A pillar of the Philadelphia music community and music industry, Joseph Tarsia — founder of Sigma Sound Studios, versatile audio engineer, and inspiration to generations of artists — sadly passed away this Tuesday. He was 88 years old.
Sharing the news on Facebook, famed producer Kenny Gamble wrote that Tarsia was “one of the cornerstones of The Sound of Philadelphia. Joe Tarsia was as talented as there was and such a good friend. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and family.”
The Roots drummer Questlove, who famously worked at Sigma on many of the band’s early albums, including 1995’s groundbreaking Do You Want More?!!!??!, shared his thoughts on Instagram: “To The Sigma Sound God. Thank You Joe Tarsia for all you did for the music community of Philadelphia. For dance culture. For modern engineering. Especially providing a home base for my band our first 5 LPs. rip to one of the most revolutionary sound engineers in music”
Born on September 23, 1934, Tarsia studied audio engineering as a youth, first working in the research department for the radio and television manufacturers Philco, before moving on to groundbreaking local label Cameo Parkway Records where he engineered records by Chubby Checker, Frankie Avalon, Dee Dee Sharp, and many more.
This paved the way for his work with Philadelphia International Records, the label run by Gamble and his partner Leon Huff; in 1968, Tarsia opened Sigma Sound Studio at 212 North 12th Street. There, Tarsia worked on classics by The O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass and Patti Labelle. Alongside Gamble and Huff and various other collaborators, he helped to craft the singular sonic atmosphere of “Philly soul”: an approach to R&B and pop that was full of orchestral grandeur but also emotionally down-to-earth. This famed sound would later attract artists like Stevie Wonder and David Bowie, the later of whom famously used Sigma Studios to work on his Young Americans album in 1974.
The boom led Tarsia to launch a Sigma satellite location in New York, where he worked with artists from Whitney Houston to Steely Dan. He worked the New York Sigma until selling the space in the 1990s, and he sold the Philly studio in 2003, though he remained connected to the business until it closed in 2013.
Tarsia has been honored for his work and cultural contributions in various ways over the years — he’s on the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame as well as the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville; he celebrated when Sigma was designated with a historic marker, and a movement is under way to preserve the studio itself, which was added to the city’s historic register in 2020.
Here at WXPN, we’ll be celebrating Tarsia’s life and work on the air in various ways throughout the next few days, including a special edition of Dave’s World with David Dye, who will be dedicating his show on Sunday, November 6th to Tarsia.