Ozaukee Press staff
Six of the most important figures in early 20th-century American music have been chosen as the first inductees for the Walk of Fame in Grafton’s soon-to-be-built downtown Paramount Plaza.
The honorees — Charley Patton, Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, SkipJames, Thomas Dorsey and Henry Townsend — were announced this week by Paramount Grooves in Grafton.
The GIG group was formed last fall to promote awareness and preservation of music recorded and pressed in Grafton by the New York Recording Laboratories, the music division of the former Wisconsin Chair Co. The firm’s Grafton factory, which stood at the northeast corner of what is now Falls Road and 12th Avenue, manufactured records from 1917 to 1932 and operated a recording studio during its final four years.
Among the many artists who came to Grafton to record music or had their records pressed at the local factory were legends in blues, jazz and gospel genres.
“There are many giant musical figures who have connections to Paramount, but these six were chosen as the first inductees because of their tremendous influence,” said Angela Mack, chairman of a nine-member nominating committee that considered hundreds of artists before forwarding its selections to the GIG board for final approval.
“It was a difficult task, but there are many other musicians who will be recognized in the future.”
Construction is expected to begin in July on the Paramount-themed plaza at the intersection of Wisconsin and 12th avenues and Bridge Street that will help commemorate Grafton’s musical legacy. The 14,190-square-foot area will have a performance stage, fountain, information kiosk, benches and other amenities, including a keyboard-styled walkway containing stone etchings for Walk of Fame inductees.
The plaza area is bordered by several historic buildings, including the Grafton Hotel and former Bienlein Hotel, which is being converted into the Paramount Restaurant.
An induction ceremony is expected to be held in late summer, following completion of the plaza.
Each of the six honorees is recognized as a landmark musical figure, and all but Rainey and Jefferson recorded in Grafton.
Townsend, 96, is the only living blues musician who recorded in Grafton. Known as the Patriarch of St. Louis Blues, the Shelby, Miss., native is one of the few artists who has recorded in every decade for the past 80 years.
The Grafton Blues Association is negotiating with Townsend to perform at the Paramount Blues Festival that will debut Saturday, Sept. 23, in the village’s Lime Kiln Park.
Patton, known as the Father of Delta Blues, recorded many of his most popular songs in Grafton. He was a 1999 Grammy Hall of Fame recipient for his song “Pony Blues.”
Gertrude Rainey, known as Mother of the Blues, recorded more than 100 songs for Paramount and was the label’s biggest-selling artist during her peak years.
Jefferson, the founder of Texas blues, was Paramount’s top-selling male artist. His classic compositions included “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” and “Matchbox Blues,” the latter of which was recorded by dozens of artists including Carl Perkins and the Beatles.
Nehemiah James, one of the most original and influential of blues musicians, wrote and recorded his most famous songs in Grafton. He is best remembered for works such as “Devil Got My Woman” and “I’m So Glad,” which was later recorded by the rock group Cream.
Dorsey, also known as Georgia Tom, is acknowledged as the Father of Gospel Music. His work combined Christian praise with the rhythms of jazz and blues.
Dorsey’s best-known composition is “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which has been recorded by Mahalia Jackson and scores of other gospel singers.
Mack said each committee member chose five artists based on criteria such as recognition and acclaim by music aficionados, importance to music history and development, musical virtuosity and number of recordings for NYRL labels. In addition to the top five vote-getters who became automatic inductees, Townsend was unanimously chosen by GIG members for his unique place in Paramount history, Mack said.
Several other famous musicians received votes, including Louis Armstrong, Son House, King Joe Oliver and Blind Blake.
“There are so many important artists, we won’t have any trouble finding more to choose each year,” Mack said.
In addition to Mack, the nomination committee included Paramount author Alex van der Tuuk, blues performer and educator Michael “Hawkeye” Herman, award-winning jazz musician Norrie Cox, Milwaukee artist Mutope Johnson, Paramount Restaurant owner and blues collector Joe Krupski, educator and musician Robert Perry, educator and blues fan Marlene Pechura, and music producer and blues/jazz enthusiast Jeff Domann.
Mack said GIG is developing fund-raising plans to pay for the Walk of Fame etchings, each of which will cost about $2,500. Individual, group and corporate donations are encouraged.
Donors who cover the full cost of an etching will be recognized as a sponsor of that artist.