A friend of mine once said that Bear Family is the Rolls Royce of the CD and I´m inclined to agree. Their well filled CD-boxes have always been a delight to both the ear and the eye.
The recently released Buzzin´ The Blues – The Complete Slim Harpo more than well lives up to the comparison with the Silver Ghost. Since Bear Family recently celebrated its forty years jubilee I, together with some friends, made a pilgrim journey to north german Holste where the Family´s premesis are situated, somewhat “off”. Sometimes the GPS comes in handy.
We were very well received by Volker Prasse, who took us on a tour of the warehouse, a house that for yours truly was the perfect image of the ultimate wet dream. Meter upon meter of shelves full with CDs and vinyl you didn´t know that you just GOT to have. Friends, there are occasions in life when you wish you belonged to the billionaire-club. Even though most of the warehouse features country, rockabilly and fifties rock´n´roll there is more than enough for a blues-lover to get his fill.
We got a short run-through of the daily routines. Bear Family have not got a shop of their own – all business is done by mail order or the internet. They´ve got customers all around the globe and their single biggest market is the USA. We got a copy each of their latest printed catalogue. A heavy tome of 650 pages from 2011. Printing-costs and postage have made it too expensive to continue this way and nowadays everything they offer for sale is to be found on the net.
After the tour I had a chat with Detlev Hoegen, managing director, who very kindly and generously answered my questions. He told me that the founder Richard Weitze nowadays has retired from the daily routines, but is still taking part in the planning of new projects. Detlev also said that in the middle of the fifties, when Richard was only ten years old, he started buying records directly from the States. One can only imagine all the gems that ended up in the recordshelves of the Weitze family. In an interview dated 2007 (published in Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter) Richard says his collection includes 30 000 LP´s, 100 000 45´s and 10 000 78´s. Dare I guess his collection has grown even bigger by now?
Bear Family got started in 1975 (Detlev had no clue as to the origin of the name) and initially concentrated on rock and country. Over the years the perspective has broadened and there have been releases covering German schlager artists, French chansons, calypso from Trinidad, jiddish music from Berlin of the thirties, political songs of struggle and lots of other genres. One of the somewhat odd releases is the box with close to 200 different versions of Lili Marleen. It became one of the company´s worse sellers, but perhaps it is also significant of Richard Weitze. “I release whatever I want to release.”
So what about the blues? Well, in the nineties the blues started to crop up in their catalogue. Over the years we have been tempted by some really excellent releases, for example The Sun Blues Box, a thoroughly prepared CD collection that leaves nothing to be desired and the accompanying booklet beats most of what I´ve seen before. The two Freddy King boxes covering the whole of his career can easily be recommended and they are the company´s best-selling boxes so far in the blues category. I´ve already mentioned the Slim Harpo box and there are a lot of other gems in their vast catalogue. The blues is alive and well in the northern German countryside.
A new box soon to be released is The Memphis Blues Box and I asked what the process looked like when you deal with such a large project. Detlev explained that there are many pieces that have to fall into place. First of course is finding the music, a process that can be very time-consuming. You search different archives for both released and unreleased material, and at the same time contacts are made with collectors who might be sitting on the rare records. Parallel to this there is a search for photos, posters, PR material and everything else that might be of interest for the accompanying booklet. Furthermore a reputable writer, in this case Martin Hawkins, is contracted for the text in the booklet. As you realise, all this takes a lot of time, sometimes several years from start to finished product. Perhaps someone might find the prices a bit too high for the boxes, but considering all the work, not to mention all the love, that underlies these collections, at least yours truly won´t complain.
Finally, we at Jefferson join the line of congratulators and wish you all the best for the next forty years. The Bear has yet to go into hibernation. Hip hip!
Words: Mats Sturesson