Joe Tarsia 1934-2022
The Sound of Philadelphia was made by many hands. The singers, songwriters, producers and arrangers: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Thom Bell. On guitars, Norman Harris, Roland Chambers and Bobby Eli. On keyboards, Huff, Bell, Harold Ivory Williams and Lennie Pakula. On bass guitar, Ronnie Baker. On drums, Earl Young. On vibes, Vince Montana. On percussion, Larry Washington. String and horn sections supervised by Don Renaldo. But it was also made by Joe Tarsia, the founder of Sigma Sound Studios, who died this week, aged 88.
Tarsia engineered such imperishable records as the the O’Jays’ “Love Train”, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Bad Luck”, the Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New”, the Spinners’ “One of a Kind (Love Affair)”, Billy Paul’s “Your Song”, Wilson Pickett’s “Engine Number 9”. He collaborated with Gamble, Huff and Bell to make a sound that updated soul music for the 1970s: richer in timbre than Motown, suaver in tone than Stax, more citified than Hi. Tarsia called it “black music in a tuxedo”.
He began his career as a radio engineer and serviced recording studios in Philadelphia before taking a job in 1961 at Cameo-Parkway Records, where he became chief engineer and worked on hits by the likes of Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp, Fabian and the Orlons. In 1968 he took over and renamed an existing studio at 212 North 12th Street, updating the technology from two-track to eight-track. In 1971 his establishment entered the wider consciousness when Gamble and Huff started their own label, Philadelphia International, and began the decade-long run of hits captured on tape at Sigma Sound.
I met Tarsia, very briefly, in 1975, when I spent a day at Sigma Sound working with one of his assistant engineers on remixing the B-side of the Fantastic Johnny C’s “Don’t Depend on Me”, a song called “Waitin’ for the Rain”, down to its backing track for release on Island USA as an instrumental aimed at the Northern Soul market. David Bowie had just been in, working on Young Americans. I talked to the engineers a bit about the records they’d been making that I admired so much, and I asked them in particular about the great Thom Bell. One of them — and it might have been Tarsia — told me that Bell was in tears as he played piano while Philippé Wynne sang on the Spinners’ recording of “Love Don’t Love Nobody”. Not surprising, when you listen to it. That’s the power of the records they were making, with Joseph Tarsia at the board. Mighty, mighty music.
In 1972 “360 degrees of Billy Paul”, “I miss you” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “Backstabbers” by the O’Jays – three smash albums that headed a commercial breakthrough for The Philadelphia Sound. Joe Tarsia had created not just the most successful studio complex ever seen in Philly, he’d also finessed a polished sound for soul music that had led on from his engineering for The Delfonics, Archie Bell and the Drells and others. Joe and his fellow engineers had developed a fresh sonic approach for soul – superbly recorded instruments, a panoramic, beautifully balanced stereo picture, topped off with an incredible use of LOTS of lush echo. This created a new contrast between superb, abandoned soulful vocals pitched against the super sophisticated musical backgrounds. Too bland for some, not for me, Joe’s Sigma Sound was pivotal to the massive success of producer/songwriters Gamble & Huff, Thom Bell and many others.
Black music in a tuxedo….
Thom Bell told me one of the most “incredible” things he witnessed at the studio was Dusty Springfield bringing Mobs Mabley to a session!