Most people in town know Bear. Yet only a few people know the unbelievable story of the guy behind the colorful jewelry and tattoos. It’s a tale of a talented musician who had his brush with fame. And it’s a story of a Bear who got poked too much and too hard. When life hit Bear hard, and I mean really hard, he would stand up and fight life back. However, sometimes, even the strongest person can be defeated. When things got too hard, Bear would take off into the wild, only to start writing yet another verse of his song in a different place.
Sometimes, a story is hard to believe, because you start to wonder if someone could have really been through so much and still manage to come out the other side. Those were my thoughts as I sat there listening to Bear tell me how he lost his fingers to an electric saw back in 1974, bringing his professional bass playing career to a screeching end; and when he recalled coming home to find his girlfriend with another man. Incredulously, the challenges he faced grew even bigger. Just over a year ago, when he had a stroke, a blow that compromised his ability to name places and people.
The stroke has made this interview a unique challenge. The facts are fuzzy, the truths might be alternative, yet Bear is very real. His story is like a puzzle. Many pieces that you need to connect. Yet each puzzle piece can stand on its own, each one a remarkable story in itself.
New Hope – The Nineties
He was christened Bear when he had only just arrived to New Hope. It was right after finding his girlfriend cheating. Sitting at the Havana bar, lonely, divorced, heart broken, weighing in at four hundred pounds back then, he was understandably upset and drinking heavily. A young waitress spotted his distress and asked him: “How can I help you big Bear?” She was teasing him, perhaps flirting a bit. Others at the bar heard it and the name Bear just stuck. Not much after that, he moved to a small house just behind Havana and the waitress and Havana regulars grew to become his closest friends. But even his friends had no idea of who Bear really was and how he ended up in town.
Good Vibrations – the Sixties
Bear’s story starts in the sixties in Redondo Beach, California, where a young Rich Rael grew up, the son of a bass player, Rich decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and also become a musician. He played in the school orchestra, and the well-known Sister City Program, touring the state playing jazz, rock and folk music. As a teen he switched the traditional contra-base to a shiny new electric base. The Manzarek Brothers, who were competing with The Beach Boys in the early days of surf music, were looking for a bass player and after a short audition picked Rich over many others, while he was still only a high school freshman. Playing with the Manzarek Brothers and touring California, was an amazing boot camp for such a young musician. He played on many stages and even cut an album with the band. The first hit he played in was “Big Bucket T.” Many others would follow. But just like in the song A Whiter Shade Of Pale, the crowd called out for more, yet preferred the band to play Top 40 hits.
Rich grew tired of playing the same songs again and again. When he met his sweet heart Connie, while playing on the road, it came easy for him to promise her to get married and settle down.
Vinyl – the seventies
Bear’s vow to leave his life as a musician lasted only until the day a new band arrived to town and their new sound blew him away. The “Electric Flag” with Al Kooper on keyboards, Mike Bloomfield, who Rich thought was the best guitar player ever and Harvey Brook on bass, made him realize that the music was stronger than him. Rich picked up his bass and formed “The Groove Company Band”. The band was a big success right from the start. They were fully booked with steady gigs at the hottest clubs on Sunset Strip, including the legendary Gazzarri’s Club, Pandora’s Box and Whisky. He got to hang out with and at times to play with all the whose and who’s of the seventies music scene: The Doors, Crosby Stills and Nash, the Doobie Brothers, Frank Zappa and Neil Young were close buddies. The clubs were smoky, the music was loud, go-go dancers where dancing, money was pouring in. Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll wasn’t just a cliché, it was his life.
But Rich was trying to stay focused on his career. He got a job at Paramount Studios as a music technician recording albums for others. At Paramount he helped put together the music for The Monkees, before the group was actually formed. He played the bass for the album and helped to arrange the renowned Monkees theme song. At the same time, his Groove Company Band was kicking it on the weekends. They were touring the country, playing at colleges, festivals and making a name for themselves. They were even signed by top agents to represent them and were about to cut their own album with THE Mushroom Production company.
It was a major junction in Rich’s life. He needed to decide whether to take his music career to the next level or to stick to his vow to his wife and settle down. So he picked up his young family and moved to Glassboro New Jersey.
Then one morning he decided to cut some wood out in his shed with an electric saw.
Rich, struggling to earn a living, was moonlighting as a bouncer at a local brewery in New Jersey. One day, standing outside in the cold, he heard the Edwina Morgan Band playing blues inside. Without noticing, he started singing harmony to the music. A drunk man walking by heard him and brashly asked the band leader to bring Rich up on stage to sing with the band. His powerful, rough voice blew everybody away.
The next morning the band members came to Rich’s apartment begging him to sing with them. Rich could resist and got back on the music path, but this time as a singer.
Later in the Nineties
Rich is now Bear. Working for the navy as an engineer, living in beautiful New Hope, making lots of new friends, singing at Havana and John & Peters. He has a new girl and in love again. Life is good.
Nick Rael, a successful musician that plays regularly with many known musicians in New York is Bear’s son. While he is in recovery from a boating accident that almost killed him, Bear, despite of his recent stroke, helps nurse Nick in the hospital. Just a year before, Bear woke up in the hospital after few day of comma and was sure he was dead. Only after the Doctor gave him a cup of coffee he was convinced that he was really alive.
While speaking may be challenging at times for Bear and the ability to name places, people and dates, got lost, Nick realized that his father’s singing flows out naturally. Bear and Nick vowed that as soon as they both recuperate, Rich from his stroke and Nick from the accident, they will put a show together; Bear on vocals, Nick on keyboards. The name of this sure to be incredible show is still to be decided.
Bear’s Guide to local living:
John & Peters is an institute. Still, the best place to catch the greatest bands.
Food & Music
Havana. Bear practically lives in Havana. Best place to hang out, eat and see concerts.
Fred Eisen Leather. Fred is a neighbor and an unusual artist. If you are in town and not a vegan, go see his stuff.
Tip for visiting Musicians
Too many Musicians who come to play in town play covers and try to copy the original. True artists make original music and dare to create something new. You’ll be more remembered and appreciated.