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Modern Records opened for business in 1945 and, in order to capitalize on success in its home market on the West Coast, the company soon established a national distribution network utilising the services of jukebox operators and distributors in most of the major cities throughout the US. Once this was in place (around 1947), Modern commenced leasing masters by successful artists from smaller labels that only had limited local distribution. Following success with down-home blues masters from labels such as Gold Star in Houston (Lightning Hopkins), Blue Bonnet in Dallas (Smokey Hogg) and Sensation in Detroit (John Lee Hooker), Modern decided to expand its search for this kind of material.
In 1950 while on a trip to Memphis, Jules and Saul Bihari agreed a deal to purchase masters recorded by Sam Phillips in his newly built recording studio. Masters by B.B. King, Joe Hill Louis, Howling Wolf, Big Walter Horton and others were acquired before the deal was terminated following a disagreement. Realising the wealth of untapped talent in the area, the Bihari brothers resolved to concentrate on locating more artists from the Mississippi Delta and surrounding areas.
Younger brother Joe Bihari was despatched, with his trusty Magnecord recording machine and some microphones, to Memphis in 1951. While recording B.B King in the black YMCA there, Joe met up with a young musician, Ike Turner, and hired him to act as a talent scout. Equipped with a shiny new Buick Roadmaster, his own bank account and a couple of new suits, all courtesy of Modern Records, Ike Turner drove across the Delta searching for talent to record.
Over the next couple of years Joe and Ike recorded a series of legendary down-home blues masters by musicians including Big Charlie Bradix, Willie Nix, Sunny Blair, Boyd Gilmore, Baby Face Turner and Houston Boines. This series of masters recorded in juke joints, music stores and radio stations across the states of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas provides us with a fascinating snapshot of the local black music scene in those rural and urban areas of the South.
No other company has recorded this music as extensively as Modern did at that time. As well as recording sessions in Houston and Dallas, recording was also undertaken in Clarksdale, North Little Rock, Helena, Canton, West Memphis, Monroe, Shreveport and Greenville.
Joe Bihari remembers one such session in 1952 in a disused Greyhound bus station, across the tracks in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Some of the musicians were helping load the recording equipment into the trunk of Joe's car when a couple of police cars pulled up and blocked him in. One of the cops asked Joe "What are you doing here?" and when Joe replied "I just finished recording" the cop replied "Well, you're paying our niggers too much money. We can't control them." Another cop joined in "What do you think we fought the Civil War for?" The first cop continued "Do you know where Highway 51 is? We're going to escort you out of town. You don't stop until you cross into Tennessee." Afterwards Joe reminisced that the car he was driving at the time, a fire-engine-red Lincoln with continental chrome spare tyre cover on the back, with dual chrome exhausts and twin radio antennae, may not have exactly endeared him to the local red neck forces of law and order.
These unique masters are now recognised for their historic value in documenting the post war music scene of the Delta area of the late 1940s and early 1950s. This collection includes several unheard alternate takes of previously released masters as well as some never before released recordings.
After many years of research into the tapes and acetates that have survived from that time in Modern Records' vaults, Ray Topping is currently hard at work compiling a series of CDs that will document almost all of the masters from this period. This sampler is designed to provide a foretaste of what is to come over the next couple of years and it will also serve as an introduction for those unfamiliar with this music. Be warned however, these recordings are not for the faint-hearted. This is raw, tough, red-blooded, raucous and emotional music that reflects those troubled times in the South before desegregation.
By Ted Carroll