippi Delta at the Paramount studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, in 1930. House delivers his powerful "Dry Spell Blues - part 1" and Louise Johnson, who took the trip with Brown and House, contributes the bawdy "Off The Wall." Skip James headed for Wisconsin the next year and recorded his fine "Drunken Spree," while the 'classic' Blues period of Paramount (which launched its own Race series in 1922) is well-covered with the inclusion of Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, and Priscilla Stewart, who all recorded following the success of Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," waxed for Okeh in 1920.
Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Dallas guitar wizard, commenced his career at Paramount in late 1925 with spiritual numbers, but returned the next year in March to wax some country sides, and his "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" remains a perennial favorite even today. Additional artists from the Lone Star State who find space on this set are Ramblin' Kid Thomas, Elzadie Robinson, and pianist Will Ezell, who recorded under his own name and as a sideman to others for the label. Jefferson's untimely death in 1929 sent the label looking for a successor to maintain the label's income from 'Race' records, and it was H.C. Speir, a Mississippi businessman, who delivered Bracey, Johnson, Patton, and others from his home state. Patton became one of Paramount's top money makers with a long list of topical Blues, and part 1 of "High Water Everywhere" points to why he became an important player in the history of the label, but even more in his influence over others, as it was actually Patton who recommended Son House, Willie Brown, and Louise Johnson to the decision makers at Paramount.
Part of the success of the Paramount label came from the low-end retail price for their records and they were able to keep costs down by using inferior materials in pressing, which contributed to the higher surface noise. Dave Moore's liner notes also point to Paramount's disregard for its 'Race' artists by advertising them in a comical and patronizing way, and when the company closed up shop, nearly everything in the their files was destroyed; including the discs, session details, and more. Now, decades later, additional sides by Son House, Willie Brown, Big Bill Broonzy, and others remain lost, while the dedication to unearth them carries on.
All in all, a fine introductory disc in the 3 volume series; "The Great Race Record Labels," info on this disc, the two follow-ups in the series, and a complete catalog of excellent Catfish releases can be found at: www.catfishrecords.co.uk
This review is copyright © 2001 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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