Los Angeles based label started in 1945 by the Bihari brothers, Jules, Saul and Joe, former jukebox suppliers who serviced black communities of South Central LA where they realized that the major labels (RCA, Columbia and Decca) paid scant attention to the tastes of that clientele and may only ship twenty-five copies of a black made record for the entire city’s jukeboxes. The brothers knew there was a far greater demand for this music than was being met by the larger companies so they decided to get into the business and make their own records to fill that need.

Their experiences in the jukebox trade served them well, as they quickly established the first independent distribution network (Modern Music Distributing Company) made up of jukebox operators around the country who not only placed their records in the jukeboxes, where the main business still was for black records, but were also required to push their product to be carried in stores in the area, thereby establishing the independent distributor trade which granted territories to those who handled and sold their record line and soon became the accepted industry standard. They also had the foresight to open their own pressing plant and printing shop for labels which gave them greater control over their output, as well as being among the first labels to buy master recordings made by smaller companies (such as John Lee Hooker’s immortal blues hit “Boogie Chillun”) which allowed them to expand their catalog of records without having to come up with all of the artists and material and oversee the sessions themselves.

In business matters Modern was ahead of the curve, including being the first to specialize in budget albums in the late 50’s (though these were a blight upon the industry, they nevertheless were profitable for the company), but in many ways Modern also represented the worst of the independent record industry, epitomizing the underhanded practices that became cliché for the era in question.

Most egregious in this regard was the fact the Biharis took more songwriting credits from their artists than any other label with the possible exception of Duke/Peacock’s Don Robey. This was a widespread practice in the industry where the owners knew the value of copyrights and counted on the artist’s lack of awareness in this area to rip them off by attaching their own names, or often substituting their own names (or pseudonyms) in place of the actual songwriter, but the Biharis were certainly the most blatant and unrepentant about it. Every record that came out on Modern and their affiliated labels (Colonial, RPM, Flair, Crown, Kent) that had any of the following names attached as songwriters – Taub (their mother’s maiden name), Ling or Josea (registered to Jules, Saul and Joe respectively) – were in stolen outright from their rightful authors, usually the artist themselves.

In addition they feuded with other labels over the rights to artists, most famously with Chess Records over artists recorded by Sam Phillips in Memphis (Howlin’ Wolf, Jackie Brenston/Ike Turner and Roscoe Gordon). The Biharis felt their initial leasing arrangement called for exclusive rights to the rest of their output even though Phillips was leasing each record made independently of one another. The battle between them led Phillips to start Sun Records and forever after remained a point of contention with the close knit-Bihari clan (virtually all of the sisters worked in their offices, their brother Lester started the Meteor label in Memphis under their auspices, and their offspring to this day are very protective of their family’s legacy).

But unsavory practices aside, the music Modern put out was very good for a very long time. In addition it was quite diverse, running the gamut from jazzier leanings at the start with Hadda Brooks, blues with Pee Wee Crayton, Jimmy Witherspoon, Roy Hawkins, John Lee Hooker, and rock with Little Willie Littlefield, Etta James, Marvin & Johnny, Young Jessie, The Cadets, Shirley Gunter, Jesse Belvin and various groups (The Cliques) he was involved with, a veritable who’s who of Los Angeles rock ‘n’ roll stalwarts of the 1950’s. And that’s only counting those whose records were released on the Modern label itself, not the affiliated RPM, Flair, Crown, et. all, which included their longest lasting and most prolific artist B.B. King who recorded primarily on their RPM label.

The Biharis weren’t musically endowed and so they smartly formed an association with master producer and saxophonist Maxwell Davis who was also running Aladdin’s sessions concurrently, giving them the best writer/arranger on the West Coast, and they also employed such legendary figures as Lester Sill and Ike Turner in this capacity. But for all of the great work their labels released they seemed to view the record industry as a cutthroat business first and foremost and over time the music considerations increasingly took a back seat to their efforts to milk each cow dry.

By the late 1950’s most of their labels were in tatters, with the flagship Modern imprint ceasing its operations altogether in 1957 as the Biharis shifted their attention to Kent as a budget LP line which took advantage of their printing capacity by churning out poorly conceived cheap looking albums of past recordings and flooding the market with them, often to the consternation of the artists whose reputations were hurt by the association with such inferior product.

The brothers revived Modern briefly in the mid-to-late 60’s and issued new recordings, including some good records with Ike Turner back at the helm, but their time at the forefront of the music scene was long since over.

The Biharis deserve to be remembered for their early innovations which helped to shape and transform the independent record industry, as well as catalog of stellar records by a long list of quality artists, but their fixation on the bottom line profits at the expense of artistic, and often ethical, integrity led them to make shortsighted decisions that wound up tainting their historical legacy in the process.

 
 
MODERN RECORDS REVIEWED TO DATE ON SPONTANEOUS LUNACY:
 
GENE PHILLIPS & HIS RHYTHM ACES: Big Legs (4) (Modern 20-527; September, 1947)
THE SCAMPS: Solitude (2) (Modern 20-550; December, 1947)
LITTLE WILLIE JACKSON: Jackson’s Boogie (4) (Modern 20-566; January, 1948)
BIG JIM WYNN: Cold Blooded Boogie (5) (Modern 20-634; December, 1948)
JOE LUTCHER: Rock-Ola (5) (Modern 20-661; April, 1949)
JOE LUTCHER: Pasadena Rumboogie (4) (Modern 20-661; April, 1949)
FLOYD DIXON: That’ll Get It (5) (Modern 20-664; May, 1949)
TINY WEBB: Billboard Special (7) (Modern 20-666; May, 1949)
JOE LUTCHER: Mardi Gras (6) (Modern 20-672; May, 1949)
WILD BILL MOORE: Rock And Roll (7) (Modern 20-674; May, 1949)
LITTLE WILLIE LITTLEFIELD: It’s Midnight (No Place To Go) (9) (Modern 20-686; July, 1949)
LITTLE WILLIE LITTLEFIELD: Midnight Whistle (3) (Modern 20-686; July, 1949)
WILD BILL MOORE: Primavera (3) (Modern 20-687; July, 1949)
WILD BILL MOORE: Double Bubble (2) (Modern 20-687; July, 1949)
JOE LUTCHER: Foothill Drive (7) (Modern 20-708; October, 1949)