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Bear Family. A record label by David Fricke Rolling Stone

BEAR FAMILY. A record label.
There are record companies. And there are record la- bels. They are not always the same thing. Companies are in the business of music: manufacture and distri- bution, for a price. Labels do that too, but according to a specific and often highly personal set of ideals in vi- sion, presentation and responsibility to the creator and listener. In the beginning, a label was literally a trademark of quality and intent: a name and logo em- blazoned at the center of the disc.

So much is different now, in the technology and commerce of recorded music. This is not: I buy from record companies. But I trust record labels: the original, in- dependent ELEKTRA and ATLANTIC; the IMPULSE of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler; BLUE NOTE, in every jazz era; the tradition of transgressive vigor that runs from FOLKWAYS and ESP-DISK up to TZADIK, ECSTATIC PEACE! and RUNE GRAMMOFONE.

Then there is BEAR FAMILY RECORDS, founded in 1975 by Richard Weize and still holding the high ground in Cadillac packaging, archival authority and historical passion. Size does not equal quality; you don't need every outtake to tell an important tale in full. But my favorite BEAR FAMILY albums and suitcase- size box sets – and there are plenty of both in my col alection – are about total immersion, a revelatory sur- render to a deep piece of the past that still matters in the present and enriches my life in music.

I first wrote about BEAR FAMILY in the Eighties, when the label hit me with a genuine wall of 'The Killer,' three vinyl boxes (thirty-three LPs in total) covering Jerry Lee Lewis' complete 1963-77 MERCURY recordings, in- cluding a comprehensive rescue of 'The Session,' his 1972 London recordings with British rock royalty, and the 1973 down-home masterpiece, 'Southern Roots.' I was knocked sideways, smiling, by the platters and sass in 'Memphis Belles: The Women of SUN RECORDS', a 2002 history of the women behind the men under that golden-rooster logo in the 1950s. I also recommend the two boxes, 'The Price Of Fame' and 'Chained To A Memory', devoted to the bold, wonderful and long- underrated WARNER BROS. and RCA recordings of the Everly Brothers. It is a dynamic saga of frustration on the charts but stunning artistic rebirth – and it is the thing BEAR FAMILY does so often, and always to perfection.

You can also get a lot from BEAR FAMILY in an hour-and- change. 'The Complete 'Tousan' Sessions '– a single disc of Allen Toussaint's earliest solo recordings, first issued in 1958 – is always in my high rotation. It is a delightful showcase of Toussaint's deep roots in Crescent City piano traditions and comes loaded with prophecy – the rhythm and melodic ingenuity with which Tous- saint would soon transform New Orleans rhythm and blues as a producer and songwriter. And you need Louie and the Lovers' 'The Complete Recordings,' the full studio story of a fantastic Chicano-rock band from southern California that – as far as I knew, until last year – made one album for EPIC, released in 1970 and produced by Doug Sahm. For the sublime and driving title track alone, Rise is one of the great jangle-and- groove joys of all time. Then I found out, on the BEAR FAMILY anthology, that the group made two more albums, unreleased at the time, including a second pro- duced by Sir Doug. All of a sudden, Louie and the Lovers had made three of the best records I've ever heard.

That is why I buy from companies but trust labels – and look to BEAR FAMILY, always, for the history that sends me forward.

David Fricke Rolling Stone March, 2010

 
 
 

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