The Tiny Record Empire in Cleveland

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.

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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.

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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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Cracking the Vault

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."

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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."

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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.

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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."

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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."

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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.         

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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.

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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.

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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.

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"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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