by Randall Grass
Yesterday the sad news came through that Joe Tarsia, a major maker of Philadelphia music history, had passed away. Widely known as the owner of Philadelphia’s iconic Sigma Sound Studios, where he engineered and mixed a long list of classic Philadelphia hits, especially in association with the productions of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Joe’s contribution was much more than that.
For instance he personally built and configured what would become one of the world’s great studios. It’s fair to say that he was one of the architects of “The Sound of Philadelphia.” And that sound was heard ’round the world! No surprise then that when David Bowie set about recording his “Young Americans” album, he came to record at Sigma, as did many other major artists from around the world.
But Joe did important work before Sigma as chief engineer for Cameo-Parkway Records which from 1960 – 1963 was the hottest independent label in America. Listen to the Cameo-Parkway hits and you’ll hear the way the sound jumps off the record–clean, clear, strong and direct. And he was more than just an engineer; he often had creative input into the music.
For instance, the phased sound on The O’Jay’s hit “For The Love of Money” was created by Joe feeding the track into two separate tape machines in two separate rooms of the studio; the slight delay created the effect.
John Madara told me that when they recorded Chubby Checker’s “The Fly” Joe came up with the idea of using an electric razor to create the buzzing sound effect on the record.
I feel blessed to have done recording and mixing sessions at Sigma and was fortunate to have met Joe on a couple of occasions. I vividly remember working with Joe’s son,, Mike,who was then one of the main engineers at Sigma, on mixing a reggae project recorded in Jamaica. As often was the case, the layout of tracks on the multi-track was rather haphazard and I remember a keyboard part was spread over a couple different tracks in a way that made it tricky to mix. As Mike and I puzzled over this, Joe materialized at the door, listening. After a moment he said: “try this” and made a suggestion. It worked! simply by listening, without even knowing the layout of the tracks, he heard what needed to be done. I had hoped to interview Joe earlier this year and for some months Mike tried to arrange it but unfortunately had to report that his Dad just wasn’t up to it. So I interviewed Mike and he had a lot of great stories about his father and and Sigma; he remembered as a young boy helping his father build it. A few weeks later Mike suddenly passed away way too young. And I remember thinking how sad for Joe that his son passed away before him and I wondered if he would soon pass on. Now he has.
My heartfelt condolences, once again, to the Tarsia family and all who knew Joe. And thank you for all you contributed to music!