Bear Family Records Gone to the Bears

Richard Weize from Bear Family Records at Beaumont, Texas
Richard Weize from Bear Family Records at Beaumont, Texas | Photo (detail): Bear Family

With lavishly designed re-issues in the fields of country and rock’n’roll, Bear Family Records became known worldwide. The label has been awarded the Echo and the German Record Critics’ Prize, and several times nominated for a Grammy. In 2015 Bear Family Records is celebrating its fortieth birthday.

The centre of the world lies in Vollersode, a small town near Bremen. This is the case, at any rate, for Richard Weize, for it is from there that he runs his label Bear Family Records, delivering his opulent box sets to collectors and music enthusiasts around the world. He has released 3,400 CDs and 500 records, including titles such as Gone – Beyond Recall, a documentation of Jewish musical life in Berlin between 1933-1938, and Black Europe – The Sounds and Images of Black People in Europe Pre-1927. This alone makes clear that for Weize it’s not about money and fame.

Music as a mission in life

“Music is my life”, says Weize, speaking of his motive. “Money has never interested me; for me this is simply fun.” The man with the grey beard and denim overalls already began collecting records at the age of ten. In Germany of the 1950s, however, it was well-nigh impossible to get hold of the trendy rock’n’roll discs. So Weize used letters with the letterhead of his mother’s bookshop to order the records directly from the States: “It cost eleven marks per disc; I then sold them to my friends for twelve marks and so soon had a record for myself free”. Through another friend he discovered in the early sixties country music and in 1964 took the train from his hometown of Bad Gandersheim to Hanover to see Jim Reeves und Chet Atkins live.

But simply to listen to his favourite music was for him soon no longer enough. After Weize had worked for several years in England as a wine dealer, he realized that alcohol really wasn’t his thing, but that country music was. After returning to Germany he founded in 1975 Bear Family Records with the idea of issuing hardly available artists. Country music for most German radio listeners and concert goers back then meant costumed pop bands such as Truck Stop, but the broad masses were never Weize’s target group. He focused on collectors; on exactly that group of fastidious music nuts to which he himself belongs.

Target group: collectors

To this day the Bear Family issues no simple “best-of” albums, because from the outset its aim was to provide a comprehensive view of the artists and their music. Important are the extensive accompanying booklets, which are actually more books than booklets. For these Weize tracks down appropriate authors, experts in the respective subjects. In the texts the reader will therefore find information that surprises even the staffs of record companies whose recordings are re-issued by Bear Family Records. Included are complete discographies and precise details of recording data and musicians, because “a collector is interested to know that a song was recorded on 7 March 1963 between 6:20 pm and 7:20 pm”.

Weize travels around the world in search of master tapes and musicians: “I want to deliver a good product; to do so I’ll walk over corpses, if necessary over my own”. Fortunately things have not had to go so far, but this comprehensive commitment is appreciated by customers from Tokyo to Los Angeles. Asked about special experiences from the forty years of label history, Weize replies in his typically brittle Hanseatic manner: “That sort of thing I forget pretty quickly. I’ve never found it interesting when two fools stand next to each other, so I have only a few photos”.

Enthusiasm with limits

The life work of Chuck Berry and Dean Martin and numerous rarities of Johnny Cash are today flagships of the label, as are historical releases of American country and mountain music such as those by the Carter Family. And the niche products also testify to Weize’s enthusiasm and connoisseurship – for instance, the series <I>1,000 Pinpricks</I>, a collection of German versions of hits by American and British performers. Such curiosities counteract a heavy seriousness which, with all due respect to art, would sometimes seem a bit brittle.
Trailer Bear Family Records, source: Bear Family / YouTube

So there is good reason to celebrate. The Bear Family, a David amidst the Goliaths of the industry, has managed to go its own way. It stands for style, competence and a pinch of musical obsession which, for the anniversary, was packed into a CD/DVD box with 72 songs especially written and recorded for Bear Family Records. They treat more or less seriously the theme of “bears”. Scene greats such as Götz Alsmann, Gunter Gabriel and Weize’s longtime friend Ry Cooder are among the musicians that sing, for example, I Wanna Be On Bear Family When I Die. At the end of 2015 Richard Weize, who was born in 1945, means to withdraw from the daily business of the Bear Family, as far as he can. For with And More Bears the time for the label’s next project is already coming.