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Posts tagged ‘Leon Huff’

Joe Tarsia 1934-2022

From left: Kenny Gamble, Joe Tarsia and Leon Huff at Sigma Sound in 1978

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.

“Hi, everybody, I’m Archie Bell…”

archie-bell-1

Among the select group of great pop singles that last no more than two and a quarter minutes, “Here I Go Again” by Archie Bell and the Drells stands pretty much supreme. From Bobby Eli’s electric sitar opening to the jammed fade, not a single one of its 135 seconds is wasted.

It was written and produced in Philadelphia in 1969 by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and arranged by Bobby Martin and Thom Bell. The principal musicians will have been Eli and his fellow guitarist Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker on bass guitar, Earl Young on drums and Vince Montana on vibes (or possibly, in this instance, xylophone). I give them special prominence because the heart of the record is not to be found in the vocal verse and chorus but in the little four-bar instrumental interludes that punctuate the song so memorably.

The record starts with a 12-bar intro featuring Eli’s Danelectro Coral electric sitar before going into the 16-bar verse and the eight-bar chorus, all built on an E flat-A flat-B flat sequence and a blithe backbeat with double-time bass guitar fills. That’s followed by the first of the four-bar interludes, in which the rhythmic emphasis changes subtly but significantly, driving deeper into the “one”, anchored by a grunting baritone saxophone; more important, there’s also a radical harmonic shift from the E flat base (by my amateur musical forensics, which someone more expert might well correct) to a G-B-A-D pattern*. The combined effect of the two elements gives an exhilarating lift to this mini-break, somehow heightened by the absence of a solo instrument.

The effect is like suddenly changing the lighting in a room — and then back again, just as suddenly, when the tension is released by a return to the original mode. They run through the 16-8-4 pattern again, and then the chorus is repeated once more before the instrumental section returns and is played three times, with Archie Bell wailing on top this time, to the fade. And then it’s over, quite abruptly, and you want to play it again.

When it came out on a 45 in the US in 1969 it was as the B-side to “A World Without Music”, which failed to make the US Top 1oo. Three years later, however, it was discovered by Northern Soul dancers, who took it into the UK pop charts, where it peaked at No 11. Archie told Blues & Soul magazine that when he was informed of its belated and unexpected success, he had trouble recalling the song.

It’s included in Let’s Groove: The Archie Bell & the Drells Story, a new 2-CD anthology on Big Break Records. The compilers include the obvious hits, beginning with the first from 1967, introduced thus: “Hi, everybody, I’m Archie Bell and the Drells, from Houston, Texas. We don’t only sing, but we dance just as good as we want.  In Houston, we’ve just started a new dance called the Tighten Up. This is the music we Tighten Up with…” That rough but irresistible debut single, “Tighten Up Pt 1”, duly went to No 1 in the pop and R&B charts.

I confess that I never kept the closest watch on their career, and among the 44 tracks are many that are new to me, including “A Soldier’s Prayer 1967”, a ballad in which Archie — who was wounded in Vietnam — sings about the experience of thinking about his family while preparing to go into combat. (This turns out not to be quite true: see the comment below from Blaise Pascal.) There’s also the charming “Archie’s in Love”, written by Philip Mitchell, produced by Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford, and introduced with a nostalgic snatch of a country waltz before snapping into a hip-swinging 1971 disco beat.

The second disc includes a selection of the dancefloor favourites they recorded for Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label in the second half of the ’70s, many of them produced by John Whitehead and Gene McFadden. In”Let’s Groove”, “The Soul City Walk”, “Dance Your Troubles Away” and the rest, the textures are smoother, the grooves slinkier, and the instrumental breaks much longer. It’s the generic disco music of its time, washed in the spangled rays of a mirror ball, beautifully executed and captured by a great bunch of session musicians and studio engineers. But nothing, I have to say, beats the magical 135 seconds of “Here I Go Again”.

* It’s quite possible that the speed of the track was altered during mixing or even mastering, and that the respective chord sequences might originally have been E-A-B and A flat-C-B flat-E flat.