Joe Bihari, pioneering blues record producer who discovered B.B. King, dies at 88


Joe Bihari, at left, co-founded Modern Records, the Los Angeles-based record company that discovered such rhythm-and-blues performers as B.B. King (second from left). (Courtesy of Ace Records Ltd (UK))
December 15, 2013

Joe Bihari, who co-founded Modern Records, the Los Angeles-based record company that discovered such rhythm-and-blues performers as B.B. King, Etta James and Ike Turner, died Nov. 28 in a Los Angeles hospital. He was 88.

His family confirmed the death to the Los Angeles Times. The cause was not disclosed.

With his brothers, Joe, Jules and Saul, Mr. Bihari started what was then called Modern Music Records in 1945 as an adjunct to a successful jukebox business. Although they had a healthy network of clients, they needed more discs to stock their machines. So the three brothers, all jazz and blues aficionados, went into the record business. A fourth brother, Lester, joined the company later.

Modern and its subsidiaries Flair and RPM recorded several of the most influential R&B records of the 1950s such as the Cadets’ “Stranded in the Jungle” (1955), Young Jessie’s “Mary Lou” (1955) and Jesse Belvin’s “Goodnight My Love” (1956).

Mr. Bihari, the last surviving brother, focused much of his energy on a largely untapped market for Southern blues and took to the South in search of talent in the early 1950s.

“Sometimes I traveled with the very famous, young, talented and vibrant Ike Turner,” Mr. Bihari told John Broven in his book, “Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock ’n’ Roll Pioneers.” “I hired him in Memphis, bought him a Buick Roadmaster, and gave him some of my custom-made suits, a salary of a hundred dollars a week, and an expense account.”

“Other times I traveled alone looking for those country blues singers and musicians,” Mr. Bihari said. “Some were from the cotton fields and plantations, some walking down the highway with an old guitar across their backs, others playing in juke joints, nightclubs, and backwoods gambling joints that were sponsored by the local sheriff.”

In 1951, he recorded a young disc jockey and blues singer from Memphis — B.B. King. The session, which yielded King’s first hit recording, “Three O’Clock Blues,” was recorded in a black YMCA building with Turner on piano. Turner also helped Mr. Bihari locate and record the slide guitarist Elmore James in a Canton, Miss., juke joint.

King became Modern’s best-selling artist, though he later expressed frustration with the Bihari brothers’ cavalier approach to publishing. Most of King’s songs were co-credited to Taub, Ling or Josea, pen names for Mr. Bihari and his brother Jules.

“Some of the songs I wrote, they added a name when I copyrighted it,” Mr. King said in a 1999 interview for the magazine Blues Access. “Like ‘King and Ling’ or ‘King and Josea.’ There was no such thing as Ling or Josea. No such thing. That way, the company could claim half of your song.”

King and the Biharis also disagreed over long-play albums, a new format in the mid-1950s. The Biharis saw the album as something to be sold for 98 cents in a drug or department store rack, while King believed long-play albums, if properly promoted, would broaden his appeal. King left Modern and signed with ABC records in 1962.

Joseph Bihari was born May 30, 1925, in Memphis. His father, a Jewish Hungarian immigrant who worked as a salesman and later ran a grain and seed business in Tulsa, Okla., died in 1930. The younger Bihari spent much of his childhood in a Jewish children’s home in New Orleans.

While he was there, his older brothers began their jukebox business in Los Angeles that soon spread across several states.

As a sidelight to Modern, Mr. Bihari made after-market motorcycle parts and continued to do so after the label slowed down its operations in the late 1970s. In the 1990s, he worked as a home builder in Beverly Hills.

His hobbies included motocross racing and his riding companions included actor Steve McQueen.

A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

On his Southern talent scouting trips, Mr. Bihari, a white man who asked questions of African Americans, was viewed with suspicion by the local law enforcement.

Once, he recalled, police in Clarksdale, Miss., stopped him outside a Greyhound bus station where he’d rented a room to record local blues singers.

“What do you think we fought the Civil War for?” one of the officers asked.

“You lost it!” Mr. Bihari replied.

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