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 figures in the process that transformed rhythm and blues into rock and roll, which appealed to white audiences in the 1950s.
The brothers' parents were Hungarian Jewish emigrants from Austria-Hungary to the U.S. Edward Bihari (1882–1930) was born in Budapest. Esther "Esti" Taub (1886–1950) was born in Homonna, Hungary (now Humenné, Slovakia). They were married in Philadelphia (U.S.) in 1911. They had four sons:
- 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)
In addition to their four sons, they had four daughters: Florette, Rosalind and Maxine, all of whom worked in the Bihari brothers' business, and Serene, who did not. Serene married the 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. He and his younger brothers, Saul and Joe, founded a new label, Modern Records, in 1945. They 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 themselves, 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, Donna Hightower 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, the 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 label's catalogue was licensed to Ace Records (UK) in the mid-1980s and purchased by Ace in the 1990s.
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 Saul 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.