Fifty years after they first recorded it in the Sigma Sound Studios, Nat Turner Rebellion's album Laugh to Keep From Crying is being released, thanks to a collaboration between Drexel University, Reservoir and Vinyl Me, Please.
Nat Turner Rebellion was an up-and-coming band in the golden age of Philadelphia soul music. They opened for the chart-topping Delfonics. They had a hit-making agent, signed with a renowned record label and recorded enough tracks for an album. Then it all fell apart. Now, some 50 years later, the un-released album will be making its debut on Drexel University’s student-run
MAD Dragon Records
Originally recorded from 1969 to 1972 in Philadelphia’s iconic Sigma Sound Studios, the album, called Laugh to Keep From Crying, would have put Nat Turner Rebellion on the track of the city’s soul legends Gamble & Huff and MFSB. But creative differences between band members and frustration with management instead lead to the group’s split as soon after the tracks were recorded.
Several of the tracks were released as singles in the 1970s, while band leaders Joseph Jefferson and his brother Major Harris went on to successful writing and performing careers, but the rest of the Nat Turner Rebellion album existed only in the annals of the Sigma Sound Studios.
This week their music will finally be released to the public — first as an LP on Thursday, March 28 and then via streaming services on Friday, March 29.
Retrieving and completing the album after its half century in musical purgatory required a unique collaboration between Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, which has managed the Sigma archives since 2005, independent music company, Reservoir, who acquired the copyrights for the songs when it bought the Philly Groove label in 2012, and the vinyl-only subscription service, Vinyl Me, Please.
“This sort of thing is pretty much unheard of in the music industry,” said Marc Offenbach, an assistant professor in Westphal College and advisor of MAD Dragon Records. “You have an album that essentially has not had a pulse for 50 years suddenly shocked back into existence at a time when it’s messages about social justice and civil rights are as relevant as they were in the seventies. It certainly would not have been possible without the tracks being expertly preserved in Drexel’s Sigma Sound Archives and strong partners like Reservoir who is dedicated to sharing the Philly soul sound with a new generation of music fans, and Vinyl Me, Please who is reinvigorating vinyl for the music industry.”
Toby Seay, an associate professor in Westphal College who manages the Sigma Sound Archive, first found and identified the 14 Nat Turner Rebellion tracks from Reservoir’s Philly Groove collection, which now comprise the album. After Reservoir senior vice president of A&R and Catalogue Development Faith Newman met with Jefferson to get his approval for the album, Seay’s talents were tapped to remaster the tracks and prepare them for a release on vinyl.
Joseph Jefferson, the lone surviving member of Nat Turner Rebellion, went on to write songs for successful bands including the Spinners.
“While these recordings capture a significant moment in history, they are just as relevant and powerful now as when they were originally recoded,” Newman said. “We are grateful to Drexel and MAD Dragon for their partnership in helping these recordings see the light of day in Joe Jefferson’s lifetime and honored that he entrusted us with preserving the legacy of the project.”
Students from MAD Dragon Records connected with Vinyl Me, Please, a subscription service that sends new albums to its tens of thousands of members each month, to handle the distribution. And they worked alongside professionals from the company to secure mechanical licenses for the songs, develop a marketing plan and create the artwork for the album cover. The students will also be assisting in the of the marketing of the digital release of the album on streaming services this week.
“This has been another great opportunity for students, to work with professionals and to put their hands on every aspect of the process,” Offenbach said. “It’s collaborations like this that set apart Drexel’s nationally recognized music industry program.”
Westphal students helped design the cover art for the Nat Turner Rebellion album Laugh to Keep From Crying, including the single "Tribute to a Slave."
Seay, Offenbach and their students have worked with Newman and Reservoir in the past to find and finish some of the songs from other artists on the Philly Groove Records label but this is the first release of new music from the 7,000 master tapes in the Sigma Archives.
“Faith Newman from Reservoir, the company who owns the master recordings, has worked tirelessly for six years with Joe Jefferson from the Nat Turner Rebellion on getting these recordings together,” Offenbach said. “We are sincerely thankful to Reservoir in allowing Drexel to work alongside them on this project.”
Drexel’s Music Industry program will host a public event on May 1 to celebrate the release of the album featuring special guests from the rich history of the Sigma Sound Studios.
“The Sigma Archives are a true musical treasure trove that we are just scratching the surface of,” Seay said. “Now that we have a strong system for working with copyright holders, recording labels and distribution entities and supporting that process with our expertise and our motivated music industry students, I can see more collaborations like this bringing more music from the archives to the public.”