“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” I stammered to the tall, robust-looking gentleman I was waiting on at La Crepe Nanou Restaurant, “but I didn’t know any of you guys were still alive.”
The fact that I was face-to-face with one of my biggest musical heroes yet completely unaware of his above ground status wasn’t as weird as it sounds: he was Joe Bihari, the youngest—and arguably most important—of the Bihari Brothers, a family so crucial to the development of rock ’n’ roll that you’d think everyone would know he was still alive. But most music fans had never heard of him.
The Biharis—Jules, Saul, Lester and Joe—were record men, and they had so many hits that to even scratch the surface seemed impossible: B.B. King, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elmore James. Hell, they were supposed to release Ike Turner‘s “Rocket 88”—often acknowledged as the first rock ’n’ roll record—but Sam Phillips violated their contract and sold it to Leonard Chess.
Like Phillips, Chess and Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, Joe held a special place in my heart: he’d not only discovered and recorded so many of the artists I loved, he’d released their records. When it came to down-to-earth music—blues, hillbilly, rock ’n’ roll—record men were lighting rods, conduits and more often than not, snake charmers, reaching deep inside of their artists and conjuring up something that they themselves often didn’t know was there.
“I’m the last of my brothers still living,” Joe told me with neither hesitation nor offense.
I really didn’t know where to begin. If Bihari had done nothing but record Clarence “Bon Ton” Garlow’s “Crawfishin’” and “Route 90”—two songs that wholly defined the magic of Louisiana for me years before I lived here—that would have been enough. The spirit throbbing through those tunes was the reason I lived in New Orleans. Then there were those scintillating early sides by my favorite guitarist of all time, Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
Instead, I asked Joe what brought him to the city.
“I’ve always loved New Orleans. I grew up here, right around the corner at the Jewish orphanage on St. Charles Avenue, which is now the Jewish Community Center.”
I’d always associated the Biharis with Los Angeles. That was where their labels—Modern, RPM, Flair and Crown—were based. They’d had Meteor in Memphis, which is where Joe was born in 1925. He was sent to the orphanage because his family was so poor, but by the time he graduated from Isidore Newman School in 1943 he loved the blues, thanks both to a guitar-slinging custodian and the orphanage jukebox, regularly stocked with discs from the distributor in Houston where his brother worked.
The siblings launched Modern in 1945, releasing everything from boogie-woogie pianist Hadda Brooks to Cajun pioneers Chuck Guillory and Papa Cairo. The latter’s “Big Texas” (recorded in New Orleans), was swiped by Hank Williams for “Jambalaya,” while the former’s “Extemporaneous Boogie” helped bankroll the Bihari’s labels.
Joe began to specialize in remote recording sessions in 1948. He was soon roaming the South with 19-year-old Ike Turner, setting up his tape recorder in churches, barrooms, storefronts and living rooms, and never letting segregation stymie his efforts. “I came from New Orleans, so it was all salt and pepper to me, but there were others who didn’t feel that way.”
Shortly before he died, I asked Turner about his old friend. “Hell, yeah we ran into a lot of trouble. The Biharis put me up in a studio in Clarksdale and them rednecks came in there and tore up all the equipment. They asked Joe, ‘What the fuck do you think we fought the Civil War for?’ Joe said, ‘I don’t know why you fought it, but you lost it!’”
Bihari will visit the Ponderosa Stomp Music Conference to give an oral history of his life in the record business. [Full disclosure: writer Michael Hurtt is one of the conference’s organizers.]
“I haven’t been to New Orleans since my 60th reunion at Newman,” says Bihari, who will speak at 11 a.m. on April 30. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
The Ponderosa Stomp Music Conference runs from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the Cabildo in Jackson Square April 29-30. Admission is free.