Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: In your recent coverage of the tamouré you mentioned how the record company (Philips) had a dance contest, with the winners getting a free trip to Tahiti.

That reminded me of another record company contest, one described on an insert coupon that I found many years ago in a stack of old 78s. The headline reads: “Paramount Masked Marvel Contest Entry Blank.”

Unfortunately, this little entry form was loose, but some text offers a clue as to which record it came with:

“I have listened to one of your Paramount records, No. 12805 by the Masked Marvel, and am herewith listing what I think is his correct name. It is understood that if I have given the correct name you will send me free one Paramount record, and my choice in case I win is: No. (Paramount number goes here).

“This blank to be mailed on or before Oct. 15, 1929 to: The New York Recording Laboratories, Port Washington, Wisconsin.”

Also shown is a drawing of a man, who looks like Fred Astaire, dressed semi-formal but wearing a Lone Ranger mask. Is Astaire the Masked Marvel? Do I win a free record?
—Hannah Franklin, Beloit, Wisc.

DEAR HANNAH: It isn't every day I hear from someone whose name is a palindrome (still waiting for mail from Anna and Ogopogo).

Sorry, no free record.

Despite the familiar warning from Jim Croce, when we pull the mask off the ol' Masked Marvel we reveal … Charley (a.k.a. Charlie) Patton.

Even without the mask, it is unlikely anyone would get a clue from a drawing that looks more like generic clip-art than either Fred Astaire or Charley Patton.

The need to hear the Masked Marvel in order to identify him, coupled with a very assertive advertising campaign, brought customers into record stores in droves. There they could listen to the mystery record, grab some entry forms, and see a list of other Paramount releases from which winners could take their pick.

Concurrently, Paramount ran display ads in the print media, primarily the Chicago Defender (motto: “The World's Greatest Weekly - The Mouthpiece of 14 Million [black] People”).

Unlike the over-the-counter blank forms, newspaper ads included both song titles: “Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues,” and “Mississippi Boweavil Blues.” The B-side is the genesis of all boll weevil tunes, the best-known being “The Boll Weevil Song” by Brook Benton.

In music, whether 1929 or 1961, cotton farmers still conversed with malicious anthonomus grandis out “looking for a home.”

Print ads even provided this “helpful hint,” one about as helpful as saying the singer is a male: “The Masked Marvel is an exclusive Paramount artist.” Did anyone really think otherwise?

The ads also offered the Masked Marvel record with an entry form, mailed C.O.D., which accounted for most of the sales.

“Send no money! Pay the postman 75-cents for each record ordered, plus a small C.O.D. fee when he delivers the records,” reads the mail-order coupon. Back then, all postmen (mailmen; salesmen; milkmen; breadmen; icemen; servicemen; etc., etc.) were men — woMEN being the exception.

It sure worked. Paramount's first pressing of 10,000 copies soon sold out, a huge success for unknown songs by an unidentified singer. It was all about the contest, and the chance to win a free 75-cent record.

Making things a bit of a challenge is that Charley was still unknown to most folks. Before the Masked Marvel release, he made only two records.

The first is properly credited to Charley Patton, “Pony Blues” (Paramount 12792), but for “Prayer of Death, Parts 1 & 2” (Paramount 12799) he uses the pseudonym Elder J.J. Hadley.

Then again, the Masked Marvel's distinctively unintelligible, yet passionate, vocal style may have been the clincher for some, even with “Pony Blues” as the only basis for comparison. For the record, they also accepted J.J. Hadley as a correct answer.

Fact is, no one sounded like Charley Patton. Not then, not ever.

Second and subsequent pressings of No. 12805, with no mention of the Masked Marvel or the contest, all credit Charley Patton.

IZ ZAT SO? First issues (Masked Marvel) of Paramount 12805 have recently sold in the $6,000 to $7,500 range.

The other 25 Charley Patton 78s, be they Paramount (20) or Vocalion (5), are a bit of a bargain — only $3,000 to $4,000.

With a retail price of 75-cents in 1929 (about $9.30 in today's money), how many Charley Patton 78s do you wish you or your parents would have bought and kept?

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