Residing on the outskirts of Bremen, Bear Family Records continues to win the hearts of music lovers with its attention to detail and high quality reissues.
It’s early. FLW finds itself in Bremen, Germany, due to holding the winning lottery ticket of being granted access to the crème de la crème of country, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll record labels, Bear Family Records. It’s a feeling of Christmas arriving early as this German-based record label represents all that is still good about the music industry due to remaining fiercely independent but, more importantly, the attention to detail and research carried out is quite simply unparalleled when it comes to any of its competitors.
With volume after volume of such well-researched delights as the ‘Rocks’ series or ‘Gonna Shack This Shack Tonight’, not to mention the record label’s hefty box sets that should be awarded academic status due to the level of care and attention given and enough to rival any PhD paper, Bear Family has definitely set the benchmark when it comes to reissues.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that today’s schedule runs with the same attention to detail and tight precision that is given to the record label’s productive output as bang on cue the Bear Family representative responsible for escorting FLW to their country lair is ready and waiting in the hotel foyer.
After being bundled into a shuttle bus, it is with much haste that Hartmut, designated driver, hurtles along various city roads before opening up into the countryside. It is along these plains that FLW is reminded of both the UK and Denmark due to the sight of various brick houses and the flat open landscape. In addition to the scenic route, FLW is given a brief background of Bear Family records as well as learning of Plattdeutsch; a German dialect that is spoken in the Bremen region and translates as low German due to the fact that the land is flat (see above).
Just as the fascinating history lesson draws to a close, the home of Bear Family Records is standing right in front of us; an imposing farmhouse containing one lager outer unit that has been converted to no doubt accommodate all those wonderful giganotosaurus box sets. In fact, Bear Family headquarters gives the impression of a secret hideaway, tucked in behind a deserted track with the only giveaway being a carved sculpture of the three bears making up that famous logo standing in the front yard.
Proprietor of Bear Family Records, Richard Weize greets FLW with impeccable English, which is then followed by a brief wait due to various phone calls and queries that need to be addressed before our interview commences. Gazing round the room, which FLW finds itself seated in, there are various pieces of memorabilia from the 50s ranging from several jukeboxes, posters and a life-size cut-out of the King himself, Elvis Presley. With the image of Elvis standing proud, it probably won’t be long before Richard Weize is afforded such knightly status with keys to the city of Bremen or such like. Without such foresight and knowledge, there would perhaps be no historical account of the rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll scenes to the extent given by Bear Family Records, whereby even the most obscure artists are granted more than a simple paragraph regarding their recorded contributions. Therefore, with such a catalogue of music history captured by Bear Family Records, it seems appropriate to start at the beginning in order to ascertain when this German independent label started, and to identify its initial ideas.*
“The record label was established in 1975, and it sort of happened because I was doing something completely different but that didn’t work out,” comments Richard Weize. “So there were no ideas initially for the label as it simply materialised from another situation. I had been doing a few records before for the Folk Variety label that more or less imported records and released a few records but all on a fan basis that ran alongside the regular job I had at the time. I decided to start a mail-order business with no records, so to speak, and with no ideas apart from obviously making good records once we got our feet off the ground. So in the beginning, during the early days, there was nothing really planned. It wasn’t until 1976 that my first releases for Bear Family came to fruition.”
So you never really had a pre-planned agenda of setting up a reissue record label consisting of predominantly country and rockabilly music?
“First of all, I love the music but I never thought, in my wildest dreams, that I could make a living out of it,” explains Richard before continuing, “that sort of happened more or less by chance or by accident or whatever you want to call it. This [Bear Family], at a national level, was when I did my first records for small labels and it was pretty difficult to do [at the beginning] but then, sooner or later, it just came into being.”
During those initial years was it difficult trying to establish the brand name Bear Family?
“It took a few years,” says Richard, “but now Bear Family is probably the best reissue label in the world for these musical genres (Hear, hear, FLW). Even if we’re not better, people think we’re better because we were the first ones who produced extensive booklets; such as 40 – 60 page booklets in comparison with other companies producing 4 – 8 pages and that would be the end of it. I always wanted to produce a good documentation, especially with CDs because in the beginning I didn’t like CDs and that’s why I did the big box sets so that I could include a large book with photographs which you can’t have with a single CD. A lot of other labels just have 6 – 8 pages with photographs included, but the images are stamp size which I don’t like.”
When you established Bear Family Records, did you have ideas for other genres of music outside of country and rockabilly for example?
“We started off issuing county music,” replies Richard, “and then we did a bit of rockabilly. During the continuing years, we produced a variety of different kinds of music like cabaret and other things. But basically it was always country and next to it was rockabilly and then closely followed by rhythm and blues. Then naturally, which became big sellers, was German Schlager – some people talked me into it – which I can’t give away these days!”
Has Bear Family Records always been based in Bremen?
“It started off in a farmhouse on the other side of Bremen towards Oldenburg, and then we moved out of that place shortly after and then moved into Bremen,” says Richard. “Then we moved to another location in Bremen around ’81-’82, and then in 1986 we moved here, and somewhere in the 2000s, as I can’t remember when, probably ten years ago, we bought this other location [warehouse situated near the main Bear Family headquarters].”
From our research, FLW understands that you resided in the UK for a period of time from 1965 to 1971. During that period in the UK were rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll music major influences in your life?
“Country,” comes the immediate reply. “In the fifties, and like every young kid, I liked rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll but towards the end of the fifties I got into country music. From then on it became more country music and less rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll, although it’s still there but if it comes down to it it’s country music [for me].”
What was the music like in general during that period when you lived in the UK?
“The point is, when I lived in England, I didn’t have much time to listen to music because I was working day and night. But then in ’68 came this Wembley country music festival. I always went there but there was also a lot of country music going on in England at the time with people like George Hamilton IV, who had his own TV show, and there were a lot of groups and a lot of clubs which are not there anymore. So it was more country music [for me], but when I moved to England I was selling wine and therefore working day and night and I didn’t have much time to listen to music and to go to clubs. So when the Wembley festival came, I was always there as well as being on some of those TV shows due to being a good friend of George Hamilton. I saw a few rock ‘n’ roll shows as well, but my key interest was country music.”
You mentioned that you were selling wine at the time. Did you work for a vineyard?
“Yes, a big vineyard in Germany and it was the biggest wine company in the world – still is I think – you’ve probably heard of the name Pieroth as they sell wine worldwide and I was selling French wine [at the time] but I don’t drink any wine and I’ve no idea why I did it [laughing]!”
It’s interesting that you mentioned country music and your passion for this genre, as country music in the UK is still a relatively small niche in the music market due to its strong ties with America and its traditions.
“It was much bigger at one point,” replies Richard. “During the late 60s and going into the 70s, country music was very popular in England. Rockabilly was also very popular and actually equal in terms of popularity with country music. But now, all of the British country music [scene] has long gone, and there are still rockabilly groups but not that many either because at the end of the day the rockabilly market is in France.”
What do you think are the reasons for rockabilly music being extremely popular in France?
“I don’t know,” ponders Richard, “but people like Johnny Hallyday in France about ten years ago performed an anniversary concert, and there were 500,000 people there…500,000 people! You don’t get that anywhere [now], but the French do love their artists and they do love their music and they [probably] listen to more than anybody else.”
In terms of Germany and Bear Family Records is rockabilly more popular than country music?
“Definitely, it always was,” is the immediate reply.
Moving back to the subject of Bear Family Records, how broad a reach has the record label had in terms of attracting followers to the genres you are promoting?
“America is the market for country music whereas Britain is the market for country and rockabilly. France, Spain and Italy are rockabilly and Scandinavia is country in many ways but also rockabilly.”
As previously mentioned, those who are in the know about Bear Family Records will be familiar with the various series concepts that the German-based label conjure up on a frequent basis. Such volumes, for example, cover a decade of a particular genre of music whereas others focus on specific artists such as Eddie Cochran or Webb Pierce in terms of a complete overview of their works or specific periods in their histories i.e. ‘Rocks’ series naturally treads on the wilder elements of rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. On a personal level, ‘That’ll Flat Git It’ series, spanning twenty-seven volumes, is not only a cause to celebrate but is the definitive collection when it comes to capturing the spirit and sound of rockabilly, as well as providing a source of education and revision when it comes to the actual record labels and artists involved. The series is the perfect melding of historical facts, ideas, and artwork and, of course, music that will not be surpassed because it remains flawless.
“That was produced by Colin Escott,” says Richard in recognition of FLWs’ fondness for the series ‘That’ll Flat Git It’. “He came up with this idea that we should do some label rockabilly stuff, and then we just moved ahead and did it. It’s a pain in the neck to do these things in terms of retrieving all the information from twenty-five to thirty artists when nobody has heard of them. Also, trying to find pictures is always a pleasure and much fun if we get the pictures, but sometimes you don’t find the pictures as you have labels such as Sage and Sand where there is no photograph of the owner for example.”
Has the ‘That’ll Flat Git It’ series reached its conclusion now?
“It’s not really finished as it’s a matter of what can we do,” Richard explains. “That’s why we started ‘Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight’ because we could add more up-tempo country, which is as good as, but not necessarily come up with these classy rockabilly pieces which there is an end to it. The series might carry on but there are a few labels which we should do; Starday or King, for example, which we can’t get the rights at this point in time. What is coming up, however, is this regional stuff, as we did a great CD on Canadian rockabilly called ‘Shaking Up North’ and another one in the same series. Also, one or two from Phoenix in Arizona which goes through a variety of labels, but it is always a pain in the neck as it is so much work – everything is a lot of work – but to find the stuff in terms of the small labels we’re working on concerning rockabilly, nobody has these records. You know they [records] were actually produced in very small runs and some collectors have them but very few. So trying to find the records and trying to find the tapes, first of all, but in those cases you might as well forget about it as there aren’t any tapes anymore; they’re might be but they’re not accessible because nobody knows where they are. They’re probably in an attic somewhere but that’ll be the end of that stuff. So for the ‘That’ll Flat Git It’ [series], we mostly had tapes – from the major labels anyway – apart from the odd one, but it was also about getting a good quality that people want to hear.”
In terms of sourcing the material for Bear Family Records, do you have a team of historians and/or researchers working for you?
“Not necessarily, as I’m just working with collectors and writers such as Colin Escott, Hank Davis or Martin Hawkins, as well as many others who have the knowledge and expertise. For example, The SUN box sets we have issued consisted of many hours of hard work. Therefore, it takes a lot of time and if you have people [team of researchers working for you] one can never pay them because it’s difficult to predict how long such projects will take.”
It is this attention to detail from the research through to the actual look and feel of Bear Family products that really appeals, especially when covering more obscure artists as well.
“The obscure artists are the most interesting ones but those are the ones that don’t sell,” comments Richard. “We did a series of German Beat songs, thirty volumes in fact, with four of these volumes coming from The Rutles and The Lords – the two key German Beat groups – and the other stuff was more or less unknown but interesting. The only stuff that really sold in quantity was The Rutles and The Lords and those four CDs didn’t really have much new [material]. The other stuff was basically the interesting bits, but people didn’t know so much about it and therefore they didn’t buy it.”
Discovering and reading about the more obscure artists, especially for the first time, is one of the most interesting parts associated with listening to and collecting music.
“We get to it, but people aren’t interested,” replies Richard in terms of Bear Family’s output. “You see, one has to understand that people have a certain amount of money and then they buy without risk. If it’s somebody they haven’t heard of before, then they think it’s a risk and then they don’t buy it. For example, if a person still wants to buy Wanda Jackson, Eddie Cochran or Gene Vincent or whoever, then they’d rather buy that because then they know what they’re getting, which they don’t know with an unknown artist in some cases. There is a customer of ours who mentioned that he thought the ‘That’ll Flat Git It’ series was fantastic, but he only had two out of twenty-seven CDs because he simply could not afford to buy all of them.”
Surely that must be good to hear though, despite your customer only owning two of the CDs from that particular series considering the increasing popularity of downloadable music and the completely hollow feeling this brings as there is no physical product at the end of it?
“This is young kids who work from downloads, for example, paid to unpaid – it doesn’t matter – and they have no relation anymore to the music so to speak. It’s not that you buy a product and look at it and say great picture or great sounds as you’re just a consumer.”
What have been Bear Family’s biggest sellers?
“Actually a cabaret piece in Germany,” comes the surprising reply. “That was the biggest selling box set which we did years ago. There is other stuff which constantly sells such as Janice Martin, Johnny Burnette and Eddie Cochran.”
What about in terms of the ‘That’ll Flat Git It’ or ‘Rocks’ series for example?
“The more known people are, the better the sales are,” comments Richard. “Also, the country and hillbilly series such as ‘Dim lights Thick Smoke & Hillbilly Music’ have sold well. In general, some sell better than others but in general our sales are not that big as they are always on a constant good level, which is going down now due to the fact that customers are dying off.”
Are you referring to the generation gap in terms of those buying such music from Bear Family?
“People who buy 50s music are older as they’re 60 years plus and they don’t buy that much stuff anymore.”
So you don’t think that there are many younger people buying such types of music?
“Not that many but rockabilly yes, to a certain extent. The younger kids are on a completely different planet!”
In terms of current and future Bear Family releases, what have you got planned?
“We have Jerry Lee Lewis with the Southern Roots Session and this is a double LP and a double CD; the CD will have more outtakes than the LP as well. Also, the country and hillbilly series will be carrying on from ’66 – ’70. There are so many things, and I would have to look it up, but I am working on a Chuck Berry box set which could take several years because if it’s going to be good, then you’ve just got to wait until you get things off the ground. So it’s not just a case of working on one product as you have to stop and think a lot about things and it takes a lot of research. Research was much easier in the past than it is now because there are only three record companies in the world these days – Universal, Sony and Warner. So getting into the archives is difficult because I don’t know the people working there now. Fortunately, I did a lot of research in the past.”
Do you have an overall working philosophy since running the record label?
“Being the best.”
With that final comment ringing truthfully in the ears and a brief guided tour of the inner sanctum of Bear Family headquarters completed, another set of sounds are filling the ears of FLW to the tune of Jimmy Martin’s ‘I Can’t Quit Cigarettes’ complete with actual bouts of coughing to help emphasise the struggle at the heart of this song. This, dear readers, is the sound of yet another Bear Family release and one focusing on the evils and pleasures of that addiction known as smoking being played to an extreme volume as FLW is transported to the next stage of this journey and this time a meeting with the mail-order team.
The Bear Family stock room resembles a rather large independent record store with rows upon rows of CDs and vinyl records the kind of paradise that any music collector could quite easily reside in for the rest of their lives.
Once normal vision was restored due to being dazzled by the treasure-trove of delights before FLW, Volker Prasse is the contact point and tour guide to help explain a few more details about the Bear Family operation. Sporting a bizarre choice of attire with an ACE Records t-shirt leaving FLW to ponder if he had an off day at work the previous day, Volker Prasse proves to be an affable and more than accommodating guide having worked at Bear Family for the past fifteen years as he explains, in considerable detail, everything from stock content to personal favourites of his own.
“In this business or Bear Family to be precise, the majority of people who come to work here have a heart for music. For most of us, at the beginning, we start in the warehouse and then you go step-by-step to the next position. A lot of guys who work here collect music and more 78s and 45s [vinyl] as that’s the way it is [laughs].”
What exactly are you responsible for in terms of the Bear family distribution department?
“I work here to promote festivals and send out information about them when we have customers to the warehouse,” explains Volker. “In addition, I make the graphics and produce all of the scans for the internet for the [Bear Family] catalogues. I sometimes work in the warehouse, as well, as we are all normal employees in the sense that there is no hierarchy.”
What exactly can one expect to find in terms of products in the mail-order room?
“In the mail-order room, you will find items from other companies and we send all over the world.,” comments Volker as he shows FLW the various different record labels Bear Family accommodates in addition to its own products. “We have country, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, soul and jazz. In the mail order as well you will find Bear Family label stuff with box sets, which are the important items for Bear Family. We have produced approximately 200 – 300 box sets and a total of 2,500 vinyl releases and single CDs during the course of this record label’s history.”
In terms of the box sets, however, is the figure dependent on the artist being promoted?
“It’s different as some box sets sell better than others such as the new SUN box sets whether blues, rock ‘n’ roll or country as I think we pressed more compared to other box sets. When we sell more, we repress the box sets.”
What else do you stock in terms of Bear Family and other record companies products?
“We also sell vinyl in the mail-order section, which has increased during the last few years as it’s going up like this [makes an arc with his hand to indicate the rising sales]. This is very good as four years ago we only had one shelf dedicated to vinyl whereas now we have this shelf and this one and it’s becoming more and more and the same with repro 45s. In this section, we have Bear Family DVDs such as The Town Hall Party for example; Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash DVDs and this one is great, The Beat DVD which was a show from the mid-sixties and is more R&B and soul. In addition, we attend roughly five or six festivals in Europe such as Italy, France, England and we promote the Bear Family label and sell its products. Merchandise sells very well at festivals like t-shirts with SUN Records, which is licensed by SUN Records from the US.”
What is your favourite era of music?
“My taste in music is quite widespread from hot jazz to country-blues to soul to R&B and rockabilly,” says Volker with much enthusiasm. “I like all of that as well as western swing. I’m not so static when it comes to liking different types of music, and a lot of the guys working here are the same.”
Do you have any particular favourite artists?
“Yeah, I really like Jimmie Rodgers and also Hank Williams and Louis Armstrong. These guys are very important in the history of music and I like their music very much. Also a band called The Dixon Brothers I really like, so all kinds of music as every day you find something new.”
What would you say is your favourite releases from Bear Family Records?
“What I really like, and it’s out of press, is this one ‘A Shot In The Dark’ box set that is small R&B labels from Nashville,” responds Volker with the same amount of infectious enthusiasm. “You talked about Eddie Cochran [box set] earlier, and that is also great. If you are talking about any series, then ‘Blowing The Fuse’ is a very good documentation about rhythm and blues music and starts from 1945 and ends 1960. So you have a CD release every year with 1945, 1946 and so on.”
Are you involved in the selection process for tracks to be included on a Bear Family compilation for example?
“Yes, sometimes as my colleague Nico is asked by Richard [Weize] what can we do or what does he think. So yes, sometimes we are involved because a lot of the guys know about music as they are collectors and have worked here for many years. It’s an education!”
An education indeed on several levels which brings us nicely to the concluding part of this journey and that is with more recent Bear Family employee Ritchie Codarcea and his alter ego, DJ Little Boy Blue. By day this rather suave young gent is responsible for the vinyl section of the Bear Family catalogue and recently responsible for a set of previously unissued 45s that are now available from this very record label. By night, however, and when duty calls, Ritchie Codarcea assumes the moniker of DJ Little Boy Blue as he spins the decks with his own personal collection of 45s to the rockabilly faithful hell-bent on jiving the night away.
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of this Bear Family employee’s additional music obsession outside of normal working hours, FLW is keen to learn of Mr Codarcea’s vinyl responsibilities for this German record label, as well as anything else he is willing to divulge regarding his occupational duties.
“I have worked for Bear Family for the past two years and I’m actually responsible for the vinyl section that entails 45s and LPs and writing up descriptive information regarding these releases,” explains Ritchie. “Also, I liaise with the people responsible for buying in terms of the repros [vinyl]. Right now, Bear Family is not really known for 45s and vinyl in general. I mean, at different stores everywhere, we have tried to build this up and get it out to people in Germany so that they can actually buy good 45s and not necessarily from other countries.”
Have you made any suggestions in terms of what artists and songs you would like to see as a vinyl release by Bear Family Records?
“I talked to my boss Richard [Weize] and we decided to put out four 45s with rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll stuff from the 50s such as Jimmy Dell’s ‘I’ve Got A Dollar’, which is known on the rockabilly scene as a really good dance number. Most of the stuff is unissued, so for the first time you can actually have the chance to buy it on a 45 as it was never issued before in terms of this format. Also, Peanuts Wilson with ‘I’ve Had It’, which probably not many people know about, was never released as a 45. We hope to do more of these releases as they will be limited to 500 copies, so when they’re gone they’re gone.”
In terms of your DJing work, where did this all begin for you as DJ Little Boy Blue?
“It started for me about 10 years ago when I first came in to contact with rockabilly-related music,” explains Ritchie. “It was during a holiday when a good friend of mine showed me a CD of what he really loved at the time. I asked him if I could have a listen because it sounded really good. Then I really got into the music and everything changed for me as I became more and more involved with such details as what a band was like and where they came from. I quickly ploughed through a lot of the old stuff from the fifties and early sixties, with stars such as Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent still remaining heroes of mine. Of course everybody is very familiar with Elvis but Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, in my opinion, are the geniuses of rockabilly music.”
Was it during this time that you started actually buying and collecting records?
“I was more into collecting 45s rather than vinyl LPs, as this is what I really liked and still do. I used to spend hours on the internet doing research and reading books. I really love to go to the record hops at the rockabilly festivals dancing, jiving and bopping and seeing the girls strolling on the dance floor.”
Is this when you had your first inkling that you would like to try your luck as a DJ?
“Yeah, pretty much,” says Ritchie. “I decided to ask some people if I could try out DJing for the first time in Holland. A friend of mine gave me the opportunity to DJ on a band night, which they really liked, and this helped to open up further opportunities for me. If you get to go to festivals, then people get to know you and they invite you to different festivals as a result of this.”
Has it taken some time to really learn the art of DJing though?
“I started with the records that I really liked to dance to,” comments Ritchie, “so I really love jiving and I think if you know how to jive and dance, then you will get a better understanding in terms of what people actually want to listen to. You also have the chance to try different songs which nobody plays. So you just have to figure out what the atmosphere is like and how people react. If you’re a good dancer, then there might be a chance that you’ll be a good DJ because you know the stuff. It can be quite difficult to find the perfect rhythm for the perfect style like bopping, jiving or strolling because sometimes you’ll fail with songs and sometimes you have a big success and the dance floor is crowded.”
“I always wanted to DJ and go to the big festivals and give the people a really good time,” Ritchie responds enthusiastically. “At one point I said to myself that I can do this as I was always playing my songs at home to friends and other people by means of various parties. As I mentioned earlier, I just asked a friend of mine if I could try it to see how it goes. It went well and he gave me a chance to come back to a festival – D-Day – and this was my first international gig and after that things got rolling.”
Do you DJ at club nights in Bremen or is it only festivals that you perform?
“In Bremen there is not really a lot to do and the funny thing is that I actually DJ more internationally than nationally. I don’t know why, but of course I have been to a few festivals in Germany. Countries like Italy and Spain are the places I really go to.”
What about the UK?
“Not yet, but I would really love to go to the Rockabilly Rave as the Rave for me would be really good especially to DJ for one or two nights.”
Do festival organisers get in contact with you if they require your DJing services or is it your responsibility to make contact with promoters?
“It’s more that they come to you but of course in the beginning you have to put yourself out and say that you’re a DJ,” explains Ritchie. “So you have to take a chance and prove yourself that you can DJ and then I guess after a while people will hopefully notice and approach you. The rockabilly scene is not that big, so everybody knows each other to a certain extent and therefore people know my name as with other DJs.”
When you play at a festival, how long are you normally expected to DJ for?
“It really depends on the festival or on the night, but if you are referring to a one-night gig it’s 45 minutes to an hour set, and you would probably do this two or three times a night. So, in total, you have three and half hours DJing time.”
Any amusing incidents when DJing that you care to share?
“Not really funny stuff but I haven’t been DJing for long – two years in fact – but it has been really interesting to go these places where you have actually been before and now you’re behind the scene and making the party for the people. I could probably play eight or nine hours a night DJing because I just like to do it. So if I have a crowd who enjoys it, then it’s even better for me.”
How many 45s would you normally take with you to a festival?
“I only play 45s and I have a record case whereby I can carry between 180 to 200 records with me,” says Ritchie. “So for one night that is more than enough, but you have to bear in mind other DJs who will be performing and of course you don’t want to end up playing the same stuff. Therefore, from two hundred records you can easily choose a three hour set.”
Do you carry out a lot of preparation in terms of your DJ sets?
“No, I never do it. I know people who do it and making set lists as well but I just see what the crowd does. I mean, if the crowd is full of jivers, then I’m not going to play boppers or strollers if the people are enjoying it. So you just have to gage the crowd to see what they’re doing and if they’re enjoying themselves. This is what I think DJing is about, to see what the people are doing and get the best out of them. For example, if they’re partying hard and really enjoying boppers, then you play more boppers because if the crowd is happy then you’re happy as a DJ.”
Have you ever been faced with a difficult crowd?
“Yeah, it has happened because I have been booked for festivals that aren’t rockabilly or scene related stuff. Of course you sometimes play rockabilly songs where you think this is really good for dancing on a normal night, but not everybody is enjoying it due to being in a smaller mainstream club where they don’t enjoy it. So you have to have a bit more focus on the music they’d like to hear, which means more mainstream music but also slotting in some unknown stuff for them because this is really important to me as a DJ by getting a mixture of known and unknown music played.”
Are there any 45s you’re searching for at the moment for your ongoing collection?
“To be honest, the 45s that I compiled and helped bring out on Bear Family Records are actually what I always wanted to have on 45. So this is really a nice account of things as you could never get them on 45 and now I have them and can play them at my gigs.”
Do you think the quality of repro 45s is any good?
“The repros, and especially reissues, are becoming more and more,” responds Ritchie. “The problem is that sometimes these people who are bringing out the repros do not have the master tapes for it. So they’re going out and getting the LPs where a song is available and they’re going to issue it again on vinyl. This is actually reducing the sound quality if you record from vinyl to vinyl again. Therefore, some of the repros don’t have particularly good sound and, in my opinion, you can’t really DJ with it because it’s an overloaded sound due to not being very well mastered. A few guys from a few different countries are doing a really good job with reissues, such as Sleazy Records in Spain and a few people in France and in particular England, which is the repro area where most of the material comes from. If it’s not on an original 45, then I will buy the repro because this is the only chance to get it on 45.”
Do you have a Top Five list of favourite artists?
“I really like everything that is rockin’,” is the immediate reply. “So it just has to catch my attention. However, as I said before, my all-time heroes are Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Johnny Burnette and a few Elvis songs. In terms of modern bands, Marc & The Wild Ones (second that, FLW), who have a really great sound and it’s not very often we have such a good band from Germany. I really like Pike Cavalero as well.”
As the end of the day looms into sight, it is left to Hartmut to pick up the pieces and chauffeur FLW back to the centre of Bremen after a fascinating insight into the heart of Bear Family Records. Richard Weize and all those responsible for setting up and maintaining the high level of quality and considerable output of CD and vinyl releases are to be applauded because without this German connection to the roots of rockabilly and country music, there would be a considerable void when it comes to genuine historical rockabilly and country music artefacts. The added risk of identifying the most obscure of artists at probably a considerable financial loss, not to mention the additional stress factors on your healthcare plan when the long-lost gems simply remain obscure, is also to be commended and yet more reasons to pledge your allegiance to this wonderful independent reissue label.
* The Award for Distinguished Service to Historic Recordings is presented annually to an individual who has made contributions of outstanding significance to the field of historic recordings in forms other than published works or discographic research. The 2012 ARSC Distinguished Service Award was presented to Richard Weize, founder and CEO of Bear Family Records (Michael Ohlhoff, Bear Family Records, 2012).
The obscure artists are the most interesting ones but those are the ones that don't sell."
FLW - From the Tapes
Owning Jim Reeves first ever guitar and admitting that “It’s not very good!” Richard Weize, Head of Bear Family Records, has collected various pieces of music memorabilia over the years from the 50s onwards. Such artefacts have played a part in shaping this German-based independent record label. When it comes to a collection of anecdotes accumulated over the years as well, one in particular from Johnny Cash is often easiest to recall.
“Most of it I really forgot about [early years] because I never took much notice of it, and there are just a few things that stick out. For example, Johnny Cash said to Sony, ‘Why don’t you issue it like Bear Family does it and then your product would look much better?’ and stuff like that. There are a lot of things that happened along the way, but I never really took notice of it. I’ve never hung around with artists a lot simply to be hanging around with them as usually I was too busy and I still am too busy.”