Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble


The Philadelphia recording studio Sigma Sound almost single-handedly defined the pre-Disco sound of the 1970s, with the smooth, soulful outpourings of the O’Jays, Stylistics, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Spinners and Billy Paul. Sigma’s sound was as distinctive as Stax/Volt in Memphis and Motown in Detroit, and it attracted the notice of Dusty Springfield, Todd Rundgren, and David Bowie, who recorded most of his Young Americans album here. Richie Unterberger spoke with Sigma’s founder Joe Tarsia about those years.

“Certain studios had a personality that the environment gave them. I like to think that Sigma was one of those rooms that had a personality. Usually you can tell one of the things that came out of Sigma after the first four bars. There was a certain quality it had.”

Joe Tarsia’s talking about the Philadelphia studio he founded and ran for many years, Sigma Sound. In the late 1960s and much of the 1970s, Sigma Sound was almost synonymous with the sound of Philadelphia, or certainly the sound of Philadelphia soul. Big hits by the O’Jays, the Stylistics, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the Spinners, the Delfonics, Billy Paul, the Intruders, and others were cut there. Sweeping strings, bold brassy horns, and a sense of orchestrated drama were their hallmarks. They were wrapped around the smooth, sweet soul harmonies of veteran vocal groups, or augmented the urgency of hitmakers like Jerry Butler, Wilson Pickett, and Joe Simon who traveled to Sigma to get a sound no other studio could produce.

“Great Britain knew more about Philly music than Philadelphia did,”

Overseeing the cream of Philadelphia soul hits were producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who operated as a team, and producer Thom Bell. Other key figures were the session musicians who lay the funky bedrock for the records, even giving the genre an anthem on the 1974 #1 instrumental “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).” The result was, as Tarsia recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “black music in a tuxedo.” David Bowie was so besotted by the style that he recorded much of Young Americans at Sigma Sound in his mid-‘70s “plastic soul” phase.

Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble 1965

Philadelphia had been home to many soul and rock hits since the 1950s, often with lush harmonies or elaborate orchestrated arrangements, whether the goofy doo-wop of the Silhouettes’ 1958 chart-topper “Get a Job” or Barbara Mason’s sumptuous 1965 Top Five ballad “Yes I’m Ready.” It took Sigma Sound, however, to really make the sound of Philadelphia The Sound of Philadelphia, all caps. Tarsia was already a major contributor to Philly hits as an engineer at the top local label, Cameo-Parkway, but wanted something different when he took the risk of opening his own studio.

“Mostly, independent studios were owned by frustrated musicians who only wanted to get their music on tape, and didn’t have a technical background,” Tarsia observes. “I brought a little bit technical experience to it, because I’d spent ten years in a research department at [electronics company] Philco. I met Dave Appell at Cameo, and I was offered a job as an assistant to him. He was a musician, and sort of like my mentor.” Guitarist, arranger, and producer Appell had been involved in many Cameo-Parkway hits going back to rockabilly singer Charlie Gracie’s “Butterfly,” and also co-wrote big sellers for the likes of Chubby Checker, the Dovells, Dee Dee Sharp, and the Orlons.

“Most studios were owned by musicians, and their main purpose is to get what they heard in their head on tape,” Joe reiterates. “I think most musicians look at the studio as a necessary evil. Well, I was more into the sound itself. I took a $45,000 loan to open [Sigma Sound], and the only thing that was in my mind was paying off that loan.”

Fortunately, Sigma Sound’s launch coincided with the maturation of songwriting-production duo Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who landed their first hits in 1967 and 1968 with the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart” and the Intruders’ “Cowboys to Girls.”

By the early ‘70s, Gamble and Huff were running the Philadelphia International record label, whose success was starting to rival the likes of Motown and Stax with hits by the O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and Billy Paul. “PIR put CBS in the soul music business,” Joe states. “I mean, they couldn’t do anything on Aretha Franklin. She had to go to Atlantic Records.”

Asked what elevated Gamble and Huff to the top ranks in their profession, Tarsia demurs “I can speculate” before offering quite a few insights into their synergy. “I knew Kenny and Leon before they knew each other. Neither were schooled musicians. Huff played by ear, and Gamble couldn’t read music. They wrote from their gut. I think Kenny was the leader; Gamble would come up with an idea for a song, and Huff set the tempo and the rhythm. Huff contributed the feel of the music.

“The guys in Philly used to dig in and give it their heart and soul. It was a big deal. And they played like it was. There was no boredom at this end. In Philly, it was total attention. I think it worked because of that. Instead of being another session, it was the session in Philly.”

“When they walked into the studio, at best they had chord charts. Gamble didn’t write music, neither did Huff. Then they would hum the melody and develop an arrangement. They ran the song down as they heard it, over and over again, and the musicians actually wrote the rhythm charts.

“All the musicians were really contributors to the final arrangement. Ronnie Baker would play something on bass, and Huff would say, ‘That’s it, Baker. Play that, play that.’ The same thing was true with the guitars and the drum feel. Huff came in, sat at the piano, sort of played the tune down in its rough form, and the musicians would play along. Sometimes it took all day.”

Kenny Gamble, philanthropist and former Tuskegee Airman Percy Sutton, and Leon Huff.

In contrast, Thom Bell—who’d worked with Gamble and Huff as an arranger before producing classics for the Stylistics and the Spinners—“was a different case entirely. Thom Bell wrote every note, and you dare not deviate. He didn’t want interpretation. He wanted you to play what he put on paper, nothing else. Thom Bell was very specific.”

Many of the signature flourishes of the Sigma Sound soul hits have become so familiar they can be identified by even casual fans with just a snippet of a lick or phrase. Think of the staccato descending string squeals that accentuate Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones”; the intro to the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” which reverberates so heavily it seems like bass notes are bouncing off the walls; or the jubilant mini-orchestra that opens “TSOP,” trading riffs back and forth with an emphatic horn section. The ensembles can sound big enough to fill opera houses,  yet photos of string sections cutting tracks at Sigma Sound reveal they were actually crammed into spaces closer in size to living rooms.

“What influenced me in the studio, I loved big room sounds,” Tarsia elaborates. “To me, the character of a record comes from the ambience of the room. So I was always trying to make records sound big. CBS had 30th Street [aka ‘The Church,’ in honor of its former function]. “I had this smaller room, and I wanted to make it sound big.”

Tarsia equipped Sigma Sound with the latest technological advances, installing an eight-track recorder and fourteen-input console by the time it opened in August 1968. The capabilities afforded by multitracking were crucial in pursuit of that big sound. “If you count the doubles”—instances in which parts were “doubled,” or dubbed on top of each other—“there were as many as fifty performances on a record. That’s almost a symphony orchestra. Basically, we used nine strings and doubled ‘em as eighteen strings. Ten horns—there would be like three saxes and trombone and two trumpets.”

Thom Bell wrote every note, and you dare not deviate. He didn’t want interpretation. He wanted you to play what he put on paper, nothing else.

Too much doubling could be too much of a good thing. “Kenny would come in with four guitars. He thought more was good, and sometimes I would tell him, ‘Kenny, you’ve got everybody playing in the chorus. Everybody’s singing the chorus of the song.’ And he says, ‘I can’t hear the bass drum.’ I said, ‘Well, how do you want to hear your bass drum, with so many people playing at the same time?’ I would tell them to listen to the old big band records, and see how the horns only play when the singer’s not singing.

“So I think in some ways, I tried to influence ‘em to what I thought was the right path. But the music was there. I only criticized.”

His advice did extend on at least one occasion to the commercial side of things. The artist “I enjoyed working with the most was Jerry Butler. He was a great writer. The tunes that he wrote with Gamble and Huff, [like] ‘Western Union Man.’ “Only the Strong Survive,” he adds, “was my favorite,” but not released as a single until a few months after it first appeared on the album The Iceman Cometh. “I said to Kenny Gamble, ‘That’s a hit record. The title’s a hit record.’” Indeed it became Butler’s highest-charting 45, peaking at #4 (and going all the way to the top of the R&B listings) in early 1969.

Tarsia’s also quick to spread some credit for this “black music in a tuxedo” around to the arrangers. “I think I coined that phrase because most R&B records did not have full orchestrations of strings and horns. Thommy [Bell] wrote almost classical. Thom did a lot of the early arrangements, and Bobby Martin was the best horn arranger I ever worked with. In the early days [with] Gamble and Huff, we’d cut the rhythm tracks, and then hire Bobby Martin or Thom Bell to write the horn and string charts.”

How did those string players react to playing on records that were quite a bit different from their main gigs, whether in classical symphonies or other non-soul settings? “I thought they may be bored or looking down on the music then,” Joe admits. “It wasn’t that way at all. Talking to them later, it was interesting to hear how much they appreciated the music and being part of it. They really appreciated the music and being part of the Philly family.

“there were fans outside every night at 7:00,” and Bowie “would leave when the sun was coming up in the morning. These kids would be out there all night waiting to see him leave. When the album was done, he invited ‘em all into the studio and played it for them.

“The string section was so funny. It was a couple of bald-headed Italian guys, a guy with a yarmulke, there was one black guy and a couple of girls. It was like a cross-section of the city. They really liked what they were doing and appreciated it.

“My thought was that they looked down on, in those days, playing black music and so forth. And it wasn’t that way at all. Some of the guys used to go to New York to do the strings and horns. They came back and said the guys in New York, like, are reading the newspaper in between takes. Sort of like, another session, another paybill. It was sort of ho-hum.

“The guys in Philly used to dig in and give it their heart and soul. It was a big deal. And they played like it was. There was no boredom at this end. In Philly, it was total attention. I think it worked because of that. Instead of being another session, it was the session in Philly.”

It was also a pretty demanding time for Tarsia, who had to work day and night to keep the studio running as it established a name for itself. He has a story to illustrate the point, going back to the second year Sigma Sound was open for business, when Dusty Springfield recorded her album A Brand New Me.  “It was a pretty big shot for Gamble and Huff, because they’d never worked with a name artist,” Joe remembers. “She was delightful to work for. But that was really early, and that was eight-track recording, if not four-track. I remember running out of tracks and putting the strings and horns on one track.”

When she started to work on the album in September 1969, “it was my 35th birthday party. My wife was having a surprise party for me, and I said, ‘I can’t stay, I have to go to work.’ It was a Sunday, and we had a vocal session with Dusty scheduled. I hadn’t met her; it was her first night in the studio. So I had to leave my surprise birthday party and do a session.”

That wasn’t quite the end of Springfield’s inadvertent disruption of the Tarsia household. “It was September. My house was cold, the heater pilot was off, and when [my wife] tried to light it, she didn’t do it quick enough.” Interjects Joe’s wife Cecelia, “I got burned. Got blown across the room. And Dusty sent me a big bouquet of flowers.” They must have adjusted to the demands of his job, I comment, if they’re still together fifty years later. “64 years” is actually how long they’ve been married, Cecelia reminds me.

“The string section was so funny. It was a couple of bald-headed Italian guys, a guy with a yarmulke, there was one black guy and a couple of girls. It was like a cross-section of the city.”

For all its impact and popularity, Sigma Sound didn’t get as much local media coverage in its heyday as you might expect. “Great Britain knew more about Philly music than Philadelphia did,” exclaims Tarsia. “By ’69, I’d made enough money to take a vacation. When I got to England, it was incredible how they knew the bombs. They knew the records that didn’t make it. The general public was so much more into U.S. R&B, in particular Philadelphia R&B. They were playing records that got no traction in this country. It amazed me, their knowledge of American R&B music.”

One British singer’s particular enthusiasm for American R&B, and especially Philadelphia soul, did more to put Sigma Sound’s name into the public consciousness than anyone else. “More of the general population know Sigma from Bowie than they do Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and the O’Jays,” Tarsia acknowledges. “There’s a fellow in Philadelphia who’s doing a documentary on the Philly sound. He had this clip of Bowie saying he was intoxicated by the Philadelphia soul music, and wanted to record in Philly.” In summer 1974, Bowie started working on the Young Americans album at Sigma Sound.

“You know, it’s funny,” says Joe. “There wasn’t much of this, but the black players said, ‘Why should we give this white boy our sound?’ And they didn’t play for him. So the only thing he got when he came was the conga player, Larry Washington, and the studio.

“It’s a sad story, but the bass player, may he rest in peace, said, ‘Why should we give this white boy our sound?’ That’s what I was told. So they came for the ambience and the musicians, but all he got was the ambience. He came in with his entourage, and he told us what he wanted.” Bowie nonetheless credibly emulated features of the Philly soul vibe with musicians like guitarists Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick, pianist Mike Garson, and saxophonist David Sanborn, all of whom would play on numerous Bowie albums. Young Americans made the Top Ten, even if its big hit, “Fame,” was recorded in New York, not Philadelphia.

At the Sigma Sound sessions, Tarsia recalls, “there were fans outside every night at 7:00,” and Bowie “would leave when the sun was coming up in the morning. These kids would be out there all night waiting to see him leave. When the album was done, he invited ‘em all into the studio and played it for them. We ordered food, the kids sat on the studio floor, and he played the album for them, which I thought was pretty nice.

David Bowie 1975

“At the time, I was so consumed with what I was doing, I didn’t think that it was such a big deal. But I could have made a million R&B records. The thing that people remember was David Bowie. I had a studio in New York, and Bowie was in and out of that studio several times. Nobody paid attention. In Philadelphia, it was a big thing.”

Bowie wasn’t the only rock star to use Sigma Sound. Way back in the late ‘60s, when he was still in the Nazz, Todd Rundgren “came to Philadelphia to record, and brought his engineer from the West Coast. Todd was always on the cutting edge of the business. He was one of the first people that used synthesizers and music video. When he came to Philly, I assisted on the sessions because I wanted to see what his West Coast engineers were doing. A lot of the things I learned from his engineer, I used in [the O’Jays’] ‘For the Love of Money,’” such as “the backward echo on the vocals.”

Adds Joe, “It was funny, the O’Jays came to me and said, ‘how [can we] get that sound on stage?’ I said, ‘You have to turn the tape upside down and run it backwards. It’s impossible.’ But Todd was the catalyst for that. I told him, ‘You were the inspiration for ‘For the Love of Money.’ The phaser, the drums, and all that kind of stuff.”

Speaking of the O’Jays, they’re cited by Tarsia when I ask him what his favorite records were that didn’t become hits. A Gamble-Huff-produced O’Jays LP on their Chess-distributed label Neptune came out in 1970 as In Philadelphia. The album was “done before the CBS contract [to distribute Gamble-Huff’s Philadelphia International label],” and Joe thought it “was great.” But “it never went anywhere.”

Tarsia stayed in the business until the early twenty-first century, and for quite a few years Sigma Sound also had a branch in New York, recording stars like Paul Simon, Steely Dan, and Madonna. It’s the Philadelphia flagship, however, and especially its soul records, for which Sigma Sound is most famed. Now in his mid-eighties, Tarsia’s lived to see the original building at 212 North 12th Street designated as a historic site by the city of Philadelphia. He doesn’t take chief credit for what made it special, but doesn’t discount his contributions.

“Records get their quality from the physical space of recording,” he feels. “You take a space, and you deal with it. It has a certain height ceiling, and the walls are shaped a certain way. They give your room a character, and a personality. Studios had their own personalities. I mean, you can tell a Muscle Shoals record from a New York record. There was the Chicago sound, you had Motown sound for sure. There was a West Coast sound, very pure. You can tell an L.A. record from a Philadelphia record for sure. Memphis had its own sound.

“I like to think that Sigma had its own character. I didn’t do it. It was the bricks and mortar gave Sigma a certain quality that I tried to build on.”