The Tiny Record Empire in Cleveland

Thomas Boddie never had aspirations to build another Motown, but the legacy left in his sealed-up studio is an important piece of musical history.

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When it's released in 2011, the Boddie project will be Numero Group's biggest yet. It's expected to consist of a coffee-table book with photographs of the studio and some of the artists, two soul and R&B discs, one gospel disc and a disc of music that didn't even make it to record. "There's incredible music there," Sevier says of mining the unreleased material. Much of it is unlabeled. "The best way to identify artists is to bring a CD along when we meet people [who recorded at the studios], play the CD and see if they recognize anything. It's a long and slow process."

If They Paid, He Recorded

Boddie didn't discriminate. He recorded whatever people would pay him to record. Cantors at Temple Tifereth-Israel on Cleveland's East Side. The O'Jays at a then-popular African-American club called Leo's Casino. Fiddlers and banjo pickers up from West Virginia to perform at the First Baptist Church on Cleveland's Near West Side. All told, he had seven labels, two of which he curated: Soul Kitchen and Luau.

More of an electronics whiz than a musical one (though he loved jazz especially and was a big Stan Getz fan), after graduating second in his class from Cleveland's East Technical High School, Boddie found work as a Baldwin-organ repairman. According to Louise, the white-run piano company where he applied for the job at first didn't want to hire him "because they didn't know how people would receive him as a man of color coming into their homes." They gave him an unrepairable old organ to repair and said that if he fixed it, he could have the job. He fixed it.

"They didn't know my husband very well," says Louise, Thomas' proverbial right arm, who over the years kept the company's books, answered the phones, joined the chamber of commerce and for a time even pressed the records by hand. "I mean, this was his specialty."

By 1959 Boddie had earned enough money to buy a house on the site of a former dairy, in a neighborhood filled with African-American homeowners. He converted part of a small outbuilding into a recording studio in 1959.

"It was mainly a tape recorder there because it was still just a dirt floor," says Louise. "When we got together, that's when we started building the rest of it. There was an overhead garage door where the big window is. We closed that up and then just made a big glass window and started to do the floors and all of that. I learned how to pour cement, and I learned how to lay tile."

About the size of a large garage, the studio is still pretty much intact, with the drum booth at one end and his collection of microphones pushed up against the other. Entire choirs managed to squeeze in behind the glass that separated the performers from the technician.

Thomas also designed and built a wood-burning furnace -- still there -- out in the studio so they could save on gas. He eventually built such a furnace in the house, too, and recycled the steam from the pressing plant through underground pipes to a generator in the house.         

The Boddies added the record-pressing plant in the late 1960s. They got the equipment from a Cleveland company called Kelmar, which had been pressing the Boddies' masters into records. "I would go over there, and they were teaching me how to operate the manual press," recalls Louise. Then the company lost some key investors and decided to close. "They said, 'Would you all like to buy the equipment? We'll let you have it for a couple thousand dollars.' "