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Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios recorded more than 200 gold and platinum records before closing its doors in 2003, eventually donating 7,000 tapes to Drexel University, including recordings by Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Gladys Knight and hundreds of other unknown artists. Christoper Booker reports on the search for hidden gems in one of the city's most comprehensive musical archives.
Throughout the 70's, if you were a soul or R&B singer, recording at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studio meant you were big time. . The famed downtown space recorded some of the biggest hits of the era.
But, as the NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker recently learned, even though the studio has since closed, there may be more sounds to come.
The faded and peeling labels do little to celebrate just how remarkable the contents of these boxes are. Sitting in a basement of Drexel University in downtown Philadelphia, they hold one of the most comprehensive records of the city's musical history: the recordings of Sigma Sound Studios.
When you think about Stax, Motown, Muscle Shoals, Philly has to sit in there.
Toby Seay is the Director of Drexel Audio Archives, which houses the Sigma Sound Studios Archive.
They were churning out records that were hits, but they weren't just churning out records. They were meaningful records. Large string sections, horn sections, beautiful vocal arrangements. They had a sound. They had an imprint that was identifiably Philly. For me, I feel like it's anything Teddy Pendergrass. "For the Love of Money," The O'Jays., "You'll never find another love like mine," Lou Rawls. I mean, I think that one is the one that I land on as a great identifier for Philly soul.
Founded in 1968 by sound engineer Joe Tarsia. Sigma Sounds Studios had two things going for it: Tarsia's ability to deploy the latest in multi-track recording technology and a roster of unbelievable local studio musicians to record with. This is where super duo Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff would produce an endless array of hits
What's here is, About 7,000 reels of tape on about 10 to 12 different formats. In these particular tapes you have individual tracks side by side on a piece of tape where you record individual pieces of the recording, so these aren't the final product.
So on one track is the drums, one track is the saxophone?
Right, so you can listen to individual performances to individual musicians. That makes these to me, fairly intriguing for educational purposes because you are stepping one step back into the recording process and you can dig into musically individual players and you can look at production wise decisions that were made.
Toby Seay and his team have digitized tracks by many of the marquee names from the archives.
Can we hear just his vocals?
Everyone from Stevie Wonder to David Bowie…whose early version of his 1975 hit "Young Americans" sounds notably different from the version that was released.
The piano is so different.
Yeah, very carribean. That's just him singing live with the band. This is like day one or two. You know they are learning the song.
Any archive is full stories waiting to be had./ There is stuff that's renowned. There's stuff that is not. There are lessons there, too. Why did this succeed? Why did this not? This is fantastic. Why did no one ever hear this?
One such recording from the archive comes from a band called The Nat Turner Rebellion. Recording 14 tracks between 1969 and 1972 – the band only released 3 singles.
The Nat Turner Rebellion project was one where – 'here's this music that is good and I've never heard of them. You know, Joe Jefferson was the bandleader who went on to write a ton of hit records in the 70s and we have a lot of material and there was never an album released. So what if what if we put this together? We could actually make an album that never actually existed.
We might want to reach out to band members if we can find them.
This is where professor Marc Offenbach's class comes in.For two years, he and and his students were dedicated to figuring out if they could release an album of Nat Turner Rebellion recordings on their student run Mad Dragon record label.
You know, it's like following the trail of who really owns it. You know, you open up these boxes, there's papers in there saying here the composers. Here's the songwriter, here's the producer. He has the publishing company. But it's 50 years old and things change hands.// AND even though we have the master tapes, //This is all about getting mechanical rights from the publisher in order for us to license the music.
In the case of Nat Turner Rebellion, the class was able to find the publishers and strike a deal. And last March, nearly 50 years after the music was recorded, the band's first and only album, "Laugh to keep from Crying," was released. All 5,000 vinyl copies sold on the very first day, and the album was written about in the Rolling Stone and profiled on N.P.R.
The Nat Turner rebellion turned out bigger and better than I ever thought it was going to be.
So from a business perspective, how many nat turners are in this collection?
I you know, I think I bet you there's a lot. I think we'd just like touched the tip of the iceberg, really.
And Seay and Offenbach are only getting started. They're currently chasing a second collection of tracks Seay found in the archives – this one from a group called Choice Four.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
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