Sigma Sound Studio founder and Philadelphia International Records engineer, Joe Tarsia was a Philly Sound and Soul Music pioneer…
Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell may be the head and heart of the Sound of Philadelphia and all things Philadelphia International Records, but Joe Tarsia – the founder, owner and engineer of North 12th Street’s legendary Sigma Sound Studio – was its guts, the man who mixed the music, and made it roar. Joe Tarsia passed away on November 1. We should all be heartbroken. Not only was he an engineer who was awarded 150 plus gold and platinum record awards for his role in R&B and disco’s finest moments – a man renowned for his clear, clean aural definition and sleekness when it came to orchestrated soul – but also a philanthropist who donated Sigma’s gear and tapes, DATs and other recorded elements to Drexel University for its students in the engineering department to better understand how to make music vibe.
Famously, Joe Tarsia was a Philco Corporation engineer who, in 1961, began jiggering records for the newly-formed Cameo Parkway label and sides by Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, Dee Dee Sharp, The Dovells and Bunny Sigler. By 1968, he opened a studio at a property he bought, the tall building at 212 North 12th (the one-time Sound Plus Studios), upgraded from 2-track to 8-track (before owning, eventually one of the first 16-track boards, the digital boards) and became the engineer for nearly every Philadelphia International Records track – Harold and Teddy, the O’Jays, Jean Carne – to say nothing of welcoming the non-local likes of Stevie Wonder and David Bowie to Sigma.
Sadly, the people who bought Sigma Sound on North 12th (Tarsia opened a second Sigma studio complex in New York City in the late 70s and closed it in the 1990s) are turning the old studio space into a condo complex. Yet, there are locals still hoping to turn a piece of the old Sigma into a Philadelphia International Records/Philly soul sounds museum. Now that Joe Tarsia is gone, here’s hoping that legacy’s physical remnants are presented in apt fashion, and, in 2015, Sigma Sound Studios was officially dedicated as a historic site by the City of Philadelphia with a historic site marker noting its legacy: the birthplace of the Philly Sound.
“I and the entire Philadelphia International Records family are very saddened regarding the passing of Sigma Sound Studios Founder and, more importantly, our very good friend of over 60 years, Joe Tarsia,” said Kenny Gamble. “As our main Studio Recording Engineer for PIR, he was a tremendous asset in helping us create to what became the legendary Sound of Philadelphia. Joe and his team were literally the architects of creating the hit making recording sound that made all of recordings great and iconic. For all of the songs written and produced by me and Huff and our label and recorded by our artists, Joe Tarsia was the sound recording architect to the music we gave to the world. Joe’s passing is a great loss to me personally, professionally and to the legacy of recorded music. We send our sincere condolences to his dear wife and family.”
“Joe Tarsia and his Sigma Sound Studios, in my view, were second to none. I too am very saddened for the loss of our dear friend and one the greatest sound engineers ever,” said Leon Huff. “Joe Tarsia’s connection to me and Gamble and our Sound of Philadelphia was like Quincy Jones’ relationship with his personal engineer Bruce Sweden. Joe’s technical genius and recording engineering prowess made our music sound great. More importantly, it was an honor for me to share my music career with Joe and blessed to have him in our recording booth as I played on those sessions that helped us create the sound in the “Sound of Philadelphia.” I send my sincerely condolences to his wife Celia and family.”