NEW YORK, NY.-
Joe Tarsia, the recording engineer and studio operator who was among the architects of the lush, fervent blend of soul, disco and funk known as the Sound of Philadelphia, died on Nov. 1 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was 88.
His death, at a retirement community, was confirmed by a friend, video producer Steve Garrin, who did not cite a cause.
At Sigma Sound Studios, the recording hub he established in 1968, Tarsia worked with the producers Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell on blockbuster hits by Philadelphia soul luminaries like the OJays and the Delfonics. Known for his precision at the mixing board and his imaginative use of echo and other ambient effects, Tarsia was the engineer on scores of gold and platinum recordings.
We were lucky to be recording at Sigma Sound with Joe Tarsia, Gamble said in a 2008 interview with Crawdaddy magazine. He was a great engineer and got a clean, clear sound from every instrument.
If you record the music right, its easier to mix, and, as an engineer he was the best, Gamble added. He knew what he wanted and kept us moving at the speed of thought.
In the early 1970s alone Tarsia captured the sound of dozens of acknowledged Philadelphia soul classics, including the Stylistics Betcha by Golly, Wow, the Spinners Ill Be Around and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes If You Dont Know Me by Now.
TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia), a proto-disco workout by MFSB, the Sigma Sound house band (the initials stood for Mother Father Sister Brother), became the theme song for the long-running television show Soul Train. TSOP was among Tarsias collaborations with Gamble and Huff that topped both the R&B and pop charts, as were the OJays Love Train and Billy Pauls Me and Mrs. Jones.
Tarsia was known to refer to the sumptuous strings, syncopated rhythms and gospel-bred call and response of the Philadelphia sound as Black music in a tuxedo an aesthetic he in no small way shaped through the richness and clarity he lent to so many recordings.
If I made a contribution, it was that Philadelphia had a unique sound, Tarsia told The Philadelphia Inquirer in an interview commemorating the 50th anniversary of Sigma Sound in 2018. You could tell a record that came from Philly if you heard it on the radio.
Several years before opening Sigma Sound, Tarsia established himself as an audio engineer at Cameo-Parkway, one of the leading independent record companies of the early 1960s.
The Cameo and Parkway labels were important sources of music and talent for American Bandstand, Dick Clarks nationally televised dance show. Bandstand was based in Philadelphia, and local artists like Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker, who recorded for Cameo-Parkway, received exposure they might not have gotten had the show been produced elsewhere.
Tarsia, who became the chief engineer at Cameo-Parkway in 1962, attributed his early success there to Clarks support.
Hes the reason Im in the business, he was quoted as saying of Clark in the book Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios (2003), by Jim Cogan and William Clark.
He was an approachable guy. If you went up to him and said, I have a record, and he played it, it was worth a thousand promotion guys, because it was heard all over the country.
Joseph Dominick Tarsia was born in Philadelphia on Sept. 23, 1934. He was the younger of two sons of Joseph and Rose (Gallo) Tarsia. His father was a tailor, his mother a homemaker.
After graduating from Edward W. Bok Technical High School in South Philadelphia, Tarsia took technical courses elsewhere before being hired at the electronics company Philco. He was later a service technician for local recording studios, work that led to his decision to pursue a career in music.
I was always moonlighting at something, he was quoted as saying in Temples of Sound. I was fixing TV sets, and one day this guy says, Can you fix a tape recorder? and I said, Sure! It turned out that tape recorder was in a recording studio, and I never left.
Tarsia had been at Cameo-Parkway for just a few years when American Bandstand moved to Los Angeles in early 1964, effectively ending the companys tenure as a pipeline for the shows music.
The Beatles first tour of the United States that year only compounded matters, as Cameo-Parkways teenage-oriented pop gave way to British invasion rock n roll and eventually the psychedelia of the counterculture.
Meanwhile, Tarsia met and befriended Gamble, who as an aspiring songwriter would drop by Cameo-Parkway to shop his songs. He was eventually the engineer for several early recordings produced by the Gamble-Huff team, most notably Expressway to Your Heart, a Top 10 R&B and pop hit for the blue-eyed soul group the Soul Survivors in 1967.
Later that year, convinced that his future lay with the soul music of emerging vocal groups like the Intruders and the Delfonics, Tarsia borrowed against his home and used his savings to lease studio space in Philadelphias Center City. Naming it after the Greek letter he saw on a place mat in a Greek restaurant, he opened Sigma Sound the next August. Success quickly followed with hits produced by Gamble and Huff like Jerry Butlers Only the Strong Survive.
Established artists like Wilson Pickett and Dusty Springfield soon began traveling to Tarsias studios to record. In 1971, CBS Records offered Gamble and Huff, by then regular clients at Sigma Sound, a major distribution deal. That led to the founding of Philadelphia International Records, which became home to many of the acts associated with the Sound of Philadelphia.
By the mid-1970s the likes of Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and the Jacksons were booking sessions at Sigma Sound as well. Seizing the moment, Tarsia opened Sigma Sound of New York, a trio of studios that, in the late 70s and 80s, hosted sessions by Madonna, Whitney Houston, Steely Dan and others.
In 1990, Tarsias son, Michael, who died last year, became the president of Sigma Sound. Tarsia eased into retirement, increasingly spending his time lecturing and supporting educational programs like Grammy in the Schools. In 2003, 15 years after Sigma Sound of New York was closed, he and his son sold their original Philadelphia studios.
Tarsia was a founder of the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services and a trustee of the Recording Academy. He was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2016.
He is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Cecelia (Giarrizzo) Tarsia; a daughter, Lorraine Rawle; and three grandchildren.
Tarsia was proud of the stamp he put on music in the 1960s and 70s.
In those days, before the computer, he recalled to The Philadelphia Inquirer, records had personalities. There was the Motown sound. The Memphis sound. The Muscle Shoals sound. And there was the Sigma sound.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times