Bear Family Records celebrates its 48th year in business in 2023. During that time, the label has never stopped producing the ultimate in reissues of the best in music. Whether its country or blues, rock ’n roll or schlager, or even German new wave and Kraut, Bear Family has been setting the bar since 1975.
It began with the release of ‘Going Back To Dixie.’ The double album collected 36 tracks by the bluegrass guitarist Bill Clifton which had been recorded in 1963. Country music writer Bill C. Malone later said that the album honoured Clifton’s “fascination with Appalachian life and culture, and his attempt to link his personal music to such beginnings.”
Part concept album, part musical autobiography, ‘Going Back To Dixie’ was the first release from the new German label Bear Family.
Forty-eight years later, Bear Family continues to dig into the music which helps define America. Bear Family has repeatedly confirmed that there is no other label like it. In 2003, in a profile of the label’s founder the Los Angeles Times said Bear Family’s box sets are “the Rolls Royce of recordings – comprehensive collections, great sound quality, often rare, breathtaking cover photos and handsomely illustrated booklets that outline an artist’s career in loving detail. Some artists would be more flattered to have their own Bear Family box set than a Grammy.”
Such praise is a continual theme. In 2011, Bear Family released ‘The Bristol Sessions – The Big Bang Of Country Music,’ a five-disc, 124-track box set collecting Ralph Peer’s July and August 1927 Tennessee recording sessions which are acknowledged as a pivotal to explicitly recognising country music as a genre. Britain’s MOJO magazine predicted in its review that the box was “surely a cert for a nomination of some kind at the next Grammy Awards.” Indeed, it was duly nominated for one.
No wonder the New York Times wrote in 1999 about “a small German label [which]dares to think big.” In 2019, ‘The Bakersfield Sound 1940–1974’ box set was released to delve into the Californian country music hub. Reviewing the box, the Wall Street Journal said “The remarkable new 10-CD, 299-track set and accompanying photo-filled 224-page book [is what] the deep-diving Bear Family label does so well. Producer and book author Scott B. Bomar’s empathy for the music makers and their music, and his deep research, combine to make the hard-bound book in this boxed set as revealing a document of Bakersfield history as has been available thus far. Detailed, flowing biographies of dozens of players and minor stars of the scene are there, along with those of the more celebrated.”
The acclaim kept coming. ‘Black Europe – The Sounds And Images Of Black People In Europe – Pre 1927’ was nominated for a Grammy in 2014. ‘Battleground Korea – Songs and Sounds of America’s Forgotten War’ and ‘At The Louisiana Hayride Tonight’ were both up for Grammys in 2018.
In its 48 years, Bear Family has never stood still. Standards have never slipped. It’s not all box sets though. And it’s not all American music. Or even country and rock ’n roll.
A nose around Bear Family’s warehouse finds shelves where CDs of Wanda Jackson’s country-informed rock ’n roll sit alongside compilation discs of Austria’s rock ’n roll pioneer Peter Kraus. In this ecosystem, a compilation of Germany’s Connie Froboess dedicated to the years 1958 and 1959 is next to a disc collecting a couple of late-Sixties albums by American eccentric Tiny Tim. Elsewhere, influential guitar picker Merle Travis and the France-based legend Dalida have become neighbours. Very early calypso from 1912 by Lovey’s Original Trinidad String Band and one of a series of releases devoted to German chanson are side-by-side.
The far-reaching outlook endures. As 2020 unfolded, Bear Family released the first volume in a new anthology series with the self-explanatory title ‘Kraut! – Die innovativen Jahre des Krautrock 1968–1979.’ That’s been joined by ‘That'll Flat Git It! – Rockabilly From The Vaults Of Mercury Records,’ ‘The Brits Are Rocking Vol.3,’ devoted to Merseybeat dynamo King Size Taylor, and Dinah Washington’s ‘A Rockin' Good Way – Juke Box Pearls,’ where the boundaries between R&B and soul are breached. In 2023 a 20-CD box celebrating Memphis blues is on the books.
In 2017, the ground-breaking Grammy-nominated 44-CD box set ‘Black Europe – The Sounds And Images Of Black People In Europe – Pre 1927’ was released. With over 56 hours of music, 1244 tracks and two 300-page hardback books this was history as never-before told. There were even illustrations of passport applications. The awkward was not shirked: amongst the music heard were cuts from 78rpm records relating to “human zoos” and minstrel shows.
Then there’s 2019’s five-volume ‘Das Bilderlexikon der Deutschen Schellack-Schallplatten – The German Record Label Book.’ Through 2,288 pages and 13,000 images, a complete overview of the theme is covered – in full detail
Obviously, ‘Black Europe’ and ‘Das Bilderlexikon der Deutschen Schellack-Schallplatten’ are extreme cases: they are Bear Family’s most ambitious, most audacious historical endeavours, but both go a long way to revealing what makes Bear Family’s pulse tick. However far a project between the label’s teeth travels, it’s always about the balance between creating a definitive statement and crafting releases which entertain and inform.
Another aspect of Bear Family is shown while looking around the warehouse. Mail order is integral to the set-up. Not just of Bear Family’s own releases. The endless racks also contain releases by other labels. Unsurprisingly – this is Bear Family – the scope is broad. Now there are 2100 Bear Family releases on there, and 75,000 items overall – all of which are for sale. Changes and updates mean the website has grown. It has around two-and-half million pages, including the sub-labels and the sub-websites. There are 500,000 to 600,000 links.
The reach is extensive too. A copy of ‘History: Black Europe – The Sounds And Images Of Black People In Europe – Pre 1927’ was bought by a customer in the Fiji islands. There are buyers in China – where Bear Family’s reissues of the early Seventies folk-styled German band Ougenweide became surprising purchases – and even North Korea. A long way, perhaps culturally but certainly geographically, from where Bear Family is based.
All this from an independent concern. Bear Family does what it does on its own.
Bear Family’s base is north of Bremen, the north-west German city. A journey there reveals that this isn’t quite the usual location for a record label, especially one with the profile of Bear Family. After leaving Bremen and following the route north through the city towards the related seaport Bremerhaven and another ten minutes on an autobahn, the main highways are left for what increasingly become country roads. There’s a small town, a village, fields and trees. A tractor pulling a trailer crawls along. Amongst the few road signs is one warning of leaping deer. This is the countryside. A sudden right turn, between a wood on the right and a massive corn field on the left, reveals a yard. Cars are parked by a couple of low buildings. Bear Family moved here in 2000. Fifteen people are at work. Hambergen, the nearest village, is 7km back down the road.
Bear Family’s location is not the only marker for how far the label has come. The inaugural release by Bill Clifton was swiftly followed by albums dedicated to US country legend Anita Carter and Canadian rock ’n roll giant Jack Scott. The 16th release was 1978’s ‘The Unissued Johnny Cash.’ Tape vaults with unreleased tracks weren’t off limits. The Bill Haley And His Comets’s five-album box set – the label’s first – ‘Rockin' Rollin'’came out in 1981. Three years on, the next box was Lefty Frizell’s 14-album collection ‘His Life – His Music.’
Bear Family’s tie with the Sun label was first cemented in 1986 with the ‘Sun Country Years’ box. All the while, there were also blues, bluegrass, doo wop and schlager releases. The first CD was issued in 1986 – ‘Rock 'n Roll Party 1957–62 in Deutsch.’ In 1989, ‘Classic Jerry Lee Lewis – The Definitive Edition Of His Sun Recordings 1956–1963’ became the first CD box set. The range of Bear Family’s interests was emphasised in 1994 with the release of ‘Drums Of Passion,’ a four-CD box celebrating the Nigeria-born percussionist Babatunde Olatunji.
Furthermore, in another sign of the constant development, Bear Family is regularly recognised for its conscientiousness and knowledge. The reviews and Grammy nominations are complemented by multiple awards from America’s ‘Association For Recorded Sound Collections,’ including for “best research in the field of recorded general music.” America’s ‘Country Music Association’ honoured Bear Family for its “contribution to the preservation of country music.”
As the acknowledgments confirm, one of Bear Family’s main fascinations is with America. It’s hard not to wonder about the seeming incongruity of an independent German label being so meticulous with the heritage of another country. Maybe even showing how it should be done?
Not everything can be done at the rural home base. Elsewhere near Bremen, there’s another warehouse for storing the stock which isn’t instantly needed. The mastering of albums and CDs also isn’t undertaken in house, and neither are tape transfers. It would be impossible for it all to be done under one – or two – roofs.
Over its 48 years, Bear Family has accommodated changes in how music is presented as part of its own evolution. The CD was embraced in 1986. The new format brought an opportunity to include more music on each release. A single disc – such as 2020’s King Size Taylor collection – can include 31 tracks and run for 78 minutes. Back in 1975, that would have been a double album. The CD is an ideal vehicle for authoritative reissues.
But the music business changed after it became possible to separate digital files from the physical object. The streaming of music via the internet followed. The irrevocable transformations meant that sales of physical releases decreased. It also meant that audio quality changed – digital-only music in the commercial world is, in general, based on compressed files with less data than that contained on a CD.
Short samples of the audio from the releases can be heard on the web site as tasters, but Bear Family is not about downloads or streaming. Audio quality is never compromised.
This could be seen as burying the head in the sand, wilfully opposing technological change, but Bear Family exists side-by-side with what has evolved in the first couple of decades of the 21st Century. One thing does not cancel the other out.
In this respect, Bear Family was ahead of the curve. Whatever the release, it was and is always about the premium product and always will be. Talking about the releases as product is cold and has the danger of coming across as creating a distance from the music and the care which goes into each release, but it is a shorthand which shouldn’t be taken as undermining what Bear Family does.
Then, there’s another – more recent – shift in how music is devoured. Vinyl seemed to be dying as the 1990s continued. The record began to be perceived as over with – something for hard-core collectors. However, around 2013, the demand for vinyl picked up. Not just for new releases, but for reissues too. The market grew over 2015 and 2016, by around 30% to 35% each year. What appeared to be on its way out was on the way back in.
Back in 2010, a release like Bear Family’s April 2020 10-inch album ‘The Mystery Of Dennis Herrold’ would have seemed, at the least, eccentric, improbable. Herrold is lauded for his fantastic late 1957 Imperial label rockabilly two-sider Hip Hip Baby / Make With The Lovin’. He recorded more tracks than were issued in the Fifties and the first of these archive discoveries featured on 1997’s ‘That'll Flat Git It, Vol. 12: Rockabilly From The Vaults Of Imperial Records.’ Until then, biographical details had been sketchy but Bill Millar, the music historian, writer and regular Bear Family consultant, got on the case to shed light on this elusive character.
Yet that was not it. Bear Family did not let it lie. The new album includes the five tracks Herrold recorded for Imperial, an alternate take of Hip Hip Baby, a previously unreleased cut and, for the first time, Make With The Lovin’ is heard without the original single’s closing fade. Completing the picture, the music is also included on a CD and, through new research, Herrold is written about in more detail than ever. The mystery of Dennis Herrold has finally been solved.
Vinyl is again essential to the music fan’s life, and Bear Family has plunged in with its typical aplomb.
Greil Marcus is America’s foremost scrutineer of and writer on popular music. His trenchant analysis has been integral to appreciating music since he became the reviews editor of ‘Rolling Stone.’ His 1975 book ‘Mystery Train’ was a landmark, showing how rock ’n roll was part of the American experience, how it reflected society and then in turn, in a feedback loop, changed society. Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, punk rock and much more have been under his microscope. Naturally, he knows all about Bear Family.
Asked about the label, he says “I have only a few Bear Family collections. I have a small house and, yet, this is the Library Of Alexandria of music. Thousands if not millions of facts, aural or verbal, that no one ever knew they wanted or cared about are filed here, in the most accessible form, so that searching for one thing will inevitably take you to another.”
He points to a recent example. “Not long ago I was looking for information on Will Bennett, who recorded a version of ‘Railroad Bill’ in 1929 that was released on the Vocalion label. Nobody seemed to know anything about him, including if he had recorded under his own name, or was really Kid Bailey, who some people believe was really Willie Brown. There was nothing to be found on the reissue collections I had or on line – except for an item indicating that the Bennett record, the only one he ever made, was included on the Bear Family release The Knoxville Sessions 1929–1930 – Knox County Stomp, issued in 2016.”
He bought the box set, a four-disc collection counterpart release to ‘The Bristol Sessions, 1927–1928: The Big Bang Of Country Music.’ ‘The Knoxville Sessions’ collects recordings made at a pair of sessions held by Brunswick Records at Knoxville, Tennessee’s St. James Hotel. As Bear Family described the set, what was taped included “old-time string bands, majestic African American blues and gospel singer Leola Manning, the hot dance music of Maynard Baird & His Southern Serenaders, the virtuoso string ragtime of Howard Armstrong and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, sacred songs by white and African American quartets, songsters such as Will Bennett and Haskell Wolfenbarger, a unique recorded playlet about the Hatfield–McCoy feud – and even an address by the businessman whose enterprise brought Brunswick Records to Knoxville, Colonel J. G. Sterchi, president of the famous Sterchi Bros. furniture store chain.” “Genuinely historic stuff,” said ‘MOJO’ of ‘The Knoxville Sessions.’
“I made a blind bet that there might be information on Bennett in the accompanying book, by Ted Olson and Tony Russell,” continues Greil. “I was interested in facts, or for that matter rumours or suppositions, regarding the person who made the one record: the music itself was easily available. The Bennett entry, by Russell, provided more than I could have hoped for. Blues researchers never quit. They seemed to have talked to everyone living who ever knew Bennett. A full portrait of his unique life – about 1878–1955 – was there. The two or three pages were so rich you could extrapolate a full book, or a novel. So I will say what so many people who have traded in Bear Family over the years say: I'm never going to listen to all of this. It was worth it.”
Over 48 years, Bear Family has ridden the changes, embracing some but always stuck with its core goals. As a result, it is known world-wide as standing for the best quality you can get, with the best research – all resulting in it being recognised as one of the world’s best independent reissue labels. Bear Family is trusted.