Paramount Records was founded in the 1910s as a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company of Port Washington, Wisconsin, Fred Dennett Key, director. The chair company had made some wooden phonograph cabinets by contract for Edison Records. Wisconsin Chair decided to start making its own line of phonographs with a subsidiary called the United Phonograph Corporation at the end of 1915. It made phonographs under the Vista brand name through the end of the decade; the line failed commercially.
In 1918 a line of phonograph disc records was debuted with the Paramount label. They were recorded and pressed by Chair Company subsidiary The New York Recording Laboratories, Incorporated, which despite its name was located in the same Wisconsin factory complex as the parent concern.
In its initial years, the Paramount label fared only slightly better than the Vista Phonograph line.. The product had little to distinguish itself. Parmaount offered recordings of standard pop-music fare, on records recorded with below average audio fidelity pressed in below average quality shellac.
In the early 1920s, Paramount was still racking up debts for the Chair Company while producing no net profit.
Paramount began offering to press records for other companies at low prices.
The Paramount Record pressing plant was contracted to press discs for Black Swan Records. When that later company floundered, Paramount bought out Black Swan and thus got into the business of making recordings by and for African-Americans. These so-called "race music" records became Paramount's most famous and lucrative business.
Most of Paramount's race music recordings were arranged by Black entrepreneur Mayo Williams. Mayo had no official position with Paramount, but was given wide latitude to bring African-American talent to Paramount recording studios and to market Paramount records to African-American consumers. Williams did not know at the time that the "race market" had become Paramount's prime business, and he was essentially keeping the label afloat.
Paramount is best known for its wealth of recordings of blues and jazz in the 1920s and early 1930s, including such artists as Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
The Great Depression drove many record companies out of business, and the initial incarnation of Paramount closed down in 1935.
In 1942 the then-inactive Paramount Records company was purchased from Wisconsin Chair Company by John Steiner, who revived the label for reissues of important historical Paramount recordings as well as new recordings of jazz and blues.
The rights to the portion of Paramount's back catalogue not yet in the Public domain are now owned by George H. Buck as part of his Jazzology Records group, but use of the name "Paramount Records" was purchased from Buck by Paramount Pictures, a previously unconnected company.