Arts & Entertainment

Preserving the city’s sound

A new documentary directed by Bill Nicoletti tells the story of Sigma Sound Studios.

One night, almost 20 years ago, Sigma Sound Studios owner Joe Tarsia told Bill Nicoletti the story of when David Bowie cut his ninth album, “Young Americans,” at the studio.

“Afterwards I said, ‘Joe, you gotta tell the story, it’s phenomenal,’” Nicoletti, Visual Innovations studio owner, said. “I was just enamored by the history that took place there, so fast forward 20 years as a production company owner … it felt like it was time to tell the story.”

Tarsia built Sigma Sound Studios in 1968 at the corner of 12th and Spring streets, hoping to seize an opportunity in a city he thought needed a new sound. Sigma Sound Studios went on to become one of the most influential recording studios in the city, attracting legends like David Bowie and Billy Joel.

Artists were eager to get a slice of the Sound of Philadelphia, the nickname given to the style of music—a mixture of soul, gospel, R&B and classical music—that dominated the late 1960s and ‘70s and produced artists like Teddy Pendergrass, the O’Jays and the Spinners.

Years after the studio’s heyday, Nicoletti, a native Philadelphian, hopes to immortalize Sigma Sound in the new documentary “Sigma Sound: The Sound Heard ‘Round the World,” to be released by the end of 2016.

The documentary, directed by Nicoletti and co-produced by alumnus Allan Slutsky, focuses on the story of how Tarsia, along with young producers Kenny Gamble, Thom Bell and Leon Huff created not only a world-renowned studio, but also became “the four pillars of the Sound of Philadelphia,” which Nicoletti said, “had no noise, there was all this pure sound and when you heard a Sigma Sound song it just resonated because it had a full, rich, clean and unique sound to it.”

“The sound of [Philadelphia] is all about four names: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Thom Bell and Joe Tarsia,” said Slutsky.  “Kenny, Leon and Thom were the creative forces behind the music, but Joe was the sonic architect who helped bring their ideas into focus and give them life.  Without Joe and Sigma, the Philly sound would have been much different.”

“As a musician, I’d played all those Philly hits in different bands over the years,” he added. “So the music was very personal for me.”

Nicoletti wants to create a legacy piece for the studio that represents and reflects the Sound of Philadelphia.

“[The Sound of Philadelphia] was pretty new and unique at the time, there were a lot of messages in the music that people really embraced,” he added. “There was a lot of peace and love in the music and I think the songs in general just had their own unique sound to them that the people hadn’t heard before.”

“I want [the film] to look like what the Philadelphia sound would look like,” he added. “The Philadelphia sound to me is so elegant and sophisticated and I want this film to be that, I don’t want it to be gritty … I want it to be classic and have a lot of longevity to it.”

Nicoletti notes that during Sigma Sound’s peak, the racial tensions seen in Philadelphia that gave much of the city its bad press were not reflected in the studio. “There was so much harmony going on within the walls … it was a really great place for people to work and cultivate artistic abilities.”

To Nicoletti and many others, the studio and those who helped create the Sound of Philadelphia are a reflection of the strength and power of the city itself.

“There was some very powerful nonfiction going on at Sigma Sounds that was the real soundtrack for people’s lives,” Nicoletti said.

Emily Thomas can be reached at emily.ralsten.thomas@temple.edu.

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