LESTER BIHARI

Lester Louis Bihari
Born 12 May 1912, Phoenixville, Chester County, Pennsylvania
Died 5 September 1983, Los Angeles, California

There were four Bihari brothers : Lester, Jules (1913-1984), Saul 1918-1975) and Joe (born 30 May, 1925). Most sources, including my own piece on Jules Bihari at http://www.rockabilly.nl/references/messages/jules_bihari.htm state that Jules was the eldest brother, but the Social Security Death Index indicates that Lester was born 16 months before Jules. Of Hungarian Jewish descent, the Bihari family moved to Los Angeles in 1941, where the brothers started the independent Modern label in 1945 and its subsidiary, RPM Records, in 1950. They divided tasks among them equally, with Jules responsible for talent spotting and recording, Saul for manufacturing and Lester for distribution, while Joe worked as a talent scout in the Memphis area. There evolved a relationship with Sam Phillips in Memphis who had not yet started his own Sun label and supplied the brothers with recordings. But the Biharis and Phillips had disputes in 1951 over "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston (a song that Phillips had placed with Chess instead of Modern/ RPM) and over Roscoe Gordon and Howlin' Wolf, artists that the Biharis considered to be contracted to RPM. Though an agreement was reached in February 1952, Saul and Joe Bihari decided they wanted their own dedicated studio in the South to record local talent and they sent Lester to Memphis to materialize this project. Lester Bihari was not really a business man. He was probably too nice to be sufficiently ruthless to make a go of Meteor Records, the company that opened for business in December 1952, at 1794 Chelsea Avenue in Memphis. Lester went round to introduce himself to Sam Phillips and the two remained on cordial terms. A few years later, Phillips would even refer some singers to Bihari when he was too busy with his own artists.

Meteor's first single, "I Believe" by Elmore James (Meteor 5000) was an immediate success, peaking at # 9 (R&B) in February 1953. However, no further hits ensued and distribution problems meant that there were no releases between October 1953 and the summer of 1954. The label was relaunched with Bud Deckelman's "Daydreaming" (a song that Sam Phillips had turned down), which had some local success in the country field.

Although Meteor had been launched as a blues label, the abundance of rockabilly artists appearing in the wake of Elvis Presley's success on Sun meant that Meteor started recording more and more records in that genre. Of these rockabilly artists, the best known is Charlie Feathers, who started looking for another label when his Sun contract ran out after two unsuccessful country records. Feathers had hoped that Phillips would give him a new chance with two rockabilly songs, "Tongue Tied Jill" and "Get With It", but Sam turned him down, after which Charlie gave the tapes to Lester Bihari, who released them on Meteor 5032. Nationwide success was out of reach for Bihari because his small label was never distributed outside Memphis, but the Feathers record at least gave him a local hit. Other notable rockabilly releases on Meteor include "Mama's Little Baby"/ "Raw Deal" by Junior Thompson, "How Come You Do Me" by Jimmy Haggett, "Don't Shoot Me Baby" by Bill Bowen, "Rock Roll and Rhythm"/ "Lonesome Rhythm Blues" by Wayne McGuiness and "All Messed Up" by Jess Hooper, all from 1956, rockabilly's golden year. Living up to its name, the Meteor label came and had gone in just five years. With no further hits and lack of distribution, Meteor went out of business as the last issue, Meteor 5046, was announced in Cash Box, May 28, 1957, leaving a legacy of 47 issues on 78 and 45 rpm. Not many labels have had the honour of having their entire catalogue reissued. Ace Records in the UK did just that, on two double-CD packages (mentioned at the bottom). My personal opinion is that the Meteor catalogue is somewhat overrated. Some records were brilliant (Thompson, Feathers), a couple of others very good, but the large majority I would rate as just good (authentic, but unexciting) or ordinary. The Stompertime CD's released by Davis Travis (almost all of them devoted to Memphis labels) contain a lot of music that is at least as good, if not better than the Meteor stuff.

Martin Hawkins writes on the Ace website: "Because Lester was a salesman more than a producer he recorded the music largely as it was played in the clubs and bars of Memphis, Mississippi and Arkanas. More than Sun Records, Meteor represented what was out there day to day, straight and unvarnished." I can't see that as a compliment. Makes you think of John and Alan Lomax recording ethnic music for the Library of Congress. It's the job of the producer to get something extra out of the artist, to give the studio recording added value over a live recording. Sam Phillips could do that. He was an innovator, Bihari was not. Mentioning Meteor in the same sentence as Sun is too much honour. Craig Morrison, the author of "Go Cat Go! : Rockabilly Music And Its Makers" (1996), devotes exactly one sentence to Lester Bihari and his label.

After closing down Meteor, Lester Bihari remained in Memphis, working as a rep for his brothers' budget Crown label, before moving on to Texas. He died in Los Angeles in 1983 at the age of 71.

Acknowledgements : - Anonymous liner notes for the CD "Meteor Rockabllies" (MTR-CD 5000). - Adam Komorowski, Notes for "Rockin' Memphis" (Properbox 143). - Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins, Good Rockin' Tonight : Sun Records and the Birth Of Rock 'n' Roll. New York : St. Martin's Press, 1991.

There is a discography of the 47 Meteor releases at both
http://www.wangdangdula.com/ and
http://www.globaldogproductions.info/
but there is no direct link.

CD's :
- Various artists, The Complete Meteor Rockabilly & Hillbilly Recordings
(Ace CDCH2 885). 2-CD release with 40-page booklet by Martin Hawkins.
- Various artists, The Complete Meteor Blues, R&B and Gospel Recordings
(Ace CDCH2 1090). 28-page booklet by Dave Sax.

Dik

 
These pages were saved from "This Is My Story" for reference usage only. Please note that these pages were not originally published or written by BlackCat Rockabilly Europe. For comments or information please contact Dik de Heer at dik.de.heer@ziggo.nl

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