Six incredible songs recorded at Sigma Sound Studios
Founded in 1968 by engineer Joe Tarsia, Sigma Sound Studios was the birthplace of countless classic records. Boasting 200 Gold and Platinum records and countless memorable songs, Sigma stands alongside Muscle Shoals in Memphis, Chicago’s Chess Studios and Motown in Detroit in the annals of America’s musical history. Many of the most impactful songs recorded at Sigma were the classic Philly Soul tunes produced by the duo of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and released on their label Philadelphia International Records.
In the five decades since Gamble & Huff first began working at Sigma, the Philly International sound has been enduring and deeply influential. DJ and music connoisseur Skeme Richards is known for championing the sound of Philadelphia and all of the rich soul music the city has produced. In 2016, Richards released The Philadelphia Sound, an exclusive DJ mix dedicated to the sound of Philadelphia. That year, he toured Japan, introducing music lovers there to the sound of his hometown.
“When I would do my Japan tours there were always nights and CD releases dedicated to West End, Salsoul etc but never PIR (Philadelphia International Records). So in 2016 my tour was dedicated to PIR,” says Richards. “I carried all my PIR records to Japan and did multiple nights / sets dedicated to the label. Everyone loved it which is expected in Japan and it felt so normal because it’s a Philly DJ coming to play Philly records. I’m definitely trying to champion the label and the music worldwide.”
In 2015, the Sigma building at 212 North 12th Street was sold to a developer. In the years since that sale, a number of Philly musicians and music lovers have been working to have the Sigma site preserved and converted into a site that honor’s the city’s musical history. In the interest of shedding light on Sigma’s incredible legacy, here is a list of some of the greatest music ever recorded at Sigma Sound Studios.
The Stylistics – “People Make The World Go Round”
Part of what made Philly’s Soul sound so potent in the 1970s was the writer’s ability to meld beautifully written, produced and arranged music with powerful social commentary. One such song that captures this dynamic perfectly is The Stylistics’ 1971 hit “People Make The World Go Round.” Penned by the prolific Philly Soul songwriting duo Thom Bell and Linda Creed, “People…” is an elegant and impassioned and world-weary take on the tensions and unpleasant inner workings of our society.
With its sweeping strings, lush brass arrangements and lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr.’s brilliant performance, “People…” is a flat-out classic. Since its release, the tune has been covered by everyone from Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5 to Detroit Techno pioneer Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra.
Erykah Badu – “Otherside Of The Game”
Erykah Badu’s classic 1997 debut Baduizm was partially recorded in Philly at Sigma Sound. The Roots had made plenty of music with Sigma engineer David Ivory and when it came time for Roots-affiliate Erykah Badu to cut some tracks for her album, Ivory and the Roots brought her to Sigma to work. One of the tracks that they cut during those sessions was “Otherside Of The Game.”
A gorgeous tune colored by milky electric pianos, crisp drums, and deep bass, “Otherside…” finds Badu singing out her concern for her partner’s safety while he engages in his “complex occupation.” Although she never explicitly states what he’s doing, we assume that his job is illegal. Approaching the subject with an unusual level of understanding, tenderness and an acknowledgment that sometimes people make difficult choices due to circumstance, and reminding us that hustlers too are worthy of love.
David Bowie – “Young Americans”
Throughout the 1970s, David Bowie had a rich love affair with the city of Philadelphia. A historic rock town, Philadelphia was one of the first cities to truly embrace the singer / songwriter as he was making his first attempts to break into the American market. When Bowie was staging his week-long residence at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, he’d hunker down at Sigma on his downtime and work on his classic album Young Americans.
In David Buckley’s book Strange Fascination: David Bowie, the Definitive Story, longtime Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar explains how Philly, and the Gamble & Huff sound, inspired Bowie to create Young Americans. “He called me and said he was going to Philadelphia and that he had been studying a lot of TSOP and Gamble & Huff.” While working with Sigma’s renowned engineers, and hanging out with fans who camped out on 12th street outside the studio, Bowie’s time in the city was monumental and it all helped him in his quest to capture the funky, uplifting sound of Philadelphia.
The O’ Jays – “I Love Music”
With songs like “Backstabbers,” “Love Train,” “Use Ta Be My Girl,” “For The Love Of Money,” “Now That We’ve Found Love,” and beyond, Philly Soul titans The O’ Jays have no shortage of hits that have shaped music history and continued to live on for decades. One of their most powerful and enduring songs is the uplifting, uptempo tune “I Love Music”.
Based around a driving bassline, drums, and a conga groove, “I Love Music” is a prototypical track that prefigured the disco sound that would dominate the latter half of the 70s. Anchored by Eddie Levert’s rough, ecstatic tenor and the group’s gorgeous vocal harmonies, “I Love Music” is a timeless anthem dedicated to the joy of music.
McFadden & Whitehead – “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now”
A staple at cookouts, block parties, birthdays and family reunions throughout Philly, McFadden & Whitehead’s 1979 smash “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” is a song as deeply embedded into the social fabric of the city as any.
Full of fire and conviction, John Whitehead’s lead vocal is the type of performance that would seem at home in a nightclub on Saturday night or coming from the church pulpit on a Sunday morning. Equal parts funky and orchestral, “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” is the embodiment of the music that was coming out of Sigma and Philadelphia at the time, soulful, optimistic and full of joy.
Lou Rawls – “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”
This 1975 single by journeyman soul crooner Lou Rawls is one of the finest examples of Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff’s songwriting and production genius. Backed by Philly’s famous MFSB session musicians, “You’ll Never Find…” is a masterclass in songwriting and arranging. Centered around a powerful but vulnerable performance by Rawls, the song is a biting sendoff to an ex-lover complete with gorgeous strings, rolling piano glissandos and a longing but hopeful melody. An eternal hit that is still played heavily decades after its release, “You Never Find…” is proof of the sonic magic that made Sigma such a special place that captured some of the best music ever made.