The Bihari brothers, Lester, Jules, Saul and Joe, were American businessmen of Hungarian Jewish origins. They were the founders of Modern Records in Los Angeles and its subsidiaries such as Meteor Records based in Memphis. The Bihari brothers were significant players in the process that transformed black music, rhythm and blues, into rock and roll which appealed to white audiences in the 1950s.
The brothers were of Hungarian Jewish descent. Their father, Edward Bihari (1882-1930), was born in Budapest and migrated to the United States. Their mother, Esther "Esti" Taub (1886-1950), was born in Homonna, Hungary (now Humenné, Slovakia). The pair were married in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the United States in 1911. There were also four sisters in the family: Florette, Rosalind and Maxine, who all worked in the business, and Serene, who did not.
The brothers were :
- Lester Louis Bihari (May 12, 1912, Pottstown, Pennsylvania – September 9, 1983)
- Julius Jeramiah Bihari (September 9, 1913, Pottstown – November 17, 1984, Los Angeles)
- Saul Samuel Bihari (March 9, 1918, St. Louis, Missouri – February 22, 1975)
- Joseph Bihari (May 30, 1925, Memphis, Tennessee - November 28, 2013, Los Angeles)
Their sister Serene was married to New York real estate developer Irving M. Felt.
After living for a period in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Bihari family moved to Los Angeles in 1941. Jules got a job servicing and operating jukeboxes in the Watts district, and found difficulty in locating and stocking the blues records his customers wanted to hear.
With his younger brothers Saul and Joe, he decided to set up a new label, Modern Records, in 1945. The brothers built Modern into a major blues and R&B label, their first success coming with "Swingin' the Boogie" by Hadda Brooks. They bought a pressing plant, and divided tasks among them equally, with Jules responsible for talent spotting and recording, Saul for manufacturing, and Lester for distribution. Joe worked with Ike Turner as a talent scout in the Memphis area, discovering Johnny "Guitar" Watson among others.
In the early 1950s the Biharis launched several subsidiaries: RPM Records, Flair Records and Meteor Records, which was set up in Memphis in 1952 and was headed by Lester Bihari. Successful artists on the Biharis' labels included B.B. King, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Lightnin' Hopkins, Lowell Fulson, Rufus Thomas and Charlie Feathers.
The companies always remained small and personally run. B.B. King has said that he always felt the brothers were accessible: "The company was never bigger than the artist. I could always talk to them."
Later they launched more subsidiaries: Crown Records featuring artists like Johnny Cole, Vic Damone, Trini Lopez with Johnny Torres, Jerry Cole, Dave Clark Five, and United/Superior Records. In the sixties they launched a subsidiary Yuletide Records, which specialized in Christmas records (mostly with Johnny Cole and the Robert Evans Chorus).
In the mid 1960s Modern Records went bankrupt and stopped operating, but the catalogue went with the management into what would become Kent Records. After the deaths of Saul, Lester and Jules Bihari, the labels' back catalogue was licensed to Ace Records (UK) in the mid 1980s, and then later purchased by them during the '90s.
Pseudonyms and royalties
Though they were not songwriters, the Biharis often purchased or claimed co-authorship of songs that appeared on their own labels, thus securing songwriting royalties for themselves, in addition to their other sources of income.
Sometimes these songs were older standards renamed. B.B. King's rendition of "Rock Me Baby" was such a tune; anonymous jams, as with "B.B.'s Boogie" or songs by employees, such as bandleader Vince Weaver. The Biharis used a number of pseudonyms for songwriting credits: Jules was credited as Jules Taub; Joe as Joe Josea; and Sam as Sam Ling. One song by John Lee Hooker, "Down Child" is solely credited to "Taub", with Hooker receiving no credit for the song whatsoever. Another, "Turn Over a New Leaf" is credited to Hooker and "Ling". Taub was the Biharis' mother's maiden name.
Commonly known among music circles but not publicly acknowledged is that Jules and the Bihari brothers would effectively steal music from up and coming black artists by taking advantage of the artists financial situation. The Biharis would have their name added to writing credits when they had nothing to do with the creation of the music in any way.
B.B. King has said: "The company I was with knew a lot of things they didn’t tell me, that I didn’t learn about until later... Some of the songs I wrote, they added a name when I copyrighted it,"..."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."
- Yardley, William (December 11, 2013). "Joe Bihari obituary". The New York Times. Retrieved December 29, 2013.
- Schoenbrun Family Tree
- Most sources state that Julius was the eldest brother, but from the genealogical evidence cited here, this appears to be an error
- "Joe Bihari obituary". Los Angeles Times. December 7, 2013. Retrieved December 29, 2013.
- Shaw, Arnold (1978). Honkers and Shouters. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. p. 223. ISBN 0-02-061740-2.
- "Talking to the Boss: His Majesty Mr. King". Blues Access. Archived from the original on 20 October 2006. Retrieved 2006-11-03.