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With a true fan's zeal, Richard Weize puts out exhaustive collections on his Bear Family label.

March 16, 2003|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Two questions are likely to come to mind the first time you pick up a boxed set from the Bear Family label in a record store -- say, the 12-disc, four-pound package that contains everything country singer Lefty Frizzell recorded over three decades, false starts and all.

The first question: Who would be crazy enough to spend $250 for more than 13 hours of music from a man whose own record label's "best of" package is only two discs?

The second: Who would be crazy enough to put the set on the market in the first place?

Frizzell was a contemporary of Hank Williams in the '50s, a great singer whose "syllable-stretching" vocal style was a blueprint for Merle Haggard and scores of others. His 1959 recording of the moody "Long Black Veil" was such a favorite of the Band that it included its version on the celebrated 1968 album "Music From Big Pink."

For all his influence, though, Frizzell is little more than a cult figure today. The two-disc "best of" set released in 1997 by Columbia Records sold only 35 copies in the U.S. during one recent week.

So back to the original question: Who would be crazy enough to buy this package?

It turns out that about 3,000 people have over the last 15 or so years. But you get the feeling that Bear Family Records' Richard Weize wouldn't care if no one did.

"I'm crazy, I'm a fanatic, I know it," says the burly, bearded founder of the German label during a recent visit to Los Angeles, where he's working on new sets featuring Tex Ritter and Gene Autry. "I don't just want the hits, but everything, so that I have a definitive portrait of an artist.

"There was a boxed set we did recently that was 12 CDs, one DVD and a 514-page book. It's so heavy most people can't even carry it. We don't worry about the cost or whether it's practical. Neither me nor my partner are into money. If I won $10 million from the lottery tomorrow, I would just make more records."

True enough.

Weize isn't so much a businessman as an ultimate fan -- someone who creates his own fantasy albums, filling them with everything about the artist he can find in the record company vaults, including tracks that were out of print or never released.

He is another example of how one person with a burning vision can make an enormous difference in the record business. Besides giving us these invaluable documentaries on some landmark musicians, the Bear Family sets have most certainly inspired other labels, including such admired retrospective specialists as Sony Legacy, Universal Music and Rhino, to do some of their most ambitious retrospective packages.

The company's releases aren't eligible for a Grammy because the albums are available in this country only in import editions, which is good news for U.S. labels, because Bear Family would probably dominate the competition most years in such categories as best historical album and best recording packages.

The sets are the Rolls-Royce of recordings -- comprehensive collections, great sound quality, often rare, breathtaking cover photos and handsomely illustrated booklets that outline an artist's career in loving detail. Rather than shrink the boxed sets to CD size, the sets remain LP-size, giving them a sense of grandeur. It's not uncommon in large record stores to see fans ogling them the same way car lovers eye the latest models on a showroom floor.

It's not even out of the question that some artists would be more flattered to have their own Bear Family boxed set than a Grammy.

Bear Family has released a ton of single-disc albums, but its specialty is the sets such as "Let the Good Times Roll," an eight-CD collection devoted to R&B star Louis Jordan, or the four Jerry Lee Lewis sets (ranging from eight to 11 discs or records each) covering various portions of the country and rock star's colorful career.

Because Weize started out making sets only on his favorite artists, the Bear Family roster is a select fraternity. There are a lot of boxed sets devoted to celebrated country, rock and R&B artists from the '50s, but others salute obscure ones, including Jimmie Driftwood (best known for writing "The Battle of New Orleans") and the Collins Kids (a Los Angeles rockabilly duo from the '50s). Weize's continuing love of the music he heard during his youth explains why you also find some boxed sets devoted to such distinctly non-rock performers as Connie Francis, Harry Belafonte and Doris Day.

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