Metro Milwaukee Guide

The go-to guide for activities in the greater Milwaukee area


Paramount Walking Tour in Grafton

I may be dating myself with this reference, but do you remember the scene in Big where Tom Hanks played the floor piano in FAO Schwarz? (Readers not nearing 30, are you still listening? This is important!) If you don’t, here’s a quick refresher:

That movie scene was a huge turning point for me. It helped me realize that music was more than just notes and sounds – that it was a fun, wonderful way to express yourself. And, it turned me on to the idea of OWNING A GIANT FREAKING FLOOR PIANO. (See? I told you it was important. These things are incredible.) I tracked it down in the FAO Schwarz catalog, circled it in big red marker, cleared out a space for the piano on my floor, and lovingly placed the catalog – open to just the right page – on the table by where my dad put his briefcase after work. Long story short, I never got my coveted floor piano. Or my own personal carousel that I asked for every year at Christmas, but anyway. The movie memory stuck with me until adulthood. So, I think it was perfectly acceptable to nearly have a heart attack when Kyle and I ran across THIS:



On the way back from our honeymoon last year, we decided to make a pit stop in Grafton in Ozaukee County. Like any child of technology, I googled the town to see what we could do. Apparently, Grafton is the original home of Paramount Records (in operation from 1917-1933). Kyle instantly knew all about it (musician and musical historian that he is) and regaled me with stories of the blues artists on the original Paramount label (including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Louis Armstrong), the “race records” it was most famous for, and a little bit of its history. For example. Did you know that the label was a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company? Or that the records from 1929 and later were recorded and pressed in-house, in Wisconsin, by the company’s other subsidiary, The New York Recording Laboratories, allowing Paramount to pseudo-honestly emblazon the advertisements with the phrase “Paramounts are recorded in our own New York laboratory”? Well, now you know!

Paramount's in-ground dedication

Paramount’s in-ground dedication

But back to the big piano. Grafton developed an attraction around this nugget of musical history, and the sidewalk ivories are the Walk of Fame. Every year, names of notable Paramount recording artists are etched into the black keys. 2012 saw the induction of Jelly Roll Morton and James Fletcher Henderson. In the Grafton Library or Chamber of Commerce, you can pick up a self-guided Paramount Walking Tour book, complete with historical photos and a map. The tour includes 12 sites around Grafton that showcase the history of the recording studio and its artists. Don’t worry if you’re lazy like me and don’t feel like walking. It’s only a half mile. Grafton puts on a blues festival every year, highlights the location of the old recording studio with a historical marker, and has a pretty neat fountain for visitors to throw pennies in as they make wishes to the ancient blues gods.

Fountain of Musical Greats. At least that's what I call it.

Fountain of Musical Greats. At least that’s what I call it.

Here’s a legendary recording by Blind Lemon Jefferson that was released on Paramount in 1927. Beatles aficionados will recognize the line “will a matchbox hold my clothes” from their cover of the Carl Perkins song “Matchbox”. It was a fairly common expression among blues singers, especially on Paramount. Ma Rainey used that line three years earlier on her Paramount release “Lost Wandering Blues.” Not only was Paramount a highly influential label filled with some of the most talented musicians of the day, they were also helping to lay the foundation for rock ‘n roll nearly 30 years before Elvis Presley’s first record.