Considering the hundreds of thousands of 45s and LPs pressed by Cleveland’s Boddie Recording Company, a clutch of six acetates cut back in 1969 for a group calling themselves the Mod Squad might easily seem too microscopic for consideration—incidental even. These particular six acetates, however, deserve some back-story.
The Mod Squad sextet—three vocalists and three instrumentalists—had been treated to a musical education in which curiosity and experimentation were encouraged and rewarded. At the brand new John F. Kennedy High School on Harvard Avenue in Cleveland, band director and jazz organist Ulysses Hardin gave his charges a deal too good to ignore: Any song they arranged, they’d be permitted to play. As a result, students at the Eastside high school compiled the city’s hippest repertoire and an advanced comprehension of music’s building blocks. When your neighborhoods and classrooms are producing talents such as Bobby Womack and Edwin Starr, it's entirely likely that, with the right luck, your number might get called next.
Even by Cleveland standards, the Mod Squad’s roster was stacked. Drummer Clarence Gillespie had spent his teens wearing a Little G nametag and fronting the Vibrators—from behind the kit—through a slew of Cleveland club dates and one 45 with Ricky Hodges. Several of Gillespie’s impressionable JFK High schoolmates followed suit, entering the music business at ages well below the national average. Singer John Wilson played through his formative semesters with the Tam-A-Las, a group who surely outgrew several band uniforms over the course of their seven-year run. With his mortarboard thrown and grounded, Wilson approached Gillespie about forming a new group. The resulting La Cockdors were rounded out by recent Alabama transplant Joe Pearson on bass, the indefatigable George Jones on guitar, and Harold Beverly doing his best Sam to Wilson’s Dave. When Beverly split to go solo, Charles Still and Mark Sexton stepped into his place, opening the door to a much-needed name change.
The Mod Squad—borrowing their new alias from ABC’s crime-fighting white, black, and female TV trio—hit the road to deliver a pressure-cooked collection of customary soul covers, tightly bundled and creatively arranged to suit the streamlined instrumentation. Needing something more substantial than word of mouth to secure interstate bookings, the Mod Squad entered the Boddie’s converted dairy barn studio to cut an approximation of their recent date at the Brougham Lounge on Euclid Avenue.
Once the tape started rolling, the Mod Squad immediately threw would-be promoters off their scent, denouncing their Cleveland citizenship from the jump and claiming Detroit roots before storming the imaginary stage. The group hit the ground running, decapitating the Impressions’ “You’ve Been Cheatin’” at break-neck speed—less than 45 seconds from start to finish. With the pedal still depressed, their take on Tyrone Davis’ “Turn Back the Hands of Time” begets the brake-stomping confessionals of the Moments’ “Not On The Outside,” revealing the group’s vocal aptitude and instrumental agility. Those familiar with the Squad’s source material will also note that these versions resemble the originals to varying degrees, from “instantly recognizable” to “just barely.”
Overdubs were largely unnecessary, but some embellishment was added to the band’s raw performance. A set of bells served to tether the joint-closers “Stand in for Love” by the O’ Jays and Jerry Butler’s “I Stand Accused” (neither of which feature chimes in their original incarnations). A captive audience inside the studio—comprised mostly of girlfriends—had made light, mostly unconvincing racket while their beaus chewed away at the day’s R&B charts, never quite selling the Mod Squad as the future kings of soul role-play. In a recording coup, the six-piece overdubbed their own crowd noise—more than 25 minutes worth—to bolster their better halves’ tepid reactions. If the ladies were unimpressed, it didn’t help that Still and Sexton spent upwards of five minutes detailing, mimicking, and presumably miming their respective lovemaking strategies, a bit pasted into Sam and Dave’s “You Got Me Hummin’.” Narrator/singer/sex coach John Wilson simply called plays from the sidelines, confessing, without hesitation, his own lack of expertise in the area. “See, I ain’t never made love to no women,” he explained to the beat, “because I’m one of them uneducated dudes, you know?”
The captured set was solid and would’ve aided in the group’s upward trajectory as a touring force. But the Mod Squad never did anything with their modest-yet-mighty live document—because they never really had to. When Paramount signed the band in March 1971, a faux field recording of other people’s songs was of little use to the label or to Cleveland’s latest stars-on-the-rise, who would soon be known as Sly, Slick & Wicked.
After scoring a chart-topping hit with “Stay My Love,” this last, best-known incarnation of the Mod Squad was adopted by James Brown’s First Family of Funk, showed up on “Soul Train,” and went on to record for Motown and Epic before the close of the 1970s. Their orphaned live recording, originally envisioned as promo fodder, now doubles as the prequel to a career and as a testament to the Boddie Recording Company business model. They’d kindly record your music, but what you did with the resulting product was not their concern. These acetates amount to a punch cocked, but never thrown—a ten-song collect call from a hungry young group out to nab a bandstand with a meal plan.
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