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.

There have been whispers in the record business that Weize doesn't pay royalties -- possibly started by artists who see these lavish boxed sets and think he must make a fortune from them. But Weize licenses the material for the discs from record labels around the world and insists he pays royalties to those labels -- though he says he can't guarantee that money ever finds its way back to the U.S. artists. Sales of the sets range from a few hundred to the 2,500 to 3,000 range. The break-even point varies depending on the ambitiousness of the set, but Weize estimates he has broken even (or better) on about two-thirds of the boxes.

"Richard is an honorable businessman," says Lou Robin, the manager of Johnny Cash, whose career is saluted by several Bear Family sets. "His records are a labor of love. If your only goal was making money, you'd never put out most of these eight- and nine-disc sets. But they are pieces of history."

The soundtrack of his life

Weize, 57, likes to say he was born with a sense of history. The foundation of his family house near Braunschweig, Germany, was built in 850, and his parents, who ran a bookshop, instilled in him the importance of preserving books.

He fell in love with rock 'n' roll as a boy after hearing Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock."

His allegiance later switched to country after he discovered Jim Reeves and Don Gibson. (As you might expect, Bear Family relives those early memories with a five-disc Haley set and multiple sets on Gibson and Reeves.)

To help support his music addiction, the teenage Weize ordered records directly from a U.S. wholesaler, using his family's bookstore letterhead. He then resold them for 10% above his cost, which meant he was able to keep one record for every 10 he sold.

He and partner Hermann Knuelle still help subsidize Bear Family albums through a $5-million a year record import business, which brings recordings from around the world to Germany.

"This is my life," he says, and everything about him supports the statement. Weize certainly doesn't spend much on wardrobe or expense account meals. On this evening, he is wearing faded overalls, and his dinner choice is an old-fashioned Studio City coffee shop, where signs on the booths remind you there will be a minimum charge of $2 per person.

Weize, who has five children from two marriages, says he spends three or four months a year on the road, personally overseeing the transfer of music from tapes to make sure he is getting the best quality available. Oddly, he sometimes finds better source material in Holland or Germany than in the U.S., where the recordings were actually made. He has more than 200 albums in various stages of planning.

One of the label's most ambitious recent releases -- a set titled "Beyond Recall" -- documents music made and distributed in Germany during the 1930s under an agreement between Berlin's Jewish Cultural League and the government. Back then, the recordings could be sold only to Jewish customers, Weize says. The set contains classical music, Yiddish comedians and German cabaret. Weize, who is not Jewish, says he felt a responsibility to bring this rare material together "for what my parents and the likes did."

The veteran record man loves to talk about his albums and favorite artists, but there is a touch of melancholy about him. He worries that the pop world is losing interest in much of the music he loves.

"At one time, I thought I was saving these things and they would be around forever," he says glumly. "With people copying DVDs more and young people not much interested in history, I don't know if anyone will carry on this tradition. That makes me sad. But I've certainly lived my dream. I made the albums I wanted to hear."

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In Bear Family's lair

Information on Bear Family releases is at www.bear-family.de or via Collectors Choice in the U.S.: (800) 923-1122.

The set: The Original Carter Family, "In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain"

Contents/price: 12 discs and a 220-page book (prices at stores and on the Web vary: $220-$275)

What's so special: "It's a listening experience you'll savor for the rest of your life," Johnny Cash says in the set's book -- and Cash isn't exaggerating just because he is married to June Carter, the daughter of Maybelle Carter, one-third of the Original Carter Family. You can't overstate the importance of the trio in laying the foundation in the '20s and '30s for commercial country music with such tunes as "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "Wildwood Flower."

The set: Jimmie Rodgers, "The Singing Brakeman"

Contents/price: Six discs and a 60-page book ($110-$150)

What's so special: Country music is a soulful mix of traditional folk music (popularized by the Carters) and the blues that was Rodgers' specialty. A Mississippi native who worked as a brakeman before beginning his recording career in the '20s, Rodgers brought a lonesome, restless feel to his music that still resonates with the anxious uncertainty of the Depression era. His earthy, Everyman approach also influenced generations of pop, rock and country figures, from Merle Haggard to John Fogerty and Beck.

The set: Lefty Frizzell, "Life's Like Poetry"

Contents/price: 12 discs and a 150-page book ($200-$250)

What's so special: Frizzell is to country singers what Hank Williams is to country songwriters -- an artist with such a deeply emotional touch that he is the standard of excellence. Frizzell, who drew upon the music of the Carter Family and especially Rodgers, had a great early period in his career (with such hits as "Always Late" and "Mom and Dad's Waltz"), but alcohol and other personal problems robbed him of some of his best years. He rebounded late with some of the most haunting music ever from Nashville country music.

The set: Don Gibson, "The Singer-The Songwriter 1949-1960"

Contents/price: Four discs and a 24-page book ($70-$80)

What's so special: Gibson, one of the great singer-song-

writers of the modern pop era, became a star in 1958 when he released the two-sided hit "Oh Lonesome Me" and "I Can't Stop Loving You." His rendition of the latter, in fact, is even more moving than the later version recorded by Ray Charles. But Gibson had recorded for four labels before that hit, and this set lets you follow his earlier work to see the early promise. It also includes some of his later RCA hits. A second set follows his career to 1966.

The Set: Various artists, "Memphis Belles: The Women of Sun Records"

Contents/price: Six discs and a 120-page book ($125-$150)

What's so special: This package illustrates Bear Family's extremism. As the label that launched Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Sun played an essential role in the evolution of rock in the '50s, and there are lots of spectacular Bear Family sets on Sun artists. This one, though, focuses on some 40 female artists who came into contact with the label -- none of whom had hits and many of whom never got past the demo stage. It's hard to imagine anyone else releasing it.

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Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.

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