First published August 3, 2020
Joseph Tarsia was a young man working in Philadelphia as a service technician, visiting various recording studios in the city to service and repair equipment. He later joined Cameo Parkway Records, hoping to develop new skills as a sound engineer, no doubt dreaming of one day owning his own studio. Just a few years later, in 1968, he decided the time was right to fulfil his dream. He sold his car and took out a loan to open Sigma Sound Studios on the second floor of a building at 212 N. 12th Street in Philadelphia. Sigma Sound was one of the first studios in the United States to install 24-track recording and console automation. Now he just needed some clients!
His next decision was possibly the best one he ever made. He had met two song-writer/producers called Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, whom he invited along to record a few tracks at his new studio. Gamble & Huff accepted and put together a group of musicians for the recording session. Those invited to play were Ronnie Baker, Norman Harris, Earl Young, Bobby Eli, Larry Washington, and Lenny Pakula.
Gamble & Huff
As a result of this first session, Gamble & Huff decided to use the Sigma Sound Studios as their recording base. Supported by the powerful input of Thom Bell, they began to develop the Philadelphia Soul Sound, featuring large-scale orchestration with strings and horns. Their success was soon noticed by performers and producers from across America and further afield. Sigma Sound Studios was more and more in demand, so Tarsia opened a second Sigma Sound in New York City in 1977, set up in the Ed Sullivan Theatre building.
By the end of the 1970s, Sigma Sound Studios were able to offer a variety of recording rooms for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Harry Chipetz was put in charge of the business operation by Tarsia, who was now employing over forty members of staff.
Sigma is credited with well over 200 gold and platinum awards. The list of artists who recorded at the two Sigma venues includes Stevie Wonder, Shirley Jones, B.B.King, Billy Paul, Teddy Prendergrass, The Jones Girls, Phyllis Hyman, The O’Jays, Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross, Linda Clifford, The Manhattans, Deniece Williams, Irma Thomas, Millie Jackson, Jean Carne, The Stylistics, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Joe Cocker, Dusty Springfield and many more.
In August 1974, David Bowie’s “Young Americans” album was recorded at Sigma Philadelphia. Madonna’s 1983 debut album “Madonna” was recorded at Sigma Sound Studios in New York.
But by the end of the 1980s, fashions were changing. Tarsia sold the New York studios in 1988. Through the 90’s and up until 2003 Joe Tarsia’s son, Michael, was in charge of running Sigma, Philadelphia. However, in 2003 Sigma Sound Studios was sold to Mario Santoro, a Philadelphia contractor, who renovated the studio and had plans for a music school. The studios in Philadelphia finally closed down in 2014.
On October 15, 2015, the original building for Sigma Sound Studios was officially dedicated as a historic site by the City of Philadelphia. A historic site marker was placed at 212 N. 12th Street.
So what made Sigma so special? when Joe Tarsia was asked that question, he highlighted the four elements that underpin every hit record: “To me it’s the song, the artist, the arrangement, the studio, in that order.”
First the song: Philadelphia International Records had a large team of song-writers who were in competition. Only the best songs would be chosen by Gamble and Huff, so that raised the quality and kept it high.
Second the artists, arrangers and musicians: Gamble and Huff chose the artists that they thought best fitted to create the Philadelphia Sound. To back them, they put together a versatile group of about forty musicians that they could call on for every recording. The group became a very close unit, developing exactly the kind of rapport that had been created at Motown or Stax or Muscle Shoals in their house bands.
The Philadelphia musicians became known as MFSB (mother, father, sister, brother) because of their strong sense of “family”.
The studio itself was special too, because of the quality of the technicians and the atmosphere that it created. Joe Tarsia understood this well: “The room gave you something. In other words, with all the technology today, you win some things and you lose some things. We won the fact that we can make great sounding records anywhere, but what we lost was the personality those records had, because, the room gave a personality. The same thing with Sigma, the same thing with Motown, the same thing with the studios in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, those rooms gave a sound and a personality that you don’t have anymore. You know, the Memphis horns and the Motown rhythm section… the ambiance of those rooms is what gave those records a personality.”
For thirty-five years Joe Tarsia’s dream helped a lot of artists realise their dreams too.