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 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.’ ”

The Boddies managed to rustle up $2,100 to pay for two behemoth machines with manual presses. It took four minutes to press a record by hand. Louise did the manual labor, placing a ball of melted vinyl pellets into a lathe, then yanking down the heavy cover on the press. Each record took four minutes to set in the press, during which time Louise trimmed other records and put them in sleeves.

Pressing an order of 1,000 records — about the maximum the Boddies could handle — took several days’ work. “It built up my arm muscles,” Louise says with a laugh. “I didn’t like standing on my feet that long, but I did it.”

The Riots Signal the End

The Boddies had spread plenty of mom-and-pop goodwill in Cleveland, often hosting groups from local high schools to train on their equipment. But their business took a hit after the 1966 Hough race riots in the area, says Louise. Some of the couple’s white clientele flat out told the Boddies that they feared visiting their neighborhood and would no longer be coming.

But Thomas made up the loss with increased organ business. After the riots, says Louise, the white organ servicemen were afraid to work in Glenville, which in the 1960s had become a predominantly African-American neighborhood. “One of them said to my husband, ‘Will you take over the churches that I had over there? I don’t feel so safe going over there.’ So Tom made a joke out of it. He said, ‘If I had known that, I’d have started a riot a long time ago.'”      

Louise says at first that it was a little odd to have these two hipsters from Numero Group in her backyard, going through all her husband’s arcana. “We kept all of these things, but I didn’t think nothing much of it. Then Dante came, and he would go, ‘Oh, gee, Mrs. Boddie, you’ve got a whole history here.’ He was just so excited, it made me excited.

“I hope that it will be something that people will get to know and really appreciate. Because our children — when I say our children, I mean my race in particular — they need to know that you can come from nothing and become something.”

Laura Putre is a freelance journalist from Cleveland who has written for the Chicago Reader, The Advocate and O: The Oprah Magazine.

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