Sunday, February 19, 2012
Thomas was a wizard with electronics, and graduated second in the class of '42 at Cleveland's East Technical High School, where he was the lone black student. After WWII army service, he became an organ repairman and bought a music recording machine. Thus was born the first black-owned recording studio in Cleveland.
As described in the accompanying booklets, Boddie seems to have been set up and operated on a wing and a prayer, but it was a nexus of activity at a time when cities made things - and pressing records was one of them. The box set is an astounding representation of that output, dubbed a "who's who of who's that?"
The Boddie clientele at first was gospel and jazz performers, with soul singers following in droves as that style became pervasive in the early 60s. The Boddies had no money to meaningfully promote this music, and never pressed more than a thousand copies of anything, but hoped that the recordings could at least serve as demos for their clients. In all, there were seven labels, the most enduring of which was Soul Kitchen, and on this compilation is a stirring cut by Frankie Pighee & the Soulettes, If You Don't Think (That I Love You). Pighee's catchphrase, "Boy, that's cookin'!" was the inspiration for the label moniker.
Although you could mistake Pighee's raw dynamic voice for a male's, as I did, the singer was a 400-pound woman early in her career (she later had weight reduction surgery that altered her voice considerably). She cut her teeth at church. Then she made friends with Leo Frank, whose Leo's Casino was the venue to which the big-name soul acts of the day flocked. That friendship led to Pighee opening for the O'Jays, the Temptations, Otis Redding and Jackie Wilson. Her recording career seemed to be held back by her imposing frame, but the surgery negatively impacted her voice and strength. She died in a car accident in 2002.
Like all Numero box sets, it is a work of art and craft. The Boddie set, comprised of 58 soul and gospel tracks on three CDs, also presents delightful artifacts like old photos and advertising flyers. The Boddies freely promoted their sidelight business, on-location recording services. One flyer says: "If you are tired of terrible sound, call us, for block partys, picnics, parades, conventions, bazaars, carnivals, political rallies, re-unions, mobile sound advertising, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc." Yes, there are five etceteras.
The Boddies became recyclers in 1973 when an OPEC oil embargo imposed restrictions on the petroleum that's a primary feedstock for vinyl. Thomas' supplier informed him, according to one of the Numero booklets, that as a minority he would be serviced last, if at all. Flagrant discrimination couldn't have come at a worse time, as the need for their pressing services was at a peak. Ever resourceful, Thomas bought a grinder, which meant he could reuse inventory from dead labels as well as from jobs where the customer simply disappeared. Even after the embargo ended, he continued the practice.
When Thomas Boddie's industrious life ended in 2006 following a brain aneurism, Louise shuttered the facility with its contents left to molder intact. Years later, Ohio-based archivist Dante Carfagna convinced her to help him sort through the priceless flotsam and jetsam of Cleveland music history. Thanks to him and Numero Group, a stunning box set now documents the hard work of so many young hopefuls and the couple determined to give them their place in the sun, if only for a moment. A must-have for music history devotees.