Joe Bihari’s death on Thanksgiving Day at the age of 88, now leaves Art Rupe and Phil Chess as the sole survivors of a unique group of post-war independent record men. Their efforts created a body of music which remains a major influence on popular music.
After his father’s death in 1930, Joe’s mother was unable to take care of all of her children, so at the age of 5, Joe and his younger sister Maxine were placed in a foster home for Jewish children in New Orleans where they grew up. While in the home, Joe developed an interest in music and learned to play the clarinet and saxophone, joining the Isidore Newman school band.
By 1944 Joe and Maxine had rejoined the Bihari family, now living in Los Angeles. Joe soon got involved in his elder brother Jules’ jukebox business. When I first met him 40 years later in 1985, Joe recalled that as they made their rounds collecting the takings from jukeboxes at various locations in South Central Los Angeles, he would sit outside in the car with a pistol concealed beneath his coat, in case of any robbery attempts while Jules was inside emptying the machines.
By 1945, frustrated by continual shortages in the supply of suitable 78 rpm records for their jukebox route, Jules, Joe and their brother Saul decided to press their own records and founded Modern Records. The company manufactured, marketed and distributed blues, R&B, jazz, hillbilly, soul and gospel records on a number of banners, including Modern, RPM, Flair, Crown and Kent.
The brothers got the label off to a flying start with ‘Swingin’ The Boogie’ the first record by glamorous young piano player Hadda Brooks (Modern Music 101). They consolidated this success with further hits by Pee Wee Crayton, Little Willie Littlefield, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Witherspoon and others.
Through the late 40s and early 50s, Joe spent much of his time out on the road travelling across America visiting radio stations and distributors to promote Modern releases while also keeping his eyes and ears peeled for promising new talent.
This policy turned up dozens of exciting artists. Of these, the most significant was B.B. King. In 1950 the Biharis released their first record by King, ‘B.B. Boogie’ on the new RPM label. Although the master was produced by Sam Phillips at his famous Sun Studio in Memphis, Joe undertook the follow-up session which produced B.B.’s first hit, ‘3 O'Clock Blues’, in a room at the YMCA in Memphis, having hung carpets across the windows to deaden the sound.
Joe, with significant help from a 17 year old Ike Turner, continued scouring the country, mainly south of the Mason-Dixon line, in a never-ending quest for new talent. Joe often got in trouble with the local law enforcement officers as the South was still heavily segregated. This was not altogether surprising as the sight of two smartly dressed young men, one white and the other black, cruising black ghetto areas in a shiny red Lincoln convertible was, to say the least, unusual.
In a 2012 interview, Joe recalled police officers in Clarksdale, Miss., stopping him outside the Greyhound bus station where he'd rented a room to record local black artists. "What do you think we fought the Civil War for?" one of the officers asked. "You lost it!" Bihari retorted. On this occasion, as on many others, he was lucky to be rewarded simply with an escort to the city limits.
Off the road, Joe spent much of his time in the studio where his grounding in music gave him an advantage over his brothers, although Jules also produced many sessions. Pee Wee Crayton told me in 1981 “Jules would be in the studio, pattin’ his foot, but he could never keep proper rhythm.”
In addition to B.B. King, Modern signed and promoted a galaxy of wonderful artists over the years including Elmore James, Richard Berry, Etta James, the Teen Queens, Jesse Belvin, the Cadets, Young Jessie, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Marvin & Johnny, Ike & Tina Turner, the Ikettes, Mary Love and Z.Z. Hill.
Joe and Jules did not always see eye to eye regarding the artistic policy of the company as Jules was less inclined to take risks. In 1956 Modern released a record ‘ I Confess’ [RPM 472] by 15 year old Paul Anka, the son of a family friend. Joe recognised the boy’s talent and would have signed him, but Jules did not agree. Eventually the company had to be content with trying to garner a few extra sales by re-issuing their old Anka record [RPM 499] in 1957 to cash in on Anka’s number one hit ‘Diana’ on ABC Records. Also in 1956 Jules did not want to release ‘Eddie My Love’ by The Teen Queens, describing it as a piece of s***. He eventually gave in at Joe’s insistence and the record became a big hit for the company [#3 R&B / #14 Billboard].
By the mid-60s Modern was finding things tough, as dozens of new indies entered the marketplace and the majors upped their game. Jules had become more focused on the manufacturing aspect of the business and the company was pressing millions of cheap LPs on its budget Crown label. Although Joe continued producing successful records with Ike & Tina Turner, Little Richard, the Ikettes, Lowell Fulsom, ZZ Hill and others, he was beginning to devote more time to outside interests. He owned a successful mens’ clothing store in Beverly Hills and his interest in motorcycling led him to acquire the California franchise for the popular British Triumph motorcycle range. He took no further active part in the record company following the death of his brother Saul in 1975. Kent/Modern continued mainly as a manufacturer marketing its old catalogue on cassette and eight track in the 1970s.
In 1979 the catalogue was licensed to Ace Records for Europe and, as Jules’ health declined, was sold in 1982.
By then Joe was then making a good living building homes in the more affluent areas of West Los Angeles. However, he was unhappy at not being consulted on the sale of the company and as the plant was closing down he took a truck down to the Modern Records premises and salvaged hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes, including the EQ’ed master for the Ikettes ‘Peaches ‘n’ Cream’ and other important masters that had been overlooked.
Joe lived in retirement for the past 25 years, keeping in touch with many of his old recording artists. He was always happy to help anyone from Ace Records with information and sometime pictures about Kent/Modern. He was interviewed extensively for Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock 'n' Roll Pioneers by John Broven.
He was reunited with his old colleague Ike Turner for the production of Ike’s “Here And Now” album in 2001. Joe and his brothers was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006.
Ted Carroll / December 2013
photo caption: Joe pictured with his moto-cross buddy, the actor Steve McQueen.