used with permission from Tim Carpenter
“Grafton’s blossoming retro blues business staked upon history it didn’t understand”
By TIM CARPENTER – GM Today Staff
April 25, 2006
GRAFTON – When Grafton found out that it was home to some of music’s most influential and earliest recordings of jazz, blues and gospel, it could hardly contain itself. After all, it had spent years trying to break away from the shadows of neighboring towns, Cedarburg and Port Washington, but never seemed able to do so. But there was another reason for their giddiness, as they unearthed an economic diamond in the rough with enough appeal to potentially make Grafton not only the top tourist destination in the region, but also a travel hot spot for music enthusiasts all over the world.
“The artists that recorded for Paramount were etched into American culture the moment the needle hit the wax,” said local music historian Angela Mack,
noting that musicians such as Thomas A. Dorsey, the godfather of gospel; and legendary blues songstress “Ma” Rainey were just two of several artists who came to Grafton in the 1920s and early 1930s to record albums at The New York Recording Laboratories for the Paramount Record label.
A subsidiary of the Grafton-based Wisconsin Chair Company, Paramount released a wide variety of music but is best known for its recordings of African-American jazz and blues, controlling 25 percent of the black music market at its peak. However, like many of businesses of that era, the original incarnation of Paramount folded in 1935 due to the Great Depression.
While Paramount’s legacy was known by music aficionados around the world, the label’s association with Grafton remained unknown to its hometown until a few years ago when a vinyl collector looking for records manufactured by Paramount sent inquiries out via mass mail to several Grafton residents. After that, it wasn’t long before interest in the record label’s connection with Grafton ignited like wildfire throughout the village.
“Embracing this history also embraces the arts, which in turn embraces tourism and business,” Mack said in regard to the domino effect Paramount’s legacy has had on the village. “When you tap into the history and arts of a community and get the people involved, the businesses will then get involved to draw tourists to come here.”
Using the past to sell the future
Village President Jim Brunnquell originally learned about Paramount Records’ connection with Grafton in spring 2004 when Mack approached him about starting the Paramount Blues Festival, which will debut on Sept. 23 at Lime Kiln Park. Although the idea intrigued him, Brunnquell wasn’t able to grasp Paramount’s importance in American music history until coming across a considerable amount of material that had been published about the label, including a book by Scandinavian author Alex van der Tuuk.
“It appears that everyone knew about the history of Paramount and Grafton except for the village of Grafton,” said Brunnquell. “It involved a matter of somebody opening my eyes to it. Once that happened, it was like ‘Holy cow, this is amazing. We played an amazing part of Americana here.’”
The revelation couldn’t have come at a better time, as the village was in the early stages of creating a redevelopment plan for the downtown area. At the same time, resident/chef Joe Krupski had just bought the old Bienlein Hotel on 12th Avenue. After learning of Paramount’s connection with the village and the likelihood that many of the label’s musicians stayed at the Bienlein while recording, he decided to call the place The Paramount Restaurant.
“What we’re trying to do is tell the story of the artists and what they did in Grafton,” said Krupski of the theme of his restaurant, which will feature various items of Paramount memorabilia. “I think Grafton’s always been searching for some kind of identity, and now they’ve found it. So we’re just celebrating that history.”
With plans already in motion to add a plaza downtown and community interest in Paramount on the rise, the village decided to team up with Krupski and the organizers of the blues festival in paying homage to its musical roots.
“Whenever you’re trying to bring in a mix of businesses into a community, it’s all about identity and having a selling point,” said Brunnquell of the Paramount Plaza, which once complete will resemble a record disk and will feature among other things a gazebo with a stage and seating area, a timeline of the label’s history and a large flat metal medallion of the Paramount eagle. “This is a great idea to wrap around because it’s unique to us and is a vital part of music history.”
The plaza will also feature a piano design walkway complete with ivories and a Paramount Recording Artists’ Walk of Fame. Paramount Grooves in Grafton, a group headed by Mack to educate and inform the public about Grafton’s musical heritage, has been put in charge by the village board to select the first five inductees for the fame walk, which is expected to cost somewhere around $2,000 per artist.
The first Paramount Blues Festival is scheduled for Sept. 23 at Lime Kiln Park, with a daylong slate of music and workshops, including an appearance by van der Tuuk.
While the village has fully embraced its rich musical heritage, it is unknown whether the rest of the world will react to Grafton’s legacy in a similar fashion. However, the chances look good that it will. After all, Grafton was the last one to find itself.
“Economically, I think it’s a great tool,” Brunnquell said of the village’s long-lost musical heritage. “It’s something that’s uniquely Grafton and the great thing about it is that it’s truly legitimate.”
This story appeared in the Ozaukee County News Graphic on April 25, 2006.