When I asked Bob Dylan during a 2004 interview if as- piring songwriters should listen to his albums to hone their craft, he replied with a snappy, "No, No, No." "If you like someone's work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to," rock's greatest songwriter explained. For admirers of his own work, Dylan suggests "listen to as much folk music as they can, studying the form and structure of stuff that has been around 100 years. I go back to Stephen Fos- ter." Applying his advice about learning music's roots to anyone who wants to explore the original spirit of rock 'n' roll, the goal should be listening to as much quality pre-rock country and R&B as possible – to learn what it was about the magical records that captured the imagination of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Dylan and the other great 1950s and 1960s titans.
For years, listening to those country and R&B records was easier said than done because many of the seminal recordings were no longer widely available and others were scattered over dozens of albums and singles, which meant it would cost a small fortune to gather them. Thankfully, BEAR FAMILY RECORDS came to the rescue with the greatest collection of pre-rock R&B recordings ever released: 'Blowing The Fuse'. The 16-volume collection of single disc albums contains 450 of the most popular R&B hits from 1945 to 1960. Each disc features 28 or so of the biggest hits of a given year. Collectively, the albums allow listeners today to put themselves in the place of millions of 1950s teen-agers and imagine what it was like to hear that passionate, liberating music for the first time – tunes as uplifting as Faye Adam's Shake A Hand (a song Dylan has sung in concert) to Hank Ballard & the Midnighters' saucy Work with Me Annie. The only thing missing from 'Blowing the Fuse' is the country music tunes that many of the rock musicians, especially Presley and Dylan, also soaked up all those decades ago. By listening to just the R&B component of rock 'n' roll, one doesn't get the complete picture.But where could you find all those country tunes?
Again, BEAR FAMILY RECORDS came to our rescue. 'Country & Western Hit Parade: Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Hillbilly Music' is an 11-volume series of single disc albums that features the biggest country hits year by year from 1945 to 1955. In the first volume of 'Dim Lights,' we can hear Ernest Tubb's Tomorrow Never Comes, a heartbreak ballad that went to #1 in 1945 and remained a radio favorite for years. A young Presley surely heard the song and later recorded it – just as he did at least 19 other songs that are showcased in the series. Interestingly, Presley recorded the same amount of songs from the 'Fuse' se- ries. If you listen to each series from the beginning, it's a startling moment in the 1954 edition of 'Dim Lights' when the blues and country music come together in Elvis Presley's version of That's All Right, an Arthur Crudup blues number which had appeared on the 1947 edition of 'Fuse.' In many ways, Presley's countri- fied, SUN RECORDS rendition of the song defined rock 'n' roll as we know it today. For anyone interested even more deeply in the evolu- tion of rock, the Presley single raises the question of how it came about in the summer of 1954. What was it about Sam Phillips, the owner of tiny SUN RECORDS in Memphis, that not only led to the discovery of Elvis, but numerous other future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members?
Once again, BEAR FAMILY answers our prayers by giving us the definitive look at SUN: a series of six, four-disc boxed sets that contain every single released by SUN RECORDS – all in chronological order. These sets – titled 'The Complete SUN Singles' – let us go back to the 1950s and virtually sit with Phillips as he moves from recording session to recording session in pursuit of music that combined the black and white strains of blues and country into a single, liberating sound that he felt would revolutionize the pop music world. We can hear what Phillips was working on two months before he recorded That's All Right with Elvis and what he was working on two months later. In the process, we can also marvel at his discovery of such other Rock and Roll Hall of Fame figures as Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. You don't have to be a musical scholar, however, to ap- preciate the landmark accomplishments of this German record company over the past 35 years. The hundreds of albums in the label's catalog enable us to simply enjoy the joyful sounds of a glittering array of American country, R&B and rock performers from the 1940s through the early 1960s.
The BEAR FAMILY collections include the work of such stars as the Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, Louis Jordan and Bob Wills, Frankie Lymon and Ray Price, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. But BEAR FAMILY, too, showcases the music of other worthy artists; from such cult figures as Warren Smith and the Collins Kids as well as a bunch of artists so obscure that probably not one music fan today in a million would recognize their names. It takes a special kind of person to produce historical sets this passionately – and that person is Richard Weize. Richard's love of rock 'n' roll dates back to 1950s when he first heard Bill Haley & the Comets' (We're Gonna) Rock Around The Clock, and he later developed an even greater affection for country music after discovering such artists as Jim Reeves and Don Gibson. (It shouldn't surprise you to know he has BEAR FAMILY boxed sets de- voted to Haley, Gibson and Reeves.)
Weize is such a fan and perfectionist that he normally oversees the transfer of music from vault tapes to his discs to make sure he is getting the best possible qual- ity sound. Writing a story about Richard in 2003 for the 'Los An- geles Times,' I marveled for nearly three hours at his enthusiasm and dedication on behalf of the music he loves. But there was a point in the evening when I noticed a touch of melancholy in his voice. He was worried, he said, that the pop world was losing interest in much of the music he loves.
"At one time, I thought I was saving these things and they would be around forever," he said softly. "With people copying DVDs more and young people not much interested in history, I don't know if anyone will carry on this tradi- tion. That makes me sad. But I've certainly lived my dream. I made the albums I wanted to hear." He then paused and good-naturedly added: "I'm crazy. I'm a fanatic, I admit it." And it's true, but many of the great visionaries of the record business in the 1950s – SUN RECORDS' Phillips and ATLANTIC RECORDS' Ahmet Ertegun and CHESS RECORDS' Leonard and Phil Chess – were crazy and fanatical enough to believe rock 'n' roll music had a future. Where Phillips, Ertegun and the Chess brothers made trailblazing music, BEAR FAMILY's Weize stands alongside them in my eyes as a hero because he, of all the record men in the world today, has had the passion and vi- sion to preserve this music for future generations.
Happy 35th anniversary to Richard and his BEAR FAMILY team. Robert Hilburn Robert Hilburn was pop music critic of the Los Angeles Times from 1970 to 2005 and is author of a memoir titled 'Corn Flakes with John Lennon.'
His website is ww.roberthilburnonline.com