Do a quick Google search for 12202 Union Avenue, Cleveland, OH. The top result is a Google map that still shows a Boddie Recording label at the address. Switch to Street View, and there's an attractive red two-story house with yellow trim and a sign out front that says "Boddie," with eighth notes standing in for the Ds. Down the driveway, a garage is visible, but it's not an ordinary garage. It's the remains of Boddie Recording Company, the long-lived but never well-known recording concern of Thomas and Louise Boddie. The outbuildings behind the house still contain the ephemera of record labels that long ago faded to silence, a studio that hosted its last session decades ago, and a pressing plant that has sat idle since the mid-1980s, some of the components of the pressing line long since sold off.
In this space, a few hundred 45s and LPs were prepared for a world that never bothered to hear them. Though this release doesn't strictly fall under the banner of Numero Group's long-running soul archeology project Eccentric Soul, it fits with the spirit of the project, unearthing not just the music made at Boddie but also the history and personalities surrounding it-- the old, grainy photographs and detailed histories contained in the two liner-note booklets place the music on these three CDs in the context of the people that made it and the place where it was made.
Boddie Recording Company was born out of Thomas Boddie's passion for electronics, a passion he acquired when very young. He built his own radios and speaker systems in junior high, went to tech school (the only black student in his class), served in the Army Air Force during World War II. He got himself a job repairing organs after his discharge and apprenticed at a local Cleveland studio while amassing a collection of studio gear in the basement of the house he shared with his brother. Boddie's fledgling company cut its first sides in 1959, the same year Berry Gordy founded Motown on the other side of Lake Erie, but the two companies' arcs could not have been more different. Where Gordy assembled a brilliant core of creative people who built long-lasting working relationships and devised processes of production and quality control that turned his company into a powerhouse, Boddie and his wife worked day and night with very limited resources to build a studio behind their new house that wasn't ready for business until 1964.
Even then, there was no team. Boddie recorded local acts but had no house band. The company established several imprints on which to release recordings but had no real avenues through which to promote them. The first disc of this set focuses on the Soul Kitchen and related Cookin' labels, which were active primarily in the early 1970s. The music on these releases falls mostly in the psychedelic soul realm-- during the same period, one of Cleveland's most admired bands was the Purple Image, a funky psychedelic outfit that recorded a classic self-titled LP in 1970. The Creations Unlimited and the Inter-Circle each cut strong fuzz funk singles, Ricky Hodges' "I Feel It (The Love You Have For Me)" features fantastically ragged guitar taking bites out of an elastic beat while flute flutters around his soul shouting, and "Soul Feeling" finds Frankie Pighee & the Soulettes making their own outstanding contribution to the long lineage of soul roll-call tunes.
None of it is especially polished, and it's hard to pinpoint the potential hits that never were, because there were so many records like this being made at the time; but there is a certain optimism and spirit of hard work in these recordings that makes them an exciting body of work to listen to all at once. The same can be said of the earlier recordings on disc two, which were mostly released on the Luau label. There are some great band names-- the Atomic Aces and the Modern Detergents definitely top the list-- and a lot of rollicking R&B on the disc, which works with disc one to paint a picture of the evolving soul scene in Cleveland during the era. There was a lot of talent toiling down there in the dead-end clubs, and Boddie captured a good cross-section of it.
While these recordings are fun and sometimes even great, they didn't exactly provide the seeds for any money trees, and Thomas Boddie continued to repair organs and radios on the side. He slowly pieced together his own pressing plant, he recorded a lot of out-of-town bluegrass and folk groups touring through Cleveland, he built his own mobile recording unit, he ran a side company called Boddie Audio Advertising (it was a car with a PA on top-- they used it to support Carl Stokes' campaign for mayor), and he also tapped in to one of the safer-- if not more profitable-- markets in music: gospel.
The final disc of the set is filled with gospel recordings from Boddie's Bounty imprint, spanning from 1967 all the way to 1983, the very twilight of Boddie as a recording concern. Bits of gospel do crop up on the other discs (the King James Version's two tracks on disc one are especially entertaining), but disc three is a clinic in the numerous ways that singers and bands found to put their faith into music. Some of it is ham-handed and overwrought-- Rev. R.L. Hubbard's operatics on "Child of the King" do not complement the spooky soul backing, and the screechy kid vocals of the Wings of Faith Juniors of Grand Rapids, Michigan, are rough sledding-- but a lot of it is clever and enjoyable on its own musical terms. Brother Bill wasn't the only one to wrap religion in a faux-countercultural rap, but he does it with a lot of panache, and Silver King's "Trouble in the Water" psychedelicizes a variation on the old "Wade in the Water" themes.
A couple of songs engage in some rather un-Christian theft. Sound of Soul's "Gospel Train" is actually the Impressions' "People Get Ready" lazily retitled, and the Gospel Ensemble's "What You Need" liberally borrows from the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing", to name two examples that give soul fans an opportunity to play detective. Some of the later gospel sides were recorded not at Boddie's studio but in the actual churches, using his mobile unit. As his vinyl pressing operation, never big enough to be a hugely profitable concern, struggled in the early 1980s in the face of collapsing demand, Thomas Boddie got into cassette duplication. He'd often make a recording at a service that would then be duplicated and sold to congregants.
Boddie never shuttered his company. He died in 2006, but he hadn't ever considered putting Boddie Recording Company to bed permanently. Instead, it faded quietly away, years of incredibly hard work and long hours settling silently under layers of dust in the buildings behind his house. Boddie is a footnote to Cleveland's musical history, more or less, but as the city's premier low-cost studio, he provided a huge service to the city's music scene for over 20 years. This set pulls some of that service into the light and tells a story with the records he left behind.