Angie Mack Reilly with Grafton City Blues Poster

2007: In Tune with Grafton

In tune with Grafton

Play based on the village’s blues

and gospel history headed for stage

By TIM CARPENTER – GM Today Staff

April 27, 2007

Some of the most influential blues and gospel songs ever made were recorded at Grafton’s Wisconsin Chair Company, shown below, in the 1920s and early 1930s under the Paramount Records label. A play featuring the music of Paramount artists such as Thomas A. Dorsey, right, will run at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater early next year. 

GRAFTON – Playwright Kevin Ramsey has never set foot in Grafton. Yet, the story of Grafton’s role in shaping blues and gospel music resonates deep feelings inside him of a place similar to his cajun hometown.

“Grafton is like New Orleans,” Ramsey said. “It helped shape music that’s a part of American culture that could have gone unknown if people … had not taken the initiative to expose this historical gem.”

The story of how musicians such as “Ma” Rainey and Thomas A. Dorsey would travel to Grafton in the 1920s and early 1930s to record some of the most influential blues and gospel albums for the Paramount Records label was something Ramsey discovered last summer while working on production of his musical play on soul legend Sam Coat at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

“Somebody just kind of dropped this gem on me that there was this record studio called Paramount Records where all these blues artists would come to record,” said Ramsey, who, by chance, stumbled across the “History Detectives” episode later that week featuring the segment on Paramount Records. “I am attracted to history in everything I write, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out the Milwaukee region played such an integral part in the development of blues, folk and religious music. I thought there has to be a story in there.”

Out of Ramsey’s discovery, the play “Grafton City Blues” was born. The production is slated to run next year from Jan. 11 through March 9 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. The play will consist of a multi-ethnic cast of two men and two women who will sing and recount the story of Paramount Records and the artists who made the music, many of whom recorded their albums at the Grafton-based Wisconsin Chair Company.

“We were very interested in it for obvious reasons,” said MRT Associate Artistic Director Sandy Ernst. “Anything that’s local in nature frankly is interesting to people. But above and beyond that, we’re talking about some really wonderful music.”

The multi-talented Ramsey has been involved in a number of projects for both the stage and screen, with several theater, film and television projects in development. His credits include directing and writing the award-winning short film “Tap Rap” and directing and co-choreographing the off-Broadway musical “My Hometown.”

Ramsey’s Broadway credits include “Five Guys Named Moe” and “Black and Blue.” He has also appeared in such television shows as “Judging Amy” and “Charmed.”

While development of the script is still in its research stage, Ramsey plans to use Paramount’s diverse catalogue of blues, spiritual and folk recordings to flesh out the musical aspects of the play.

A more concrete version of the script is expected to be ready in June before Ramsey travels to Milwaukee in July to conduct auditions and begin production. A trip to Grafton also is in the plans for Ramsey when he comes to Milwaukee this summer.

“The interesting thing about Paramount Records is that they recorded so many different types of music, so (the play) just can’t be a bunch of blues songs,” Ramsey said, adding he intends to incorporate music from Paramount greats such as Alberta Hunter and Skip James into the production.

Local Paramount historian Angela Mack said seeing Grafton’s musical heritage adapted for the stage reaffirms that all the time and effort spent promoting the village’s role in shaping American culture was worth it. 

“Since 2004, I’ve spent numerous hours contacting almost anyone I could about this Paramount history, knowing that once this story got out it would have nationwide appeal,” Mack said. “Now that this musical is being written by a guy from Broadway, it just further legitimatizes what went on here in Grafton.” 

Reporter Tim Carpenter can be reached at tcarpenter@conleynet.com

This story appeared in the Ozaukee News Graphic on April 26, 2007.

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