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)

In late 2008, Louise agreed to the project. “The basic point was that on the cover would be a photo of Thomas,” says Sevier. “This is his legacy.”

Over the years, Boddie had been courted by a couple of British labels that were interested in licensing a handful of tracks, “but nothing of the scope we were talking about,” says Sevier. “I think everybody else who was interested had long since given up.”

When the Numero guys finally cracked open the door to the backyard cinder-block studio, “it was like entering King Tut’s tomb,” wrote Numero co-founder Ken Shipley on a Numero Group blog earlier this year. “A virtually untouched picture of what a real live ’60s soul studio looked like.”

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.”