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College Music Program Finds Long-Lost Funk Recordings

2019-6-28

In the summer of 2005, Drexel University’s Music Industry program got a strange phone call.

The caller was the owner of a storage center in Philadelphia. He asked if the school would like music studio recordings. He knew of thousands of them in storage. He said no one had paid for the storage in a long time.

The man said the recordings, also called tapes, all had the same name on them: Sigma Sound Studio.

For lovers of Philadelphia funk music, Sigma Sound Studio is a famous name. In the 1960s and 1970s, Sigma Sound helped create “The Sound of Philadelphia.” That special sound is made with strings, horns, and other instruments.

The studio released hits like “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps and “When Will I See You Again” by The Three Degrees.

The Drexel program was sure it wanted the recordings, said Professor Toby Seay. Seay is the project director of the university’s sound collections.

“The thought was if there are 7,000 tapes coming from the Sigma collection, there’s gotta [got to] be good stuff in there,” he said.

They found great music, including recordings by famous artists such as David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, and Sly Stone, among others.

As Seay and students went through the collection, they worked to make computer recordings of it. They knew there was always the possibility of discovering unheard and unreleased treasures.

Seay came upon just that in 2011, when he pulled a tape named “Nat Turner Rebellion” off the shelf.

In this May 8, 2019 photo Marc Offenbach Assistant Teaching Professor, Music Industry at Drexel University poses for a portrait with music studio tapes from the Sigma Sound Studio collection, in Philadelphia.
In this May 8, 2019 photo Marc Offenbach Assistant Teaching Professor, Music Industry at Drexel University poses for a portrait with music studio tapes from the Sigma Sound Studio collection, in Philadelphia.

“The song was called ‘Tribute to a Slave’ and it blew me away,” he said of the 1969 recording. He made a note to look for more work from the band.

Nat Turner led a slave revolt in the American state of Virginia in 1831.

In March, Drexel’s student-run MAD Dragon Records company released the band’s album, called Laugh to Keep From Crying, about 50 years after it was recorded. Critics from the New York Times praised the album as, “a greeting across eras ... socially conscious, tambourine-shaking funk.”

Joseph Jefferson was the leader of Nat Turner Rebellion. At 75, he’s the last surviving member of the group. “There was not a thought in my mind that this could have happened,” Jefferson told the Philadelphia Inquirer after the Nat Turner album’s release. “This is what I wanted. Just the recognition for this.”

So far, students and Seay have listened to and made computer copies of only about 10 percent of the music in the collection.

Dave Moore is a music historian and Philadelphia soul expert. He co-wrote the book, There’s That Beat! Guide to the Philly Sound with Jason Thornton.

Moore said the students at Drexel probably did not even know the importance of what they have done.

“But,” he said, “they should have our grateful thanks for what they do in ensuring this music can be preserved and enjoyed for generations to come.”

I'm John Russell.

Kristen De Groot reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted her story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

greeting – n. a message that expresses good wishes to someone

era – n. a period of time that is associated with a particular quality, event, person, etc.

conscious – adj. caring about something specified

grateful – adj. feeling or showing thanks to someone for some helpful act

preserve – v. to keep (something) safe from harm or loss

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