Invisible Soul

Invisible Soul

The nearly lost world of Cleveland's underground soul scene

By Carlo Wolff, who is currently working on Invisible Soul, a book about underground Cleveland soul music. 

Don't miss the Rock Hall's 14th annual free admission day in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on January 19!

Cleveland soul music is far too cool to be a secret. One reason it is a secret: No visionary like Detroit's Berry Gordy, Jr. arose to make soul music an industry, let alone a brand, in what used to be Ohio's biggest city. At the same time, while Cleveland soul groups rarely made it big, some did go global, such as 2005 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees the O'Jays, the Grammy Award–winning Dazz Band, and Cleveland natives Edwin Starr and 2009 Rock Hall Inductee Bobby Womack.

From the '50s into the '80s, there was a busy Cleveland soul scene largely confined to the east side of the city. The name of that scene was 105. Its heart was Euclid Avenue from 75th Street east to University Circle. Its spine was 105th Street. The Cleveland Clinic now dominates its epicenter just west of University Circle.

Groups committed their tunes to vinyl, mostly as 45s released in small runs on tiny independent labels like Way Out, Saru and Luau. Much of it was recorded and pressed at Boddie Recording Company on Union Avenue near 128th Street. Boddie’s was a mom-and-pop operation, a studio attached to a house in a largely residential neighborhood that has seen far better days.

This music was lucrative enough to keep musicians steadily employed, moving from social event to political gathering, club to club, after-hours joint to after-hours joint. Black radio powerhouses WJMO and WABQ played local singles, and the native groups touted by those AM stations opened for big names at Public Auditorium and Public Hall, the site of the 2012 Hall of Fame Inductions Ceremony. Those stations and groups also paved the way for Motown bands that road tested their acts at Leo's Casino, Cleveland's best-known black-and-tan club.

Cleveland soul music spanned the sweet, Sly-inflected brew of Hot Chocolate (Lou Ragland's group, not the British one), the intricate harmonies of the Imperial Wonders (the city's answer to the Temptations), the pretty vocal blend of the Hesitations, the tangy rhythms of Harvey and the Phenomenals and the kiddy pop of The Ponderosa Twins + One – Cleveland's version of the Jackson Five.

The Sounds of Unity and Love (S.O.U.L.) laid jazz icing over funk beats. Mod Squad, which would become the smoother Sly, Slick & Wicked, sizzled on mid-tempo rhythm 'n' blues. On his way to become an expert blues singer-guitarist, Travis Haddix got people onto the dance floor courtesy of his first band, Chuck & the Tremblers.

Before he became a Motown star with “War” and “25 Miles,” Edwin Starr was Cleveland boy Charles Hatcher, and his group was the Futuretones. Former Futuretone Julius Roberts, who also worked with Starr at Motown, now plays bass in the Magic Touch Band, successor to Harvey and the Phenomenals.

Most of these bands dissolved a long time ago, but former members remain in Cleveland and points west. Ragland runs the Ink Spots in Las Vegas, singer Bobby Wade lives near Seattle and Imperial Wonders kingpin Al Boyd resides in suburban Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, bands are born again. The word of Cleveland soul is spreading, as veteran performers generate fresh material and find younger audiences craving its authenticity.

The Hesitations, a sweet, easy vocal group backed by a five-piece band, are making a comeback 44 years after they made waves with "The Impossible Dream" and their version of “Born Free” hit Number 38 on the Billboard chart. They drew thousands to a Northern Soul festival in Wales in 2010, are working local clubs and recording new tunes. Harvey Hall of Harvey and the Phenomenals is leading the Magic Touch Band with his wife Etta. Ragland, a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger and producer, will finally get his due in the box set I Travel Alone, also the name of one of his tunes. That set was assembled by Numero Group, a Chicago-based label making a major push to excavate soul music from back in the day. Numero recently released The Boddie Recording Company, a box set memorializing some 60 of the hundreds of groups that pressed their grooves onto shellac at Tom and Louise Boddie's recording operation.

While its sign still stands, Boddie ceased in the early '90s. The clubs showcasing acts like S.O.U.L., the Occasions, the Out of Sights, Truth, the Rotations, the outrageously funky Hot Chocolate, Jesse Fisher, Bobby Wade, Ba-Roz and David Peoples are long gone. But memories of that 24/7 culture remain, and the music is coming back to life.

George Hendricks is a Hesitation now. In earlier incarnations, he has been a Sahib, a Vandor, one of the Chosen Few. He's been part of the Challengers with Cleveland girl Ann Bogan, a key to Ragland's Volcanic Eruption, and a singer with Kim Tolliver (Cleveland's answer to Tina Turner). Hendricks has recorded in Cleveland, Detroit and Muscle Shoals. He remembers singing all over Cleveland's east side, in clubs like Liz’s Lounge at 105th and Euclid, the Road South at 73rd and Euclid, Café Society on 105th just south of Kempton Avenue, and the Cougar Lounge at 88th Street and Buckeye Road. 105 used to be the place to work, play, see and be seen, but those clubs no longer exist. 

“The bars used to close at 2:30 am and open back up at 5:30 am. Between those hours, you'd go have breakfast somewhere," he says. "As an entertainer, I used to sing at Liz's Lounge on 105.  I would leave Liz's Lounge after the first show, go to the Continental way on the other side of town, leave there and go to the Round Table or something like that.” The Continental was around East 127th Street and St. Clair Avenue near Shaw Avenue. The Round Table was on East 83rd at Quincy Avenue.

“The difference was on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday you might be at one club; Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday you'd be at another," says Hendricks. "You could actually make a living entertaining in those days. You had to be good, though.”

PHOTOS (from top to bottom): a member of the Levert family and O'Jays entourage poses outside Leo's Casino (photo by George Shuba); (From left): Challengers Jimmy Hutchinson and George Hendricks, Hendricks' then-wife Beverly, Cleveland native Ann Bogan (later to join the Andantes and the Marvelettes) and an acquaintance, Carlos Artagos. The picture was taken at the Circle Ballroom, 10300 Euclid Ave. (photo courtesy of Beverly Hendricks); Charles Hatcher, soon to be Edwin Starr, hanging on to the mic for dear life as a member of the Futuretones (courtesy of Julius Roberts); Lou Ragland and George Hendricks take a break at the Red Carpet Lounge, a hotspot at 12309 Euclid Ave. (courtesy of Lou Ragland)

About Carlo Wolff:

Carlo Wolff is the author of Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories. He writes for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe, the Chicago Sun Times and the Christian Science Monitor. He specializes in music criticism, book reviews, travel writing and feature articles about popular culture.