Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Modern Records: A Conversation with Recording Pioneer Joe Bihari

Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Modern Records: A Conversation with Recording Pioneer Joe Bihari

Article excerpt

John Broven: Welcome everybody. It's my great pleasure to introduce to you Mr. Joe Bihari of Modern Records. I first met Joe in 2000 when I started doing research for a B.B. King box set called "The Vintage Years" for Ace Records, and that of course was based on B.B.'s output which Joe recorded with Maxwell Davis throughout the 1950s. Joe is a founding partner of Modern Records.

Let me just give you some idea of the artists that he has recorded and I think this puts into perspective just what he has achieved as an independent record man: B.B. King--now if I had recorded B.B. King in his heyday I'd have gone to heaven forever but there are more; Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, released Lightnin' Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf, Roscoe Gordon, Jimmy Witherspoon, Joe Turner, Ike Turner, Little Richard, Erroll Garner, Kay Starr, Etta James, Jesse Belvin. Shall I stop there?

Modern Records was one of the pioneering L.A. labels, along with Aladdin, Imperial and Specialty. I think it forms part of the upper echelon of Sun Records, Chess Records, Mercury, King [and Atlantic].

Joe will be 86 on 30 May. I think, ladies and gentleman, Joe has packed a lot into his life and Modern Records is only part of it. But let me start ... 12 April 1945.

What made you and your brothers, Jules and Saul, start what was Modern Records?

Joe Bihari: Jules worked for a company operating jukeboxes and I used to help Jules replacing records and collecting the money. One day we went down to RCA distributors and we were lucky enough to get 25 of a blues record; and at Columbia, their OKeh line, we were able to get 25 records. That [amount] lasted for a whole month, that's all we could get. So one day Jules said to me, "Joe, we can't buy any records, why don't we start making them?" Of course we knew nothing about how to make records. But the research we did, we found out how to make phonograph records.

So what you did was to make the records to place on your jukeboxes -you had a jukebox route. Was it on Central Avenue?

Yes, through Central Avenue and Watts. We had 100 jukeboxes that we had in locations; well 25 records wouldn't supply 100 jukeboxes. So out of Chicago, we were able to buy used blues records for 2 cents each if we selected the blues from the hundreds of thousands of records. So we would put some of those blues records on the jukeboxes, even though they came off the jukeboxes in Chicago or in the Midwest. That was the way we supplied our jukeboxes with blues records.

Johnny Mercer with his "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive" [Capitol, 1945] was one of the records that got a lot of play in the black locations on our jukeboxes.

How did you find your first artist?

The first artist was Hadda Brooks. We were changing records at a little juke joint and all of a sudden we heard this person playing piano. Jules and I went in, it was a dance studio, the Willie Covan Dance Studio, he was the choreographer at MGM pictures but he had his own studio on Central Avenue. We went up and saw this lady playing piano. Jules said "Do you play boogie-woogie?" She said, "Oh yeah, I can play boogie-woogie." He said, "Would you like to record?" She didn't know anything about recording, she was a young lady, she said, "Yes." So we set up a session with her to record our first record.

1. "Swingin The Boogie"--Hadda Brooks (Modern Music 101, 1945)

I should add the label was actually called ... Modern Music. Now this was the period when the independent labels spotted this gap in the market, but you really had to do everything, didn't you? And one of the things you did was to set up your own pressing plant.

There was a company in Los Angeles that made record presses, they primarily ... made food machinery for processing foods. So one day Jules and I went up to see Henry Fine, his presses were called Fine Built; he was quite a drinker and Jules was a good drinker, so he could keep up with him. …

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