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.

Boddie with a record-pressing machine. (Courtesy Numero Group)
Boddie with a record-pressing machine. (Courtesy Numero Group)

By Laura Putre

There’s only one Berry Gordy, but Rust Belt America in the 1960s and ’70s was also home to at least a handful of African-American-run recording studios that thrived without bank loans, relying on secondhand equipment, the owners’ technical skill and ingenuity, and the ability to stretch a buck.

The proprietors of these studios included people like Thomas Boddie of Cleveland’s Boddie Recording Co., who didn’t dream big — unless dreaming big meant having your wife help lay cement in your backyard so you could build an addition onto the garage for a record-pressing plant. Or driving around the country to church conventions, where you recorded preachers with a flat glass microphone that you designed and built yourself, and your wife got arthritis in her knuckles from running the cassette-tape duplication machine over and over, making 16 cassettes every three minutes, so you could sell $7 cassettes to 12,000 of the faithful.

“Boddie took baby steps and built himself a tiny little empire,” says Rob Sevier, co-founder of Numero Group, a Chicago record label that specializes in archival recordings of obscure regional music, much of it soul, funk and folk. A lot of the music Boddie recorded was junk — “tedious white gospel quartets,” says Sevier — but there was plenty of great stuff in the heap, too.

Collectively, the recordings — which were mothballed in Boddie’s backyard studio, sealed up from the time of Boddie’s death from an aneurysm in August 2006 until last year — are a musical anthropologist’s dream come true, telling the story of a lively regional music scene that might otherwise have been lost to history. They include hundreds of noteworthy regional acts, from traveling soul groups to Appalachian country-western acts, that performed live but rarely got played on the radio, let alone scored a hit record. A few standouts achieved modest regional acclaim among soul fans: A.C. Jones, Creations Unlimited, Harvey and the Phenomenals, and Jackie Russell.

“We weren’t trying to be another Motown or any of these things, because we couldn’t afford it,” says Louise Boddie, Thomas’ widow and business partner. “We didn’t have the kind of sponsors that Motown had. Our intent was just to record talent and lease it out to other companies who could afford to sponsor them.” Occasionally, if they thought someone might strike hitmaking gold, they would send the recording to a big-name studio. “If they liked it, then they would buy their contract,” says Louise.

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