Filmmaker Bill Nicoletti previews the upcoming Sounds Of Philadelphia documentary - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Engineer Joe Tarsia on the board at Sigma Sound | Photo courtesy of Bill Nicoletti

The upcoming documentary, The Sounds of Philadelphia, follows the history of Sigma Sound Studios—the revolutionary recording studio opened in the 1960s, its evolution and the impact of its musical achievements.

Set to be released toward the end of 2016, we sat down with director and co-founder of Philadelphia film studio Visual Innovations, Bill Nicoletti, to talk about the upcoming documentary’s significance and the process and motivations for its making.

The Key: How did you first get introduced to Sigma Studios?

Bill Nicoletti: My career started at Sigma Sound. I was a tenant there in the early 1990s for twelve years. I was a freelance editor, cutting music videos for the studio. One of the directors introduced me to Joe Tarsia (Sigma Studios founder). For me it was a real thrill to work there because I grew up in Philadelphia, loved the music and knew about Sigma Sound, but kids growing up in around Philly didn’t know a lot about, but I always loved it. When I got to be mentored by Joe Tarsia that was an even bigger thrill because I got to see it when it was still a world-class studio. During that time, I would work during the day, but I would come back and sit in on Patti LaBelle or Teddy Pendergass sessions and I was completely in awe of that.

TK: Was working with Joe and watching all these musicians play the impetus for making this documentary?

BN: I didn’t know it at the time, the heyday was long in the rear view mirror. One night after a session Joe and I grabbed a bite to eat at the diner, but as we were sitting there Joe asked me, “Billy did I ever tell you the story about when Bowie cut Young Americans at Sigma?” He went on to tell me this cool story about an album I loved growing up. I asked Joe why hadn’t anyone told that story. I said someday we have to tell it.

TK: Did you learn something where there was an “A-ha” moment?

BN: What I learned through the years was Young Americans was one of dozens of amazing stories about Sigma and about Philadelphia and the music industry as a whole for this 15-year pocket when it was really the hottest studio on the planet and not many people took notice to that sound, until Bowie showed up.

TK: So the documentary shows the evolution of the Philadelphia music scene?

BN: When I told Joe I wanted to do this a couple years ago, I brought up Bowie. Joe was starting to back peddle on him a bit. He said, “You gotta remember it was really Gamble and Huff that started the success of Sigma Sound.” Bowie was an important part of the story, but it really was an R&B studio and what happened was Bowie came because of that. It wasn’t until we started producing this film that it became clear to me, that Bowie came to Philadelphia because of the success that Philadelphia International Records had here. The funny irony is that right before Joe founded Sigma Sound, the British Invasion killed music in Philadelphia. Joe was fired from his job. There was hardly any music going on in the city. Joe discovered and heard Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and did so many sessions he knew they were special and unique and he basically took a mortgage to build his studio around that. Joe had the vision. But a few years later a British artist was coming back to kind of find that sound.

TK: What is one of the most significant legacies that Sigma Studios offered Philadelphia or music in general that this documentary will show?

BN: Overall, it was a very new sound. It was different than Motown or American Pop. There was a lot of message in the music, so the music that came out of here really was important from a social point of view. But it was great music. They all had stories to it. So I think that’s part of it. I think the other part of it is technically what Sigma Sound did was groundbreaking.

TK: What made Sigma Studios stand out to you?

BN: The technical advances. Joe Tarsia was doing things in Philly that they weren’t even doing in New York. He went to New York and he went to different studios that had a lot of success with Motown and he wasn’t satisfied. It wasn’t until he did his research on what was happening on the West Coast with the Hollywood studios. They were creating rooms for feature films that Joe said we need to be creating to get an equal match [of sound quality]. Joe was all about the purity of the sound, not like a lot of other studios where engineers were trying to manipulate it. That distinct sound is really not what it has, but what it doesn’t have in a lot of cases like the noise reduction that Joe introduced and Dolby, things that were very new at the time like console automation and the 24-track.

TK: When did you first start working on the documentary?

BN: We started pre-production about two years ago. We had our first meeting in March of 2014 and we started laying out what it’s going to look like and who we need to get involved. January of last year we started shooting. The first shoot we did in January of 2014 at Joe’s home and walked away with nice footage and felt encouraged. A couple months later, we filmed over a dozen people including the Bowie devotees, and three engineers like Jerry Blavat, Bonnie Zeigler, a lot of prominent people.

TK:Were there any highlights to filming this documentary? Like talking to prominent artists?

BN: We were starting to accumulate information, but the real highlight of the day was talking to Kenny Gamble. We interviewed him. That was a really good start. The next milestone for our film was Joe introduced me to Alan Slutzsky, one of his peers and part of the Philadelphia Music Alliance who already produced “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” Alan felt he could help us and within a month, we decided to co-produce. Really picking up Alan through the project is as big as picking up Kenny Gamble for an interview, Alan just brings so much to our film. Later Joe came to the West Coast with us to film Tommy Bell, Johnny Mathis and Dennis Wylin to name a few. He was really excited about it.

TK: It must be hard to pick and choose what to put in the documentary with so much material.

BN: That’s the challenge. The Sigma Sound story is very different than even the Motown story because Motown was a much bigger enterprise but it was linear. Whereas, Sigma, even though not as big as Motown it has a much wider footprint and much longer timeline because it extended beyond just the R&B, but the WMMR live concerts that were a very big part of Sigma Sounds legacy. Billy Joel claims wherever he goes he talks about how WMMR and Sigma Sound basically put his career on the map.

TK: Is digging through archive footage a massive undertaking?

BN: The bigger issue we’ve had is digging through everything we’ve already filmed. We’ve filmed so much that trying to get handle on that, I didn’t think we’d have that problem. We’ve don a lot as far a acquisition is concerned. We have three hours of Tommy bell just sitting and talking.

TK: Since this is preserving so much music history if you were hoping for younger viewers to recognize how important Philadelphia is and how they can be educated with it?

BN: This is a legacy piece. This music, even though a lot of young people know it from weddings or radio stations … they know it but don’t know where it comes from. So at the moment, we’re trying to create a film that appeals to the masses and that is why we want to bring some of the artists like Questlove, a Sigma alum who appeals to the younger generation. One of the institutions that we’re working with is the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and they’ve been brought in to the process and that’s exciting because there are students whose grandparents were studio musicians at Sigma. That’s the underlining hook.

TK: How will this film appeal to mass audiences?

BN: I want this film to educate and inspire, I don’t just want it to be a time piece. We’re talking about four individuals that came from four parts of Philly, from less than nothing and really were phenomenal entrepreneurs and that’s inspiring. Even if you really don’t like the music, it’s an American success story. When you look at Kenny Gamble, he was such a driven person and he was so into social justice, it’s all over his music as far as “Love Train” and “Backstabbers” and “For the Love of Money”; all those songs were messages about a time that was not a great one in American history. He was writing songs that were very inspirational. We’re hoping that we can communicate the lost art.

TK: How would you describe the “Sound of Philadelphia” that your documentary tries to identify and capture?

BN: What I’ve learned is you have all these different prominent artists like Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff tell you what the sound of Philly is but, for me, the sound of Philly is the baseline for the “Love of Money”, it’s Joe Tarsia being the fastidious engineer that he was. It was the orchestration of the stylistics and the arrangement of Tommy Bell, the message of Kenny. There’s all these very specific things that in-of-themselves are not the Philly sound, but when you take all those characteristics and put them together, you have something that is extremely unique and can’t be recreated or wasn’t (they tried) anywhere else. Maybe somebody tried string and vocals like a Sigma Sound song but they didn’t have the studio that Joe had or the writing that Kenny Gamble had. They knew they had something special together.

TK: What have you learned about Philadelphia’s sound or how important it was…was there anything that surprised you?

BN: Yes, it was much bigger than I ever thought it was. I thought we had a pretty good story with David Bowie and I thought we had a pretty cool story with the music Kenny Gamble wrote and with Billy Joel doing the Sigma Sound sessions here and other cool things with Joe opening studio in NYC but I had no idea no clue to how important and how big the music was outside the United States and in England and what they were doing here was nothing short of amazing, it was historic what they were doing here. It was the hottest studio on the planet. They were booked three to four months in advance.

TK: Does your documentary talk about the evolution of the sound and where it came from?

BN: Yes, that’s really been an education too. There’s so much talk about what he sound of Philly is and Kenny Gamble has a pretty specific answer, Joe has another. There are so many variables to it. You had the strings, the rhythm section and the vocals that were all very different from Motown and then you had this studio built from the ground up with perfectionist al those things relay made for phenomenal sound. You had writers that were writing songs that were much different coming out of Motown.

TK: Your documentary is the first of it’s kind then?

BN: Which is a big surprise! I think people have talked about it and there’s been segments on it, but no one went down the “Sigma Sound” road. There are many roads you can go down like specifically talking with Kenny Gamble and Tommy Bell. I don’t think anyone ever went down that road because there wasn’t anyone who was close to it, who was also a director like myself. I just happened to be there, witness it, love it and come from a background where I think I could tell the story. So we didn’t have a lot of paths of resistance.

TK: What makes this documentary different from other documentaries talking about the Philadelphia Sound?

BN: I think what makes us different is Joe is very much alive and well. Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Tommy Bell, those four music pioneers, are all excited about this project. They add so much value to the stories because you think you know what was going on and you don’t until you interview Leon and he tells you one thing and Kenny tells you another. Alan brought out every studio musician under the sun for this. We’ve interviewed just about every studio musician and engineer with great stories.

TK: Is there a goal you have in mind for this film?

BN: My goal is to pay homage to this beautiful music. I want it to reflect Philadelphia and make Philadelphia a hero. I want it to be elegant and sophisticated like the music. I want it to have a look and feel that gives you the same feeling as when you hear the Three Degrees when will I see you again; I want it to visually represent what the sound of Philly would look like.

Engineer Joe Tarsia on the board at Sigma Sound | Photo courtesy of Bill Nicoletti

Engineer Joe Tarsia on the board at Sigma Sound | Photo courtesy of Bill Nicoletti

Keep your eyes peeled for “The Sound of Philadelphia” documentary, scheduled to be due out by late October or early November of 2016 which will include interviews with some of Philadelphia’s top artists like the O-Jays and internationally-known artists like Patti Labelle.

Also keep an eye out for Visual Innovaton’s half-hour TV segments with 6ABC that chronicle the Philadelphia Sound, but with different content than the documentry.

“It’s been fun because we’ve been production company for 25 years, but to do an independent film and leveraging so much of the good will of being in Philadelphia and being part of the community makes it worthwhile,” says Nicoletti.

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