UNLOCK THE LOCK-THE KENT RECORDS STORY VOLUME 1 1958-1962.

UNLOCK THE LOCK-THE KENT RECORDS STORY VOLUME 1 1958-1962. 

In 1944, Jules Bihari, a Hollywood based musical entrepreneur, founded Modern Music with his brothers Saul, Joe and Lester. Little did anyone realise, that within a few years the nascent Modern Music would become one of the most successful independent labels. Commercial success visited Modern Music in 1945.

This came after Jules Bihari booked some studio time. Hadda Brookes, the Queen Of The Boogie, entered the studio and recorded Swinging The Boogie. It was released later in 1945, and paved the way for the commercial success that came Modern Music’s way.Three years later, in 1948, Modern Music changed its name to Modern Records. By then, Modern Records had a problem.

Modern Records were releasing so many singles that it was becoming difficult to get all their records played on radio. Radio stations were wary of playing too many records by the same label. They were scared they’d be accused of accepting payola. For labels like Modern Records, this presented a problem. So they had to work out a way round the problem.

Their way of doing this, was to setup a subsidiary company. Often this subsidiary company only released one type of music, like blues or R&B.

Modern Records’ first subsidiary company was Colonial. It was founded in 1948. A year later, in 1949, Modern Records founded their second imprint RPM Records. More companies were founded in the early fifties.

Flair Records was founded in 1952. The same year, the Bihari brothers launched Meteor Records in Memphis. It seemed that the Bihari brothers were building an empire. 

Five years later, the Bihari brothers founded the budget label Crown Records in 1957. Then in 1958, the Bihari brothers launched what was, without doubt, their greatest, and most famous label, Kent Records, whose music is celebrated on Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962. This two disc, forty-eight track compilation was recently released by Ace Records, and tells the story Kent Records’ first four years. Just like previous labels the Bihari brothers founded, it was a case of needs must.

The Bihari brothers decision to form Kent Records came through necessity. Many of the labels they had formed previously, including Colonial, Crown, Flair and Rhythm and Blues had folded. They were currently residing in the great musical graveyard in the sky. Adding to the Bihari brothers’ problems, was the fact that neither RPM nor Modern Records were the success they once were.

RPM released Don Cole’s Snake Eyed Mama in December 1957. Meanwhile, Modern Records had released Van Robinson’s Come On Let’s Dance. Neither single proved particularly successful, and RPM and Modern Records were mothballed by the Bihari brothers. The  Bihari brothers were about to launch another new label.

Kent Records was launched by the Bihari brothers in early 1958. However, Kent Records had been launched four years earlier, in 1954 by Lee Silver. He named his nascent label after a brand of cigarettes. Kent Records however, didn’t enjoy the same success as its namesake. After releasing two singles by The Four Guys, Lee Silver called time on his label. His final act was to sell it to the Bihari brothers. They kept the label until it was needed. By 1958, Kent Records’ time had come.

With RPM and Modern Records being mothballed, this allowed the Bihari brothers to get rid of under performing artists. They ruthlessly culled RPM and Modern Records’ rosters, keeping the most successful artists.

B.B. King, Danny Floers and Don Cole made the move from RPM to Kent Records. Etta James and Jesse Belvin were promoted from Modern Records to Kent Records. With its leaner roster of artists, Kent Records was about to release its first singles in 1958. These singles feature on Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962.

Disc One.

Kent Records celebrated its launch by releasing a trio of singles in early 1958. These singles had been recorded nearly a year earlier, in 1957. The Bihari brothers had been keeping the tracks for their new venture. With a stockpile of music recorded, the Bihari brothers launched their latest label.

Danny Boy’s cover of All Of Me was delivered in a doo wop style, and sported the catalogue number Kent 300. This made it the single that launched the Bihari brothers’ most famous label. The other two singles were B.B. King’s Why Do Everything Happen To Me and The Barker Brothers’ Hey Little Mama. The version of  Hey Little Mama on Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962 is a previously unreleased take. It’s one of nine alternate takes that have never been released before. For Kent completists, this will by musical gold. However, the Bihari brothers hadn’t struck gold.

Kent Records’ first three releases failed to make much of an impact commercially. This was a bitter blow. The Bihari brother could’ve done with a hit single. Especially given their recent lack of success. So their next single was by one Kent Records’ biggest names, Etta James. 

She released a sassy version of Baby, Baby” Every Night later in 1958. It was released with the catalogue number Kent 304.

However, Etta James’ flirtation with Kent Records was brief. Her then partner, Harvey Fuqua convinced her that she would be better signing to Chicago based Chess Records, who his own group The Moonglows were signed to. As a result, Kent Records lost one of their crown jewels. 

With one of their most promising artists having left their new label, the Bihari brothers turned to another of their big names, Don Cole. His single Sweet Lovin’ Honey was Kent Records’ next release. Sadly, despite being Don Cole’s best release, Sweet Lovin’ Honey went the same was as Snake Eyed Mama. While commercial success eluded Don, the Bihari brothers didn’t turn their back on him. However, they decided to back an up-and-coming artist.

This was Lee Denson. He was twenty-six, but still hadn’t made a commercial breakthrough. However, The Bihari brothers thought he might prove popular in the teen market. So Lee Denson recorded High School Hope as a single. On the flip side was Devil Doll which ironically, was the stronger of the two sides. It features on Hey Little Mama on Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962. High School Hop wasn’t a commercial success. Later in 1958, Jesse Davis released South’s Gonna Rise Again as a single. On the B-Side was Red Hot Rockin’ Blues. While the single was credited to Jesse Davis, it was actually Lee Denson recording using an alias. This allowed the Biharis two bites of the cherry. Neither bore fruit.

Still, the Bihari brothers continued to release singles during 1958. Flash Terry and His Orchestra released On My Way Back Home. The version on Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962 is an extended version of On My Way Back Home. Still commercial success eluded the Biharis.

With the Bihari brothers still searching for a hit, they licensed Sonny Knight’s Madness. He had a proven track record, and enjoyed a commercial success in 1957 with Confidential. Lightning didn’t strike twice, and the search for a hit went on.

As 1958 drew to a close, Floyd Dixon and His Orchestra released Change Your Mind as a single. It seemed someone had slipped up, as the flip side Dance The Thing, which features on Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962  had a better chance of charting. While hits eluded many on Kent Records’ roster during 1958, one of its crown jewels was busier than ever during 1959.

B.B. King proved to be Kent Records’ most prolific artists during 1959. He released five of the thirteen singles Kent Records released. Among the singles were The Fool, Mean Ole Frisco and Worry Worry. The versions of Mean Ole Frisco and Worry Worry on Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962 are previously unreleased versions. While B.B. King brought some success Kent Records’ way, the Bihari brothers brought back the woman who gave them their first hit single, Hadda Brookes.

Fourteen years earlier, the Queen Of The Boogie released Swinging The Boogie on Modern Music. It was a commercial success, and launched the Bihari brothers nascent label. Their latest label was needing a shot in the arm, so Hadda returned and recorded The Thrill Is Gone, which later, would become synonymous with B.B. King. Her five minute reinvention of The Thrill Is Gone failed commercially, as it was too long for commercial radio. The version of The Thrill Is Gone is an alternate take. However, there was a small crumb of comfort for the Bihari brothers. Hadda Brookes was going to release an album on Kent Records during 1959. The Thrill Is Gone was the musical equivalent of an amuse bouche. Other artists however, concentrated on singles.

This included Jesse Belvin, who previously, had moved from Modern Records to RCA-Victor. Jesse was one of Modern’s rising stars, but couldn’t refuse the opportunity to sign to RCA-Victor. With Jesse enjoying a successful career at RCA-Victor, the Bihari brothers decided to release his 1957 cover of (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons. Strings and backing vocals were over-dubbed. However, despite the Biharis best efforts, (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons couldn’t compete with Jesse’s RCA-Victor single Guess Who? With an old face failing to bring that elusive hit to Kent Records, the Biharis turned to George Motola.

Previously, George Motola proved to be a reliable source of hist for the Bihari brothers. George produced The Senders, who released two singles on Kent Records during 1959; The Ballad Of Stagger Lee was the first, and Everybody Needs To Know was the followup. The versions on  decided that Kent Records offered him a better chance of fame and fortune. This proved to be a big mistake. Jesse only released one single on Kent Records, (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons. It wasn’t the commercial success he had hoped for, Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962 are previously unreleased versions. Neither single sold well. However, the Bihari brothers weren’t for giving up. It was early days.

Disc Two.

As a new decade began, a new era unfolded at Kent Records. The label had been formed two years ago, in 1958. While Kent Records enjoyed a degree of success, the Bihari brothers’ latest venture hadn’t been the huge success many forecast. 1960 was going to be an important year in the Kent Records’ story.

With Kent Records needing hits, they turned to their biggest name, B.B. King. He released ten of the twenty singles that Kent Records released during 1960. This included Good Man Gone Bad and You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now, Five of the ten singles had been released before. However, this didn’t matter. B.B. King still had the Midas touch. 

His cover of Big Joe Turner’s Sweet Sixteen Parts 1 and 2 gave B.B. King his biggest hit since 1953. It came close to topping the US R&B charts. Four of B.B. King’s other singles reached the top thirty in the US R&B charts. Kent Records had the hits they so desperately needed. However, could anyone else on Kent Records’ roster add to the commercial success?

Hadda Brooks, who had returned to Kent Records in 1959, was one of the bigger names on Kent Records. She released Tomorrow Night in 1960. Jimmy Witherspoon signed in 1960, and released his Sings The Blues album on Crown Records. It featured his take on Hank Williams’ Your Cheating Heart. Sadly, the single wasn’t promoted, and sunk without trace. This didn’t please Jimmy Witherspoon.

The Bihari brothers seemed to be concentrating their efforts on releasing budget priced albums on their Crown Records imprints. It had been founded in 1959, and was their latest budget label. Among the artists whose albums were released on Crown Records, were B.B. King and Jimmy Witherspoon. These albums were available everywhere, from gas stations to corner shops. This didn’t please B.B. King and Jimmy Witherspoon. Especially, when their singles weren’t being promoted properly. This wasn’t helping Kent Records. However, at least Kent Records had enjoyed a successful year. Would 1961 be as successful?

During 1961, Kent Records released just nine singles. Four of them were by B.B. King. This included Bad Case Of Love. The version featured on Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962 is an alternate take, where B.B. King fluffs a line. He laughs it off, but ever the professional, records the song that gave him a minor hit single. This was the only single Kent Records enjoyed. That’s despite Jules Bihari’s best efforts.

As the search for a hit continued, Jules Bihari decided that Tony Allen and The Wanderers might bring a hit Kent Records’ way. Tony Allen and The Champs enjoyed a hit with Night Owl in 1955. Six years later, in 1961, Tony Allen and The Wanderers released If Love Was Money. Later in 1961, Dreamin’ was credited to Tony Allen and Group. Neither single was a commercial success. It seemed Tony Allen’s Midas touch had deserted him. This proved a familiar story for the Biharis.

Apart from B.B. King’s Bad Case Of Love, 1961 wasn’t  a good year for Kent Records. Commercial success eluded its roster, including Charlie Owens and The Sensational Ink Spots, who released Diane. It wasn’t the type of release that usually sported the Kent Records’ logo. However, Jules Bihari must have been hoping it would strike a nerve with older music fans. That wasn’t to be. This left the Biharis hoping 1962 would prove a better year for Kent Records.

After the disappointment of 1961, the Biharis released seventeen singles between January and June 1962. This included four from B.B. King. The remainder were a mixture of releases by unknowns and reissues. That’s not forgetting the a couple of cash-ins on dance crazes.

In the early sixties, dance crazes were all the rage. The Biharis wanted a slice of the action. So, Joe Houston and Teddy Reynolds were brought onboard to record albums for Kent Records. Both were approaching veteran status, but this didn’t stop them cashing in on The Twist’s popularity. Joe Houston’s recorded Doing The Twist and Teddy Reynolds’ Do You Wanna Twist. Both owe a debt of gratitude to the Hank Ballard penned The Twist. That wasn’t the end of Kent Records’ dalliance with Twist inspired tracks. Little Joe Hinton released The Whip Twist, and Around this time, recorded Get In The Car, which wasn’t released until it featured on a compilation in 1999. Even B.B. King released a dance track, Mashing The Popeye. It didn’t give B.B. King his first hit of 1962. Hits were proving hard to come by.

So the Biharis raided Kent Records vaults. They reissued Etta James’ 1958 recording, Crazy Feeling Aka Do Something Crazy. Another reissue came from 1953, and featured a young Bobby “Blue” Bland. He’s accompanied by Ike Turner and His Orchestra on Love You Baby. Neither single proved particularly successful, so in February 1962, Bill Ray was signed to Kent Records.

Billy Ray only released one single for Kent Records. However, Playboy, and its flip side Texas Queen oozed quality. Despite this, Playboy passed record buyers by. That was the case with two groups that released one single apiece.

The Classicals one and only single was Camel Caravan. It was released on Kent Records in 1962. So was The Newports’ Wonder Of Love. Sadly, neither single was a commercial success, and their time at Kent Records was short. That was the case with the other three artists on disc two of Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962.

Hal Davis is responsible for the first of this trio. Although he’s best known as a songwriter, who formed a formidable partnership with Burt Bacharach, he was also a singer. He released a heartfelt version of George Motola and Rickie Page’s Without You. It owes much to Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller and Ben E. King’s Stand By Me.  Despite this, Without You failed to find an audience. Neither did Pat Hunt’s cover of Goodnight My Love, nor Bobby Sanders Maybe I’m Wrong, which he penned himself. 

Just like a lot of the singles released by Kent Records between 1958 and 1962, there was nothing wrong with the quality of music. That’s apparent when one listens to Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962, which was recently released by Ace Records. Often, the singles were released at the wrong time. Good examples are Pat Hunt’s cover of Goodnight My Love, Etta James’ Crazy Feeling Aka Do Something Crazy and Bobby “Blue” Bland’s Love You Baby. They had been recorded up to nine years earlier, and released when the Biharis were searching for hits. A few years earlier, and these singles might have been a commercial success. However, music was changing. Another problem was the lack of money spent on promotion.

Similarly, with the Biharis concentrating their efforts and resources on their budget label Crown Records, singles released on Kent Records were, many artists felt, not being promoted properly. This included B.B. King and Jimmy Witherspoon. They felt that their singles never stood a chance. To some extent, that proved to be the case. However, B.B. King was Kent Records’ biggest selling artist.

B.B. King was one of Kent Records crown jewels. He was the man who first brought commercial success Kent Records’ way. This resulted in a B.B. King releasing around twenty singles between 1958 and 1962. That’s why it’s fitting that ten tracks by B.B. King feature on Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962. The other thirty-eight tracks include some of the biggest names who were signed to Kent Records. This includes Hadda Brooks, Etta James, Jesse Belvin and Don Cole. They had already been signed to the Bihari brothers previous labels, and the Bihari brothers hoped that they could repeat that commercial success. Sadly, lightning didn’t strike twice, despite the quality of the music Kent Records was releasing. That was the case for the period Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962 covers.

For the first four years of Kent Records’ existence, it released around fifty singles by familiar faces and new names. Sadly, Kent Records didn’t enjoy the commercial success its releases deserved. Despite that, Kent Records went on to become the Bihari brothers most successful and long running label. 

Kent Records lasted three decades, and forty years after Kent Records closed its doors for the last time, is still fondly remembered by R&B fans. They’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962 by Ace Records. Unlock The Lock-The Kent Records Story Volume 1 1958-1962 is the first instalment in the Kent Records’ story, and is a tantalising taste of the music released by the Bihari brothers greatest label.

UNLOCK THE LOCK-THE KENT RECORDS STORY VOLUME 1 1958-1962. 

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