Big Bear Records was founded in October 1968 by Jim Simpson, the man who took Black Sabbath from obscurity as the blues band Earth onto the charts with the albums “Black Sabbath” which charted at number 8 and “Paranoid” which reached number one in 1970 and went on to sell over 5 million copies worldwide. Black Sabbath had to wait until 2013 before they enjoyed another number one album.
Initially Big Bear signed a series of Birmingham bands to management and recording, developed them, recorded demos which Simpson then took to major labels. Big Bear had a hit on EMI Parlophone with “Rudi’s In Love” by The Locomotive and when EMI rejected the proposed follow-up single, “Rudi The Red Nosed Reindeer” in favour of the heavier “Mr Armageddon”, Simpson, found himself with a master tape on his hands. So he set up his Big Bear Records label, initially distributed by Island Records and rapidly sued by the Walt Disney Corporation for employing a bear logo that resembled Walt’s Baloo The Bear just a little too closely.
Meanwhile Big Bear placed Bakerloo and Tea & Symphony on EMI Harvest and The Dog That Bit People on Parlophone, and later Hannibal to B&C Records, Indian Summer to RCA Neon and Brewers Droop to RCA.
Big Bear set up what was considered to be the first “progressive music” club outside London in a rented Birmingham pub room which he called Henry’s Blueshouse and declared that Tuesdays Is Bluesdays. Intended as a showcase for Bakerloo and their hotshot teen guitarist Dave ‘Clem’ Clempson [later Humble Pie and Collosseum], Henry’s soon took on a life of its own, presenting American bluesmen that included Arthur Big Boy Crudup, JB Hutto, Champion Jack Dupree and emerging British rockers such as Status Quo, Rory Gallagher and Taste, Thin Lizzy [full list here].
Earth, initially booked at Henry’s as support to Ten Years After, were taken up by Simpson for management, where they were name-changed to Black Sabbath and he eventually signed them to Vertigo just as Simpson, having fourteen rejections from majors, was about to release them on Big Bear as a last resort.
The week Big Bear lost Sabbath, the single Paranoid was at number 2, the albums Black Sabbath and Paranoid were at number 16 and 1 respectively, leaving Simpson at a crossroads. Should he continue developing unknown bands only to lose them to a glib London management company when they achieved success, or does he take on a new challenge?
By then, The Blues had beckoned.
Checking the temperature of the water by organising a seven week UK/European tour with The King Biscuit Boy from Toronto, promoting his RCA album, Big Bear then committed itself to locating significant but often lesser-known American bluesmen, bringing them from the USA to tour and record. The first Big Bear blues recordings were leased to Polydor: American Blues Legends 73 with Lightnin’ Slim, Whispering Smith, Homesick James, Snooky Pryor, Boogie Woogie Red and Homesick James, followed by albums with Dr Ross The Harmonica Boss, Gene ‘The Mighty Flea’ Connors and the UK-based Oakland Johnny Mars. Big Bear then leased their Eddie Guitar Burns Bottle Up And Go album and Homesick James with Snooky Pryor album to Action and Richard Branson’s Caroline Records respectively. The next big move was to sign Big Bear Records to Transatlantic Records for manufacture and distribution in the UK and to a network of non-UK labels garnered through Midem which Big Bear was to attend regularly for a total of 32 years. Initially specifically a blues label featuring such artists as Cousin Joe from New Orleans, Eddie Playboy Taylor, Dr Ross, Tommy Tucker, Willie Mabon, Mickey Baker [full list here], the repertoire was later widened to include jazz releases spear headed by Clark Terry’s Big Bad Band at Carnegie Hall
Enjoying all the advantages of being absolutely independent with only the bank manager to answer to, Big Bear has always enjoyed going off at a tangent. The only house rule is that the music has to be good, ‘Real Music, Properly Played’ has long been the maxim. So alongside the blues albums there were excursions into soul and funk with the blue-eyed soul band Muscles who took on UK and European support slots on tours by The Fatback Band [list]. Punk recordings included Garbo’s Celluloid Heroes and The Quads whose 1979 hit “There Must Be Thousands” was declared by John Peel to be his favourite single of the decade.
Meanwhile flying under the flag of Big Bear Music, the company continued to tour the artists it recorded, and also began to organise events. The most significant of which launched in 1985 and is planning its 35th year: The Birmingham, Solihull & Sandwell Jazz Festival. The festival has presented over 6500 performances to a total of 2.8 million people. Headliners have included Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie Orchestra, Buddy Rich Orchestra, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, The Blues Brothers Band from the film with Eddie Floyd, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, BB King, Albert King, Freddy King, The Buddy Guy, Junior Wells Band [selected list here]
Events organised by Big Bear include The Marbella Jazz Festival, Arctic Border Blues Festival, the trackside entertainment for the five years of the Birmingham Super Prix, National Jazz Festival [covering 21 cities from Durham to Basildon, Bristol to Barking], New York Non Stop, Soho Jazz Festival [full list here]
Every year since 1987 Big Bear has organised The British Jazz Awards, known as The Jazz Oscars, which recognise the finest British jazz performers, selected by popular vote with as many as 5000 voters across the 17 categories. This is the most important formal event in The British Jazz calendar and also achieved international significance when Miles Davis won the Getzen Fairweather Award and Nina Simone flew into Birmingham to receive her Platinum Record for My Baby Just Cares For Me.
In 1987 Big Bear first published The Jazz Rag, the nationally distributed bi-monthly magazine, now reaching its 153rd edition. Contributors include leading British jazz writers, Scott Yanow who is one of the most respected of all American jazz journalists, and some top British Jazz musicians.
The artist agency aspect of Big Bear Music has always been prominent in much of the company’s activity. Initially set up to market the bands on the record label, which it still does, it represents a roster of interesting bands.
Lady Sings The Blues is a 2 hour show set up to deliver the Billie Holiday repertoire, chronologically through the 30s, 40s and 50s, performed by an all-star seven piece band based on Billie’s early recording bands and fronted by a remarkable jazz singer, Val Wiseman. Val is probably one of the best ever two female British jazz singers and the band consists of some of the finest British jazz musicians extant. Lady Sings The Blues is almost certainly the nearest that any of us will ever come to experiencing first hand a performance by that greatest of all jazz singers. Interestingly, Lady Sings The Blues has been on the road performing Billie’s repertoire for 31 years, 5 years more than Lady Day herself.
King Pleasure & The Biscuit Boys were formed in a Darlaston milk bar where a group of lads, inspired by Bill Haley & The Comets, none of them musicians, decided to form a Rock and Roll Band. They each selected an instrument, hit on their parents for the wherewithal to buy it and set about learning to play. They came to the attention of Jim Simpson as contenders in a Band Contest of which he was a judge. Originally known as The Satellites, Jim renamed them King Pleasure & The Biscuit Boys on New Years Eve 1987. Thirty one years, 6500 gigs, 36 radio shows, 76 television appearances and 10 Big Bear albums later, they are well established a one of the finest swing bands on this planet, and remain loyally Birmingham-based.
Tipitina are from Leyland, Lancashire, but their spiritual home is New Orleans, Louisiana. They feature the stunning, gospel-soaked voice of Debbie Jones and the no-prisoners taken pianistics of Justin Randall to deliver a potent New Orleans Gumbo of James Booker, Professor Longhair, Dr John et al. Already with two Big Bear albums, we’re currently planning their third.
The Whiskey Brothers come at you direct from the 1930s Mississippi Juke Joints, or more precisely, Kings Heath in Birmingham. The Whiskeys are authentic, impeccably so, the real deal and are now planning their second Big Bear album.
Not content with discovering, nurturing, recording and promoting unknown bands, Big Bear have produced memorable shows to bring something unusual to the table. There was, still is when called upon, Drummin’ Man, a showcase for the drumnastics of the legendary Gene Krupa from his days with Benny Goodman, his own Big Band and his small combos. The band features the tremendous Birmingham drummer Pete York – he of Spencer Davis Group fame, think “Keep On Runnin’”, “I’m A Man” and more – and an all-star handpicked seven piece band.
“Beiderbecke and All That Jazz” enjoyed a simple but effective formula. Playwright Alan Plater [The Beiderbecke Tapes, The Beiderbecke Affair etc] told his own stories which the all-star band onstage clearly found fascinating. Then the band played which left Alan overcome with joy. An evening never passed so quickly or so enjoyably.
Big Bear has long been a caring bedfellow with photography. The catalogue of some 2500 black and white square negatives have so far yielded six exhibitions in the UK and Spain, and that’s from the only 150 negatives to be so far digitised.
Leading Dutch photographer Merlin Daleman, twice winner of the Silver Camera Award for Best Documentary Photographer in Holland is resident photographer at Big Bear events and has seen his work featured in several major exhibitions including extended displays on the Main Concourse of Birmingham New Street Station.