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Various Artists - Boddie Recording Comp

This is the story of an extraordinary recording company and, in Thomas Boddie, an astoundingly innovative audio engineer and music fan.

The music recorded at the Boddie Recording Company is the sound of music in its most raw and passionate state. It is the sound of a world before digital when Compact Disc was an unknown term let alone FLAC . The music here has been taken directly from the master tapes and sounds exactly as it did when it was first laid down in the studio.

Ken Shipley of Numero Group, who has unearthed and restored this catalogue of buried treasures, explains the background to Boddie:

Louise & Thomas Boddie
Louise & Thomas Boddie

“Tucked into the backyard of an unassuming two-story house on an equally modest residential strip, the Boddie Recording Company remained in operation longer than any other studio, pressing plant, or label group in the history of Cleveland. Between 1958 and 1993, the husband and wife duo of Thomas and Louise Boddie issued nearly 300 albums and 45s, recorded some ten thousand hours of tape, and pressed more than a million custom records. Even so, the Boddie’s historic black enterprise in music has gone almost totally unrecognized at the local scale—to say nothing of the national attention it’s still waiting on.

Pushing through the wrought iron gate of the humble outfit’s cinder-blocked main building into the studio’s mudroom reveals a huge collection of glossy 8x10s and colorful 45RPM records tacked to the walls. From the wheelchair-bound Little Evelyn to R. Thompson & the Maynard Family, the closet-sized entry hall’s facade is both a Who’s Who of “Who’s that?” and the proper introduction to the Boddies’ will-work-for-food corner of the recording industry. If you recorded here, you did so not for the amenities, but to keep your bottom line in check. Just off the “foyer” and covered in classic ‘70s wood paneling, Thomas Boddie’s office could pass for an upstart bookkeeper’s, with papers piled in teetering columns and filing cabinets stuffed with publisher forms, carbon copied correspondence, and business cards keeping Thomas in contact with everyone from Otis Redding to Sun Ra.

The Boddie Recording Company

The Boddie studio itself is nothing short of an engineering marvel, more Rube Goldberg than Thomas Edison. Anchored by a ½” Ampex 300 3-track that’s been modified to accommodate eight tracks, the hand-wired control room overflows with all manner of secondhand gear rescued from the scrap piles of Thomas Boddie’s competition. A homemade oscilloscope sits next to an Infonics Duo 200 cassette duplicator, while rows of unused, off-brand tape lean together underneath a jury-rigged Yamaha console. The narrow passage leading to the live room is crammed floor-to-ceiling with video cloning equipment from the Boddies’ brief flirtation with taping local sermons. Through the glass separation, the 20x20 tracking room’s cathedral ceiling cascades into walls covered in hook-hung cables. The centerpiece is a walnut baby grand piano bought on the cheap from one of Thomas’s TV repair customers. Thousands of unclaimed reel-to-reel tapes by Boddie clients fill out the back half of the room. And still further back, Thomas’s workshop is a crush of disassembled radios and mason jars filled with tubes, transistors, and spent circuit boards. A few Schwinn cruisers in a pile guard a series of filing cabinets, filled with still more tapes and tubes. An elevator lift leads to a mostly empty loft, the planned home of a Boddie radio station that never came to be.

Boddie Recording Company artist Penny North
Boddie Recording Company artist Penny North

“I spent most of my time recording radio programs and experimenting with electrical gadgets,” Thomas recalled in a May 1971 letter. His first crude recordings featured his grandparents’ landlord, whose saxophone squawks were captured by an earphone converted into a microphone. For all their support, those same grandparents were unable to afford college when Thomas graduated from East Tech in 1941. “All of my classmates [in the Industrial Electricity program] were placed in jobs with General Electric, Westinghouse, Parker Appliance, et cetera,” Thomas recounted, “but somehow they just couldn’t find a job for the only Negro in class.”

Back outside, an asphalt driveway dead ends into a wide two-car garage originally built to house the Boddies’ only real source of income: the pressing plant. A metal ladder hung above the entry reads “Boddie T.V. Repair,” and a padlocked door gives way to a mint green space adorned with various Boddie-pressed LP jackets. Exhaust pipes run ragged; untouched label stock sits shrinkwrapped or boxed on the floor beside a defunct printing press. A 15-foot assembly table lines the west wall, with several thousand of unpaid-for LPs and 45s stored in its undercarriage. The press itself is a manual Finebilt, reconfigured as a semi-automatic by who else but Thomas himself. His similarly constructed ad-hoc trimmer juts out into the room’s center, good company for the 16” Rek-O-Kut lathe that takes up the balance of the room’s 200 square feet. Just beyond the boiler is an anteroom with two immersion baths for curing the nickel plates. No trace remains of the requisite safety goggles and protective lab coats generally found in what was certainly a highly toxic environment.

A busy 1973 brought another challenge for Boddie: Vinyl became a precious commodity when crude oil, its main ingredient, came under an OPEC-imposed embargo. Boddie’s supplier brazenly informed them that African American customers in the U.S. would be serviced last, if at all. Demand for Boddie’s services drove Thomas to purchase a grinder and begin recycling dead label inventory—he’d also throw in vinyl stock from completed jobs that hadn’t been picked up by customers. The Boddies, seeing good economic sense in this practice, continued to employ it long after the embargo ended in 1974, which explains the distinct noisy quality common to many of their records.

Boddie Recording Company artists Little Anthony and The Modern Detergents
Little Anthony and The Modern Detergents

The Boddie operation survived by the skin of its teeth, in a good year. It wasn’t uncommon for Thomas to service organs, radios, and televisions all day, dig a water- or gas-line trench for the plant in the early evening, and then engineer a session into the wee hours of the night. Louise would occasionally keep the press humming all night, sending up a racket her neighbors must not have appreciated much. But when facing obstacles that might’ve made lesser small business owners close up shop and file for Chapter 11, Thomas and Louise bore down, shoved ego aside, and got to work.

Oddly enough, Boddie’s total lack of success permitted it a longevity enjoyed by none of its peers. A hit record for the Boddies was one that sold through the 1000 copies they pressed, a feat achieved by just a few of their titles. So far removed from any big-time success, the little company eventually froze in time, trapped in the economically sputtering mid-‘80s. 

Decades later, Thomas fought off Numero’s overtures again and again before his death in August of 2006. Following her husband’s passing, Louise was reluctant to crack the seal on the vault of their endeavor, finally relenting in 2009—right around the 50th anniversary of the Boddie Recording Company’s incorporation. With the padlock off and the door to the studio open, Mrs. Boddie shed first light on a modest monolith of recording, long overdue to appear not only in the annals of Cleveland musical history but on a national stage as well.”

Ken Shipley

Selected tracks from Numero 035, Boddie Recording Company: Cleveland, Ohio 3CD/5LP. 

Find out more at : www.numerogroup.com

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