In 1999, I approached Richard Weize, the head of BEAR FAMILY RECORDS, about doing a piece on them for the Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section. He turned me down. "I don't need the 'New York Times,'" he told me. "If you were writing for a collector's magazine, I'd be much more interested." Fortunately for me and for the Times' readership, he changed his mind, and I amazed my editor with the fact that BEAR FAMILY has 1170 Hank Snow tracks on its 39 CDs worth of his music, which, at the time, would set you back only $887.42 plus tax and shipping.
It's easy enough to be cynical about the Dean Martin boxes or more Connie Francis (including her recordings in German) than most people would want to listen to, but two years later, I was drooling about the 11-CD, 1-DVD box of the first 15 years worth of Bob Wills' recordings in the same paper, an article that got me a thank-you letter from Wills' daughter Ramona, who was afraid that people would forget what her father had accomplished.
Not very long ago, I happily made my way through seven CDs of Freddie King's work, presented, as BEAR FAMILY stuff always is, in a clear chronological format with well-informed liner notes that helped me prepare a piece on King for broadcast on NPR's ‘Fresh Air with Terry Gross’. And in the back of the hardback booklet of that set's liner notes is a track listing for six DVDs containing 26 episodes of a legendary television show called 'The !!!! Beat,' which aired in 1966 and featured live performances by just about every major blues, R&B, and soul star to pass through Nashville (where it was taped) that year – including Freddie King.
That's at the top of my list after I win the lottery. they have been recently, the necessity of rescuing and preserving the heritage of popular music has become more urgent. Given that we can assume that no American governmental agency is going to do this (although the Library of Congress is moving in this direction), and that a lot of it is still on magnetic tape that's decaying, BEAR FAMILY's work is looking more and more important.
They can't – and won't – do it alone, and of course what they release is, in the end, governed by Weize's taste, but I now look forward to each month's announcement of what's coming up, knowing that a few more hours of maybe oddball, maybe essential music has been rescued from the realms of obscurity.
Congratulations to BEAR FAMILY for 35 years of this, which started with an LP of unreleased Johnny Cash tunes and now encompasses... well, take a look at the catalogue or the website. Yeah, you've never heard of some of it, you don't want some of what you have heard of, but... it's all there! And that's what matters.
Journalist (Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Creem), radio commenter and rock’n’roll historian for NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’