PASSINGS: Joe Bihari

Joe BihariCo-founder of family

record company

Joe Bihari, 88, the co-founder of a family record company that exposed blues performers such as B.B. King, Little Richard, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and Etta James to a wider audience, died Nov. 28 in a Los Angeles hospital, family members said.

“The Biharis had one of the most important companies in the history of rhythm and blues,” said Jim O’Neal, founding editor of Living Blues magazine, “and Joe was the one who produced most of the sessions.”

O’Neal said the family’s labels, including Modern Records and RPM, inspired other companies “to go looking for down-home blues.”


Modern, the Biharis’ primary label, was started in 1945 by Joe, Jules and Saul Bihari. At the time, Joe was helping out Jules, who serviced jukeboxes in Watts and South Los Angeles, and the brothers came to realize how little music was produced for the black market.

A fourth brother, Lester, later joined the business, and sisters Florette, Rosalind and Maxine worked in the office.

One of Joe’s jobs was cruising the segregated South, looking for talent in bars and nightclubs. He recruited the soon-to-be-famous Ike Turner and got into trouble with local police who were suspicious of a young white man and an out-of-town black man driving a red Lincoln convertible down country roads and making friends in black neighborhoods.

In a 2012 interview, Joe Bihari recalled officers in Clarksdale, Miss., stopping him outside the Greyhound bus station where he’d rented a room to record local black artists.

“What do you think we fought the Civil War for?” one of the officers asked.

“You lost it!” Bihari retorted.

Born in Memphis, Tenn. on May 30, 1925, he grew up in a foster home for Jewish children in New Orleans. He acquired his musical tastes there and, after attending trade school, moved to Los Angeles and became a riveter in a defense plant.

Leaving the music business in the late 1970s, he was involved in motocross racing and rode for fun with his friend, actor Steve McQueen. Bihari spent the latter part of his career building homes in Pacific Palisades and Beverly Hills.

The Bihari brothers were inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006.

Times staff and wire reports