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The Numero Group’s small-batch soul

The unlikely history behind Boddie Recording Company: Cleveland, Ohio, the archival label's newest compilation

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We live in an era where the prerequisites for starting a record label can be as minimal as having an Internet connection and knowing a couple of people with MacBooks and a modicum of musical talent. But before GarageBand and Bandcamp revolutionized the art of making an album (or at least leveled its playing field) such work required heavy machinery—oven-sized tape devices, vinyl-stamping machines, lathes that look like something taken from the floor of an automotive assembly line—and a team of operators trained to work them. Running a top-to-bottom label and production operation involved an almost inhuman amount of dedication and work. Which helps make the Numero Group's newly released collection Boddie Recording Company: Cleveland, Ohio, almost worth the price of admission for the liner notes alone.

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Numero's catalog of reissued music covers a broad range of small, defunct labels devoted to small regional scenes that probably would have sunk into utter obscurity if not for their intervention. Every compilation Numero releases is a labor of love, the result of countless hours of research and meticulous efforts to restore old tape and vinyl. Boddie is a special case—Numero's been working on bringing these recordings to a broader audience since before the label put out its first record in 2003.

Thomas Boddie (pronounced "BOH-dee"), the company's founder and namesake, failed to produce a single hit in his label's four-decade history. Yet Boddie covers an impressively broad stretch of sonic territory. Habitual buyers of Numero compilations—seekers of the type of classical soul that brings tears to the eyes of hip-hop producers and obsessive British record collectors—will find a lot to well up over.

Boddie was "kind of a geek," Numero's Rob Sevier tells me. "He was a tech geek before it was cool." Sevier is one of the label's primary pop archaeologists and archivists, responsible for unearthing the rare recordings the label compiles—as well as writing many of the extensive histories they're packaged with, including one of the two densely worded booklets that come with Boddie. All told, the compilation took over a decade to produce.

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Boddie's geekiness first manifested when he was a teenager infatuated with electronics in the years leading up to World War II. He built crystal radios and taught himself to operate and repair recording equipment. Boddie served in the Pacific theater, and used the payment received after completing his service to buy a disc-cutting lathe that he used to etch recordings of radio and television broadcasts as a hobby. In between freelance electronics-repair gigs he apprenticed at one of the few recording studios in Cleveland at the time, and applied what he learned assembling and maintaining the equipment gear to put together his own studio out of spare parts and outdated gear.

He founded the Boddie Recording Company in 1959—based out of a building behind the house he'd bought in one of Cleveland's predominantly black neighborhoods—but it wasn't until marrying music fan Louise Stewart in 1963 that Boddie began to make records in earnest. The couple founded a pair of DIY labels—Bounty and Luau—intended to service Cleveland's burgeoning R&B and gospel music scenes, respectively. Boddie handled everything from building the studio to recording the bands to cutting the actual finished product himself. (He even designed the amazing label art for a later imprint, Soul Kitchen.)

"That, to me, is kind of the essence of his character," Sevier says. "You've got a guy who buys a cheap house, builds out the back with what starts out as a hobby and turns into a very difficult profession."

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The music Boddie recorded was all over the place—there was a stint where his studio was popular with country music bands—but R&B and gospel from Cleveland and its environs continued to be the label's main focus. "It's a guy who kinda wins by showing up and being the first guy there," Sevier points out. "Not that anything was easy for him." Boddie Recording operated steadily for nearly 40 years until the mid-90s, when complications from a stroke forced Thomas to slow down. Sevier notes that though the operation was little known, it outlasted many of its contemporaries. "But it was purely through hard work. They never had a hit. They never had a high-paying gig. I don't know if he would've known how to bill for that. These guys stuck to the lowest-end work that one could get at all times. It's pure tenacity."

There are some surprising musical moments in the compilation, many of them courtesy of Boddie's work with gospel acts. Boddie and his wife were devoted churchgoers, and he seems to have understood the value of the small but highly devoted congregations as markets for his label. He would press small runs of a couple hundred singles for acts—ones with names like the Gospel Fabulators and the Seven Revelators—that mixed religiosity and showmanship in ways that would look strange to an outside audience. One group, the King James Version, featured two front men who dressed up like Moses and King Solomon, complete with white wigs, beards, and robes. One of their two cuts on the anthology, recorded live, features the pair preaching and chanting over a murky rendition of the theme to Midnight Cowboy topped by an out-of-tune guitar. I can imagine it would appeal greatly to fans of bizarre outsider art.

"This is not the story of a great ear for talent," Sevier says. "It's not a story of someone who knew how to foster talent the way Barry Berry Gordy did, to find talent and make it better. This is the story of someone who showed up at a place where great things were happening and provided a crucial part of that through his one talent, which was, when it came to technology, sewing a purse out of a sow's ear.

"He's the anti-Barry anti-Berry Gordy in the sense that he's not a slick-talking, fancy-dressing city boy, you know? He comes from an old world, a world where you work hard. It's like the Protestant work ethic where you're rewarded for hard work, not for your ability to sell yourself, to talk yourself up. Those weren't the talents that he valued."

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