The Sound of Philadelphia: The Sigma Sound Legacy

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Following the passing of David Bowie on Monday, I spent the day listening to a tribute to the legendary rock star on Philadelphia’s wonderful public radio station WXPN. At a certain point the disc jokey mentioned Bowie’s strong connection to Philly, and the “Philadelphia sound,” and I wondered what they meant since he of course, was not from Philadelphia, and had never lived here.

A simple Google search later, and I learned that Bowie actually recorded his iconic album, Young Americans, right here in Philadelphia. In search of the “Philadelphia sound,” a mix of jazz, classical, blues and gospel, he chose the Sigma Sound Studios as the location to record in 1974. He loved the sound so much, a departure from his earlier “glam rock” days, that he later renamed his Diamond Dogs tour, the Philly Dogs tour.

Armed with this information I began to research Sigma Sound, a name I had heard for years, but knew very little about…

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Let me take a step back. It was the late 70’s. My Dad, 21-years old, was living the dream. He’d moved out of the ‘burbs, and got a gig DJ’ing in Philly. My Mom, 28, was his boss. A love story ensued (and ended 12-years later) that likely involved a fair amount of Quaaludes, a lot of late nights out dancing, and as legend has it one very strange evening locked up in the Franklin Institute Museum, where a disco ball made its way down into the pendulum, and my parents woke up in the train.

A few years later, I emerged into the world, and like many parents to calm my crying they turned to music. Not the music of Raffi or The Wiggles (didn’t exist), but the music they knew and loved from their days on the disco scene: Bob Marley (not a Sigma Sound artist, but that man can still lull me to sleep), The Stylistics, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, The Spinners, and The Delfonics.

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That weird looking baby with the headphones is me!

As I got older, this music became a really strong part of my life. It was an education, one I took seriously, learning the lyrics to songs in the same way a child learns a second language. (To this day I have an uncanny knack for remembering song lyrics- it’s a useful skill for karaoke and that’s about it.) I never hated my parents for making me listen to their music, and to their credit, they were pretty supportive of my high-school obsession with the Dave Matthews Band.

Once I left the Philadelphia area to head to college, I realized that the Oldies station in Denver didn’t play the same music as the Oldies station in Philly- frankly they played really crappy old country music. There was a vibe to the music I grew up with in Philadelphia, that just wasn’t present out west, and I missed it. That “vibe” was the Philadelphia sound, and its roots came directly from the Sigma Sound Studio.

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 Founded in 1968 by Joseph D. Tarsia, it was at Sigma where producers and songwriters Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Thom Bell, the production team of Baker, Harris and Young, along with many others, created a musical form that placed Philadelphia in the spotlight of urban popular music. Characterized for its “impossibly lush strings that worked with the rhythm rather than against it” and “a slow shuffle drumbeat that recalled doo-wop rhythms” (Shapiro 2005), Philadelphia soul was formed from gospel and rhythm & blues and developed into funk and disco. – Toby Seay, ARPJournal.com

Like Muscle Shoals and Detroit, Philadelphia was producing a very specific sound and rock stars from all over the world flocked to Sigma Sound Studios looking for that vibe. In 1972, Billy Joel recorded an hour-long concert at Sigma Sound. The recording of “Captain Jack” from those sessions, got extensive airplay on the Philadelphia radio waves, and eventually led to Joel’s stardom.

Unfortunately, the legendary Sigma Sound Studios building was sold earlier this year. Though the space is a designated historic site, it’s not clear whether the new owners will knock down the building or preserve it’s history.

For more on Sigma Sound check out this preview of an upcoming documentary on the studio, and the articles below.

Sigma Sound Studios and David Bowie

David Bowie’s Philadelphia

Sigma Sound Studios Documentary

Capturing that Philadelphia Sound