To a certain breed of music fan, which is to say obsessives, Bear Family Records represents the pinnacle for long-lost treasures. Collectors covet and revere the German label’s exhaustive box sets that restore, and oftentimes rescue, the legacy of seminal artists from the dawn of rock ’n’ roll, country, R&B, soul, blues, and just about every other form of American roots music.
Fans, this critic included, can probably remember purchasing their first Bear Family box set. Housed in an oversize cardboard box filled with multiple CDs and immersive liner notes, they’re typically priced upward of $100 and are hard to find in stores. Owning one is practically a status symbol.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Bear Family’s first release, and to commemorate the milestone, the label recently put out a four-disc collection called “40!!! Years Bear Family Records.” Some admirers will be disappointed to realize it doesn’t cull from the label’s deep and varied catalog. There’s nothing here from Wanda Jackson, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, or any other artist who has been the subject of prominent box sets.
Instead, just as it has done every five years since its 20th anniversary, the label commissioned various musicians to contribute songs with “bear” in the title or some variation of the word (“bare” and “barely” suffice). If you’re new to Bear Family, this is not the place to start. Try one of its many fine compilations, such as “Country Boy’s Dream.”
The “bear songs,” as they’re called in the accompanying book, range from Deke Dickerson’s appreciative ode to the label [“I’ve Got to Have It All (Bear Family Gospel Quartet)”] to Hawkins Hawaii Trio’s shuffling instrumental (“Alabama Bear Chase”). “I wanna be on Bear Family when I die,” Ry Cooder muses on his “Bear Family Song,” and numerous German artists sing country tunes in their native tongue.
Jittery Jack, the rockabilly cat from Boston, contributed a lean ’50s rocker called “Bare My Heart.” Jittery Jack (pictured above with Miss Amy) is the stage name of Kevin Patey, most recently in the news as the outgoing general manager of T.T. the Bear’s Place, the Cambridge club that closed this summer.
“We recorded it late [at] night at T.T.’s. A friend did ask me how come I was on Bear Family, seeing as I wasn’t either old or dead,” Patey joked in an e-mail to the Globe. (Local honky-tonk band Lynnette and the Longshots also turn up with two songs.)
The fourth disc is a DVD with footage of a previous Bear Family anniversary concert, along with a German TV show’s multiple segments on the label’s releases. Alas, both programs are in German with no subtitles.
The hardbound book features a cover photo of label founder Richard Weize in all his grizzled glory: gray beard to match his hair, well-worn overalls adorned with a bear pin. Inside its 300-plus pages are details about the label’s prestige, photos of its parties, extensive information on the artists, and testimonials from an array of fans. “Truly, they are the historian’s historians, the collector’s collectors,” notes author and Patti Smith sidekick Lenny Kaye.
Or as Richard Bennett, the guitarist and producer whose instrumental “Forbearance” is another highlight, puts it: “Bear Family is the big daddy and top drawer of country, rock, ethnic, and R&B reissues.”
ESSENTIAL “I’ve Got to Have It All (Bear Family Gospel Quartet),” Deke DickersonJames Reed can be reached at email@example.com.