In the 1950s, Joe Bihari scoured African American bars and nightclubs in the South for undiscovered blues phenoms. Bihari, who passed away on Nov. 28 at age 88, tried to elevate those he found to stardom at Modern Records, the Los Angeles-based label that he cofounded with his brothers, Jules and Saul.
Bihari traveled the South behind the wheel of a red 1952 Lincoln convertible. One southern lawman trying to dissuade Bihari from trying to make records with black performers, warned, “Why do you think we fought the Civil War?” Bihari’s response: “You lost.” In such incidents, Bihari later recalled, “I wasn’t afraid of anything because my girlfriend was Honey Bear Warren, she was Chief Justice [Earl] Warren’s daughter and I had his phone number in Washington.”
Along the way, Bihari helped bring fame to such talents as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hadda Brooks, B.B. King, Little Richard, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Etta James and Ike Turner. Here are some facts about the groundbreaking blues impresario.
- Bihari and his brother, Jules, were working for a company that operated jukeboxes in the black neighborhoods of south-central Los Angeles when they heard Hadda Brooks playing piano. She became the first artist who they signed and recorded.
- Sonny Boy Williamson wouldn’t sign with Bihari but did tell him where he could find Elmore James. For Bihari, James rerecorded his famous blues standard “Dust My Broom” as “Dust My Blues.”
- Bihari released saxaphonist Wild Bill Moore’s single “Rock and Roll,” featuring Scatman Crothers on vocals.
- In 1951, Bihari recorded B.B. King’s first hit, “Three O’Clock Blues,” in a YMCA room in Memphis using portable studio equipment.
- One of his discoveries, Little Junior Parker, wrote and recorded the song “Mystery Train,” later made famous by Elvis Presley.
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