The Tempests (pt. 6): Ted Bodnar and the Road to Mercury-Smash

E. Mark Windle July 2021.

The Tempests were ready to take on the world, no doubt about that. Musicianship, vocal talent and enthusiasm for live performance were all there. What was needed now was a new industry link to point them solidly towards a fresh recording contract. Someone with local knowledge, connections, and production and promotion skills.

There was one individual who would fit the bill perfectly. Ted Bodnar, originally from Baltimore, Maryland and later Virginia, learned the meaning of hard work early on in his life through long hours at his parents’ grocery store. His wife Vicki provides an account of Ted’s early background:

“Ted lived on Wilkens Avenue as a child, in inner-city Baltimore. He loved city life; he and his family could walk to everything. Fines Hardware on the corner across the street, Dairy Bar at the end of his block to the left that had sandwiches, soup and ice cream, beauty shop, church, school. What wasn’t in a three block radius was a short bus ride downtown.  His mom Barbara was a department store worker. His dad Theodore worked for a food wholesaler as their first outside salesman and had a route through Virginia. It was his father’s job which brought the family ultimately to Virginia to live. Around 1954 the family moved to Merrifield in Fairfax County, Virginia. His father called on an independent grocery store which was on his route. The owners wanted to sell the business and retire. His father bought the store and a house from them, then came home that night and told the family that they were moving to Virginia.  His mother was devastated and cried for a year, but it was a good decision for everyone in the family.”

Ted worked at the grocery store after school and weekends from the time he was eleven years old. Stocking shelves, unloading trucks, and selling to customers, he continued working there until his twenties and his father had retired.  The family purchased the building that housed the grocery store in 1969.  That building would later become his second recording studio – and his first commercial facility.

Van Coble and Ted Bodnar in later years, 1996 (photo courtesy of Van Coble).

Ted’s introduction to the recording and entertainment industry was via an electronics course after high graduation, and an informal partnership with the brother and producer of Link Wray.

“He met some of his first big entertainers at his parent’s store. Jimmy Dean and Patsy Cline would come in early in the morning after a late-night gig to get coffee and donuts. His mom had a snack bar in the back of the store that sold sandwiches she made fresh every day. There was also a small post office in the back that went on to become the main post office for that region in Northern Virginia.  They cashed payroll checks for all the locals too. Teddy met his musical mentor and good friend Ray Vernon when he was about sixteen years old at Club Ozarks in Fairfax. They hit it off and became fast friends even though Ray was much older.  Ray Vernon’s brother Link Wray was the well-known guitarist, who came up with the power chord approach which influenced later rock and roll legends like Led Zeppelin and The Who. I think their group name at that time was Link Wray and the Raymen. Ray, sometimes referred to Vernon Wray during his career, produced Link Wray’s early recordings. He taught Teddy to record at his home recording studio in Accokeek, Maryland. Ray always said that his student had surpassed him.  After tutoring him for a while, one day he had to go out of town and left Teddy in charge.  That was to begin his life-long love of recording and producing.  He was present when Link Wray recorded Raw Hide and Rumble. Both songs were very well received.  Teddy loved Ray Vernon and stayed close to him until Ray’s death in 1979. He went to Tucson for a time and made some appearances on the TV series Gunsmoke, and the Kris Kristofferson film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”

“Teddy built his first studio over the top of his parent’s garage in Merrifield and started recording local groups.  He also was one of the first individuals to promote local shows in the area.  For several years he travelled to New York on a weekly basis and previewed groups for Premier Talent to book for shows at the Elks Club back in Fairfax.  He ran a tight ship. If you left the show he wouldn’t let you back in.  Many groups that he selected to perform at the Elks became big names like The Association, who had a song on the Billboard Top 100.  When he heard them in New York six months earlier no one knew who they were.  He had a good ear for talent and packed so many teenagers into the club that one night a foundation wall actually cracked! During the same time that Ted was throwing shows in Fairfax, he also promoted shows on the Wilson riverboat line which ran on the Potomac River between a port in Alexandria D.C. down to Marshall Hall and back. Wilson Pickett, Brenda and the Tabulations, James and Bobby Purify and Lee Dorsey were among the bookings.”

Reflecting on her own singing experience and working professionally with Ted Bodnar:

“My entry into the music business was through singing in church choirs and choruses as a teenager and taking dance for several years. When I met Teddy I started singing background vocals for him and continued to do so through the years. I also made costumes for his shows, did make-up, props, ran spot lights and cable for mics, wrote lyrics for commercials, and sang in shows we put together for local community events and shows. Teddy put me in the middle of the music business. I first worked on commercials he was doing on spec, usually along with a male singer.  We’d put down three and four part harmonies, building one layer at a time. Teddy would mix them and then bounce them to another track.  He would do this several times, so that it would sound like a choir when we were done. Teddy was a musical genius. To me he had an ear like nobody else. For final mixes, he had to use Altec Speakers at a decibel level that was painful to me, but he said music wasn’t just about hearing; you had to feel it for to be right. I bought him near field speakers some years ago and he would use them day to day. When he mixed though, it had to be the big guns. I have a decent voice but I also understood the technique required to record in the studio, and that was just from working with Teddy for years in the studio.  I’ve seen many good singers and musically schooled people come in to the studio to work for him and they just couldn’t get the technique down.  Good performing artists on stage don’t necessarily do a good job in the studio. It takes a long time to perfect things when you’re recording. It’s often boring, repetitive and hard for the creative person to do that and Teddy was a perfectionist when recording artists. He was a drummer as a teenager and in a marching band in high school and had a sense of pitch and timing. He really understood where the beat should be.”

Ted and Vernon Ray had an established a working relationship with Leonard Chess through providing his Chicago label and its subsidiaries with remote recordings they made of Moms Mabley, Pig Meat Markham and others. The first acts signed by Ted included Little Sonny Warner in 1966 and Bobby Parker. Whilst Parker didn’t fully fulfil his contract, Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte were used to record Warner, who previously had recorded with Big Jay McNeely on There’s Something On Your Mind. Ted’s success with Sonny Warner would be with Bell Bottom Blue Jeans, proving a national hit for Chess / Checker. The song went Gold.

Courtesy of Craig Butler.

Ted Bodnar initially came across The Tempests while touring with Little Sonny Warner in the Carolinas. They were selected as the local band to back up Sonny in Charlotte.

“Our new ten-member strong band were mostly still in their teens” recounts Roger Branch. “Hazel was a lot older than us. He was thirty-one years old when he joined, but we all seemed to gel. We practiced long and hard and were getting a lot of gigs. Our sax player Rick connected with a friend who knew Ted Bodnar back in Virginia. Through Rick we learned that Ted had heard of us. He came down to check us out, and was impressed enough to let us back Sonny and encourage us to record some demos.” Recording sessions were scheduled in at Edgewood Studios in DC, late 1966.

Published by E. Mark Windle

Freelance writer, biographer and soul music lover.

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