Joe Tarsia, founder of Sigma Sound Studios and chief engineer for Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, died on Nov. 1 in Lancaster, Penn. The 88-year-old’s cause of death was not disclosed.
In collaboration with songwriter/producers Gamble, Huff, and Thom Bell, Tarsia played an instrumental role in crafting PIR’s distinctive brand of sophisticated soul, dubbed the Sound of Philadelphia. He left his imprint on a host of classic hits such as Jerry Butler’s “Only the Strong Survive,” The O’Jays’ “Love Train” and “Back Stabbers,” Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” and The Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around.” Tarsia also amassed credits on recordings by Teddy Pendergrass, the Stylistics, Patti LaBelle, the Delfonics and Lou Rawls.
Beyond the stable of PIR acts, Sigma Sound in Philadelphia also attracted the likes of Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and the Jacksons. Tarsia also operated a Sigma Sound branch in New York from 1977-1988, booking sessions for Madonna, Whitney Houston and Elton John, among others.
Paying tribute to his and Huff’s longtime creative comrade and friend in a statement, Gamble said in part, “As our main studio recording engineer for PIR, Joe was a tremendous asset in helping us create what became the legendary Sound of Philadelphia. For all of the songs written and produced by me, Huff and our label and recorded by our artists, Joe 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.”
“Joe and his Sigma Sound Studios were second to none,” added Huff. “I too am very saddened for the loss of our dear friend and one of the greatest sound engineers ever. Joe’s connection to me and Gamble was like Quincy Jones’ relationship with his personal engineer, Bruce Swedien. 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 of Philadelphia.”
A native of Philadelphia born on Sept. 23, 1934, Tarsia worked at electronics company Philco before joining Cameo-Parkway Records as the label’s engineer in the early ’60s, recording artists such as Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell. It was during this period that he first met Bell, Gamble and Huff, engineering the latter pair’s 1967 hit with the Soul Survivors, “Expressway to Your Heart.” He later risked borrowing against his home to found Sigma Sound Studios in 1968 — so christened after Tarsia saw the word Sigma on a place mat at a Greek restaurant.
“Literally, I hocked my house and [took] all the cash I had accumulated — everything I had — and got a bank to lend me forty thousand dollars and never looked back,” Tarsia recalled in the 2003 book Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sigma Sound’s founding in 2018, Tarsia told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “If I made a contribution, it was that Philadelphia had a unique sound. I was able to attract the best technicians, the best engineers. And the history speaks for itself. Sigma — not me — has 200 gold and platinum records … There was the Motown sound. The Memphis sound. The Muscle Shoals sound. And there was the Sigma sound.”
Tarsia’s survivors include his wife Cecelia, daughter, Lori, and three grandchildren.