Joe Bihari

Biography by

Joe Bihari is the most well-known and longest surviving member of the family dynasty that ran Modern records out of Los Angeles in the '40s and '50s. It was a company whose power on the blues scene rivaled…
Read Full Biography

Artist Biography by

Joe Bihari is the most well-known and longest surviving member of the family dynasty that ran Modern records out of Los Angeles in the '40s and '50s. It was a company whose power on the blues scene rivaled Chess in Chicago, the initiative of the Bihari family leading to the key early exploitation of blues legends such as Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, and John Lee Hooker. The Bihari family knew good blues when they heard it, that can't be denied, but there was also a downside to their involvement with the music. Typical of a trend that would unfortunately continue through the early rock era, one or some of the Bihari family would often appropriate writing credits on tunes recorded by Modern artists. It is extremely doubtful that King needed any help from anybody coming up with either "B.B.'s Blues" or "B.B.'s Boogie" -- both of these vintage King tracks are simply jam tunes -- and Joe Bihari pigged out on half the writer's credits just for turning the tape recorder on. Josea was a pseudonym for Joe Bihari as well, the name appearing as sole writer credit on some doo wop numbers that were actually the work of singer and bandleader Vince Weaver.

Like just about anyone in the record business who doesn't play an instrument, the brothers Saul, Jules, Lester, and Joe Bihari were loaded with inspirational ideas and marketing ploys. Modern was involved early on in the development of low budget lines, for example. Some of the brothers' ideas involved taking control of musical situations, not always to the pleasure of the performers. The story of the Mellowtears could inspire sobbing all on its own. Not only were songs written by bandleader Weaver stolen from him by Bihari, the family decided to change the name of the group to the Nature Boys. The first time the band heard about it was when they saw their debut record, the afternoon after they had picked up an order of custom ties emblazoned with the name Mellowtears.

Other ideas of Bihari's made much more sense. Behind a group of musicians who recorded in different styles under two names -- the Cadets and the Jacks -- it was Bihari who came up with the idea of one group that could have two different musical identities, years ahead of musical messiahs such as George Clinton who made cottage industries out of the gimmick. The most endearing part of the Joe Bihari story might be a good subject for a novel entitled Travels With Bluesmen. These adventures include plenty of wandering around the deep South looking for blues performers, with a young Ike Turner serving as his assistant. But in a quite contrasting chapter, Bihari and the even younger guitarist Johnny Watson go to see the new Sterling Hayden western entitled Johnny Guitar at a Hollywood theater and bingo, a new stage name is born: Johnny Guitar Watson. The aforementioned scouting trips began in 1948 and continued through 1953, Bihari and Turner aiming tape recorders at a host of blues artists, some of whom would become world famous. Yet the importance of the ones who remained fairly unknown can never be downplayed, especially in the case of the Modern firm. "Swingin' the Boogie," a 1945 release by singer Hadda Brooks recorded in a small studio in Culver City was the first record that sold in quantities sufficient to give the label a major boost. Bihari remained active in the record business after his brothers had all died, even getting back together with his old traveling companion Turner for the 2001 production Here and Now.