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 were people like Thomas Boddie of Cleveland’s Boddie Recording Company, who didn’t dream big — unless dreaming big meant having your wife help lay cement in your backyard so you could build an addition on the garage for a record pressing plant.
Or driving around the country to church conventions, where you recorded preachers with a flat glass microphone 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 mothballed in the Boddies’ backyard studio, sealed up from the time of Boddie’s death from a brain aneurysm in 2007 until 2009, 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, the Inner Circle, Harvey and the Phenomenals, Jackie Russell, the Chantals.
“We weren’t trying to be another Motown or any of these things because we couldn’t afford it,” says Louise Boddie, Thomas’ wife 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.
It took Sevier and Dante Carfagna, a DJ and curator of the Ohio Soul Recordings website, four years to get the Boddie family to agree to let Numero Group go through their archives and ultimately release a Boddie Recording Company compilation. “He was a tough nut to crack,” says Sevier. He had sent Thomas Boddie selections from Numero’s back catalog, but Boddie apparently was underwhelmed. “He was impressed with the packaging, but he had some negative things to say about the original music. Not about the mastering. He felt like the music wasn’t very good, and he wasn’t very open. He’d say things like, ‘We’ve got some stuff going on. It’s going to be another few months.’ He kept pushing it back.”
In 2006, through an obituary, Carfagna learned of Boddie’s death. Sevier waited a couple of months, then called Boddie’s still-grief-wracked wife, Louise. “She said, ‘Why don’t you call me back in a year?’” Sevier recalls. “A year went by, and I called again, and she wanted another year.”
In late 2008, Louise Boddie 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 who were interested in licensing a handful of tracks, “but nothing of the scope we were talking about. 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 in 2011. “A virtually untouched picture of what a real live ‘60s soul studio looked like.”
Finally released in 2011, the Boddie Recording Company project turned out to be Numero Group’s biggest yet, consisting of two booklets crammed with photographs of the studio, artists, and Boddie ephemera; two soul and r&b discs; one gospel disc, and a disc of tracks 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.”
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. Country-western acts 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 and said if he fixed it, he could have the job.
He fixed it. “They didn’t know my husband very well,” says Louise, Thomas’s 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.”
After Boddie landed the job, Louise explains, he’d overhear the piano company owners telling customers on the phone, “‘Now, he’s a black man. But he’s good and he won’t bother anything or anyone.’ That’s kind of depressing when you hear someone say that. If he’s an organ technician, he’s an organ technician.”
By 1959, Thomas Boddie had saved 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.
“It was mainly a tape recorder there because it was still just a dirt floor,” says Louise. “When we got together [in 1963], that’s when we started building the rest of it.” They replaced an overhead garage door with a big glass window and installed actual floors. “I learned how to pour cement and I learned how to lay tile.”
About the size of a two-car garage, the studio is still pretty much intact, with the drum booth at one end and Thomas’ 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 another such furnace in the house, too, and recycled the steam from the pressing plant through underground pipes to a generator in the house.
In the 1960s, the Boddies added the record-pressing plant. The equipment came from a Cleveland company, Kel-Mar, that 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 Boddies 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 neighborhood, says Louise. Some of the couples’ white clientele flat-out told the Boddies they feared visiting their neighborhood and would no longer be coming.
But Thomas recouped the loss with increased organ business. After the Hough riots, says Louise, the white organ servicemen were afraid to work in Glenville, which was fast becoming 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.’”
The record business started to decline with the introduction of cassette tapes and their DIY duplication capabilities and the oil crisis in the 1970s. But Tom and Louise had another angle: recording major church conventions around the country. They bought four hulking cassette duplication machines from a company in Indiana, lugging those in their car with a mixing board, then hiring someone on site to drag it all in on a dolly. It was a lucrative operation.
“We could produce 16 cassettes every three minutes,” says Louise. They sold recordings for each convention speaker, at $7 apiece. She says the arthritic knots on her thumbs and forefingers came from taking tens of thousands of just-duplicated cassettes out of the machines.
Louise would label blank cassettes according to how many people were in attendance and how well she thought a speaker would sell. She had the names of all the speakers, and would pre-label about 50 or so for each. If a speaker sounded particularly rousing, she’d make up more cassettes on the spot.
“Usually, I was set up right outside the auditorium,” she says. “So, I could here the response from the people inside. I could tell if it was quiet, ‘This ain’t going to be good.’ But, if people were talking back to the speaker, then I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be good.’”
Louise says at first it was a little odd to have these two hipsters from Numero Group in her backyard, going through all her husbands’ 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.”
This essay appears in The Cleveland Anthology