If there’s one record label that signifies the obsessiveness of record collectors, it’s Germany’s Bear Family Records. The label, founded by music historian Richard Weize, released its inaugural collection in 1975, Bill Clifton’s “Going Back to Dixie,” a 2-LP set, 36-song retrospective by the American bluegrass musician and singer. Since then, the company has become known for its multi-LP and CD packages that have included a wide range of music from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Eartha Kitt to Dean Martin and Doris Day to Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. The label has gone where few had previously in unearthing unreleased music. Many of big box reissues by the major labels today were no doubt influenced by the encyclopedic work of Bear Family.
Their work has gotten the respect of not only music collectors, but musicians as well, including Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson, who the label chronicled in its 2011 release “Bill Anderson: The First Ten Years.” “They have the reputation of doing the best box sets of anyone in the business. I had wanted a box set for the past few years, and wanted Bear Family to be the ones to do it. When I listened to the music, there was a lot of it that I hadn’t heard in a long time.” The label has done complete catalog reissues of many artists, including country’s Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Snow, and Bill Monroe and a 2-CD set collecting the complete recordings by the Original Carter Family. They also released “The Honky Tonk Years,” a 10-disc set of the complete recordings of Ray Price going through 1966.
But they’ve really become known for their work in rock ‘n’ roll. Take, for example, Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1989, it issued “Classic Jerry Lee Lewis: The Sun Years” an 8-CD set with 246 songs comprising what was known at the time as the most complete collection of Lewis’ superb Sun Records recordings from 1957 to 1963. That set was updated and expanded in 2015 with “Jerry Lee Lewis: At Sun Records: The Collected Works,” adding 10 more discs for a total of 18 CDs and now a total of 623 tracks. They’ve also released several huge box sets covering his work after he left Sun for Mercury Records, the most extensive releases available on his work in those years.
Another artist whose work has been well covered by Bear Family is Johnny Cash. Their releases include three different sets titled “The Man In Black” that cover from 1954 until late in the 1960s. Volume 1, which includes 1954 to 1958 with his Sun sessions and his first recordings for Columbia, is five CDs — and the fifth is a complete Columbia session with false starts and outtakes. The second volume, covering 1959 to 1962, is also five discs. The Jerry Lee and Johnny Cash sets also come with exclusive hardback books with rare graphics and discography information.
It has also done some Beatles-related releases. These include “Beatles Bop & Hamburg Days,” the first full collection of the group’s work with the late Tony Sheridan and several CDs of German bands covering the Fab Four, such as “Eleanor Rigby – Noch mehr Beatles Songs auf Deutsch,” “Das War Ein Harter Tag: Beatles Lieder Auf Deutsch” and “Sie Liebt Dich 2.” It also has released “Herman’s Hermits 50th Anniversary Anthology,” an amazing two-disc set with B-sides, demos and rarities.
The label also hasn’t been afraid to think out of the box. It released “Bonanza: Ponderosa Party Time,” a four-CD set with music from the TV show “Bonanza.” The set included the rare album “Christmas On The Ponderosa,” a 1963 release featuring holiday tunes sung by the show’s stars Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, Pernell Roberts, and Michael Landon. Bear Family got into archival videos. It released a series of “Town Hall Party” DVDs with vintage ’50s rare live TV performances by Johnny Cash, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson, Marty Robbins, George Jones and many more. The German company released the discs for several regions, including Region 1, which is compatible with U.S. players.
The company’s inventory has roughly approximately 1,500 in-print releases including 300 CD boxed sets with books, historical music DVDs and a selection of 180-gram vinyl LPs, and even a few 45s. A collector could get lost in all that music, but it would be a great way to go.