The Daily Heller: The Blues in Black & White

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In 2012, L.A.-based Anthony (Tony) Mostrom was selected to create over 300 portrait illustrations for a massive extravaganza: Jack White’s Third Man Records/Revenant Records’ two-volume opus, The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records. The project won Grammy Awards for its design, and in 2015, the Delta Blues Museum of Clarksdale, MS, mounted the exhibition Anthony Mostrom: Paramount Portraits—Drawings From the Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Vol. 1 & 2.

One “box” is a detailed facsimile of a vintage-looking, handmade, sawn-oak phonograph carrying case; the other is a Machine Age-styled stainless steel and aluminum streamline portable turntable container. That Third Man and Revenant pulled out all the stops is an understatement.

Mostrom has worked on music packages for releases by Derek Bailey, Bob Dylan, The Eels, Henry Kaiser, Charley Patton and others. He is also a writer for Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, and his comics and illos have appeared in dozens of magazines. I asked him to reflect on his exacting, stylized drawings for the Paramount set.

Fred Van Eps.

The Paramount Records boxed set is quite a massive (indeed, so much more ambitious than a mere CD box set) and beautiful (if not exquisite) production. How did you become involved?
I knew Dean Blackwood, the proprietor of Revenant Records and the guy who conceived these sets, for many years. I was just a big fan of his label, and I’d helped him out by supplying some obscure tapes here and there mainly of obscure avant-garde music. One day in September 2012 he called me up and said he had an art gig for me, which would involve a lot of work and time, so we talked about doing this and, of course, I was on board to do it … though when he told me it would involve literally hundreds of portraits of musicians, to be drawn over a two-year period for the two box-set volumes, it sounded like a huge bite out of my time—but I knew the only possible answer was, of course, yes. It had to be done, and it had to be me doing it.

Are you a longtime fan of the Paramount blues artists?
Yes, which is a big reason why I say these Paramount projects “had to” involve yours truly, which is something I felt right away. Somehow, suddenly in 1973 when I was 15 I became an instant fan and devourer of country blues music. I started buying LP compilations of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell and Barbecue Bob with a hungry fervor. It turned out there was a little record shop in Venice, CA, at the time that was being run by Mary Aldin, a blues DJ on a local Los Angeles radio station, and I went there and it was a goldmine of all these obscure, hard-to-find compilations, mainly from Europe, of very obscure bluesmen from the 1920s. I spent a couple of hundred dollars on those, walking out of there with my arms full and happily taking a bus all the way back home to the San Fernando Valley. I still have those records, too. The music is so “protein-rich” to the ears … I thought so then and I still think so now. And in this field, the discoveries even today just keep on coming: Just recently I heard some “new,” ultra-obscure 1920s bluesmen I wasn’t aware of whose sides were fantastic: Smokey Harrison and Bogus Blind Ben Covington. The music is rough and powerful, scratchy and profane … it’s everything good. A cornucopia of riches, this stuff.

Jimmy O’Bryant.

You are a journalist, as well as an illustrator/comics artist. How are these disciplines wed?
In my mind, they aren’t. They’re just two interests that have been running parallel since I was pretty young, although the truth is I didn’t really start writing professionally until I was 25, except for a few childhood stabs at it. The first published articles were in fact about criminals, old L.A. criminals. I’ve written a lot about music, too, in my time, but never blues, actually.

How did this fascination with vintage criminals develop?
I remember discovering the famous Depression-era gangsters when I was a young, gawky 14-year-old Catholic school boy. Somehow I zeroed in on a book in the school library that was called The FBI Story. It had chapters on John Dillinger and Ma Barker. I was fascinated. And the fact that this was from the past, the era of old black-and-white movies, straw hats and Ford Model A’s added a special luster to the whole subject for me. But I was already what you might call “cheerfully morbid.” To quote Anthony Perkins in Psycho, “a boy needs a hobby.”

Banjo Joe.

Are there other passions for history that intersect with crime and music? Is there a theme in your creative life?
Probably the overriding theme is a fascination with the 1920s generally, especially the grotesque: When I was about 6 or 7 I was deeply into the silent movie monsters of Lon Chaney Senior: the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback, all that good stuff. Even as a 6-year-old I drew some homemade Phantom “comic books,” which my mother kept. In fact it’s easy to see now how that easily led to the old-time criminals—these real-life, grotesque and evil people. But the musical interest is totally apart from that, except for the fact that it too is old and “vintage.” This fascination extends to the whole design look of the 1920s and ’30s, by the way. In fact, 1928 is probably my favorite year, visually speaking: the clothes, the movies, the relatively primitive magazine graphics, even the colors they liked to use back then: puce, mauve, teal and this weird, dark muddy yellow … it’s interesting.

Frank Ferera.

From your written essays I see you’re an avid researcher. How much of your time was spent uncovering these Paramount artists?
Well, a lot actually, because I was mainly on my own when it came to trying to find any photos of the most ultra-ultra-obscure of these musicians going back to 1917. (Other team members did try to help, especially Alex van Der Tuuk, the great Paramount scholar from Holland.) As you can see when you flip through the biographical books in both sets, there were a lot of players that I never did find, which is really too bad. We had a few rare successes though, like contacting the grandson of this or that musician, and they actually would supply a photo to us. Professor Jerry Zolten, I think, managed to do that in a few cases.

What are you working on now?
I’m drawing some comic strips, actually, about some of the greatest of these Paramount Records bluesmen. Sort of inspired by the whole Rise & Fall of Paramount experience and the impressive “wonder cabinets” they turned out to be. These strips are sort of a promise I made to myself 9 or 10 years ago, but it’s never too late. I don’t know who will publish them, but we shall see!