Photos by Charles Shan Cerrone.
There’s a song by Philadelphia soul band Nat Turner Rebellion on their debut release called “Never Too Late,” which is fitting.
That’s because the track was recorded, along with the rest of the material on “Laugh To Keep From Crying,” sometime between 1969 and 1972, but was never released for mass consumption until now.
The unreleased material has come to light thanks to a unique collaboration between Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and its student-run MAD Dragon Records label; music publishing company Reservoir Media, which acquired the publishing rights for the Philly Groove label’s catalogue including the Nat Turner Rebellion material; and vinyl subscription service Vinyl Me, Please. The tracks that comprise “Laugh To Keep From Crying” were recorded in Philadelphia’s famed Sigma Sound Studios, whose archives the Westphal College has managed since 2005.
For the band’s founder and sole surviving member Joe Jefferson, it was easy to confront the idea of “it’s never too late” on May 1, when the record’s many collaborators, supporters and Jefferson’s family and friends came together in the URBN Center Annex on Drexel’s University City Campus to celebrate the album’s late March release. The event featured a Q&A between Jefferson and Philadelphia Inquirer music critic Dan DeLuca, who had previously interviewed Jefferson about the release, and sat with a copy of the vinyl record on his lap throughout the discussion.
“Two months ago, I had never heard of the Nat Turner Rebellion,” DeLuca said during the event, gesturing to the record. “I didn’t know what it was. But I saw this record, I heard this music, I saw these pictures — I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe that something could be this together, this exciting, this compelling, and I’ve never heard of it.”
Faith Newman, senior vice president of A&R and Catalogue Development for Reservoir Media, couldn’t believe it, either. She explained how finding photographs of the band in Philly Groove label head Stan Watson’s old home piqued her interest, and started what became a six-year-long process of releasing this long-lost music from the golden age of Philadelphia soul.
“When I started listening to the music, I was just blown away,” Newman explained to the audience. “50 years in the making, it was time for this album to come out. People needed to hear this music. It was important, and that was the journey that we set on.”
Once Newman contacted Jefferson and got him on board with her plan, she knew exactly who her next call would be to: Toby Seay, associate professor and department head in Westphal and director of the Drexel University Audio Archives.
Seay explained that he was excited to receive Newman’s call since he had already discovered Nat Turner Rebellion for himself.
“Early on in the archives, I was just digging through shelves, trying to arrange things and discover what’s there,” he said. “One of the things that I pulled off the shelf was a tape from 1969, November 11, ‘Tribute to A Slave’ and ‘Plastic People.’ Namely because when you see a tape that says ‘Nat Turner Rebellion: Tribute to a Slave,’ how can you not play that?”
DeLuca’s probing during the Q&A prompted Jefferson to open up about the band’s history, reception and the reasons why the music wasn’t released to the masses back in the band’s heyday.
Music was a way out of their “one-horse” hometown of Petersburg, Virginia for Jefferson and his friends Ron Harper and Bill Spratley. With Jefferson’s guidance, they relocated to Philadelphia and formed the band, adding fourth member Major Harris, who later went on the join The Delfonics and launch a solo career. Jefferson settled on Philadelphia as a home base for the band after being forced to hunker down in an apartment on Baltimore Ave. due to a foot infection he contracted while on tour with The Sweet Inspirations.
While discussing the band’s history, DeLuca asked 75-year-old Jefferson where the urge came from back then to start his own group.
“My foot was really hurting man!” Jefferson answered sarcastically, laughing along with the audience. “No, I got tired of the repetition and I decided I wanted to do something about that repetition. … So I thought I would give it a shot.”
Jefferson went on to discuss how he put “a lot of [his] life” into the group in the coming years. Influenced by The Temptations and Sly and the Family Stone, the Nat Turner Rebellion went on to write music with a message. Signed to Philly Groove, they hit the road opening up for chart-topping contemporaries The Delfonics. When asked what the band was like live, Jefferson said they “were like nothing you’ve ever seen … a crowd killer.” However, he also admitted that they didn’t put enough of a focus on putting out an actual record.
“We were stupid,” Jefferson said with a laugh.
Then, the event took a more somber term as Jefferson spoke about differences of opinion with the Philly Groove label, mainly around the political undertones of the group’s music, and how their chance to make it seemed to pass by.
“The other three guys are not here,” he said emotionally, taking a moment to collect himself, and alluding to the fact that the group didn’t get the attention they deserved then, but were getting it now. “There are groups that arrive at a particular time and there are just no more spaces left. If you didn’t get here early enough to get a seat, walk your ass outside. Ain’t no more seats, brother! And that’s what the deal was with the Nat Turner Rebellion. The Nat Turner Rebellion was everybody’s dream. You can’t find me one person that has ever seen the Nat Turner Rebellion, and there are plenty of them right now in Philadelphia that saw the original Nat Turner Rebellion live, that didn’t come away floored.”
Even though new fans won’t get the chance to see the group live, the Vinyl Me, Please release of “Laugh To Keep From Crying” certainly still resonated. Alexandra Berenson, BA Communications ’14 and head of A&R for Vinyl Me, Please, announced to the audience that the initial units of the album sold out on the first day of its release, which had never happened for them before. There is also a 600-plus waitlist for new units.
“I think there’s something about unearthing a lost record that’s very exciting to people,” Berenson said following the event. “The music is just good. The songs, they’re interesting and they’re Philly Soul, but you can hear all of these different influences in them.”
Seay worked with Marc Offenbach, an assistant professor in Westphal College and advisor of MAD Dragon Records, to produce “Laugh To Keep From Crying,” blending together the sonic differences between the tracks and sequencing them in a way that would help the album tell a story worthy of the story of its creation.
“I’m very pleased to be able to have some part in that and to make that audio come to life,” Seay said at the event.
Students from MAD Dragon Records also got involved when it came time to secure mechanical licensing for the songs, and worked with the project’s partners to develop a marketing plan and album artwork for the release. Tosh Farrell, a fifth-year music industry student as well as an executive team member with MAD Dragon, said getting involved with the project and connecting with great companies was definitely a résumé-booster, as well as something that was personally fulfilling to him.
“All of the messages in the music are so great,” Farrell said. “It’s just a great representation of Philadelphia sound, which often gets overlooked. So I think it’s great that we have this project here [at Drexel].”
Even with all of the people and resources that pushed the project to the finish line, and pushed the music out into the world, Jefferson admitted to DeLuca and the audience at the event that there was initially a part of himself that didn’t want to bring it back.
“There was a part of me that thought I would be fooling myself if I thought I could do it,” he said. “You can live in fear. You can live with fear. Fear that it won’t happen, fear that it will happen. Fear that you aren’t who you think you are. Fear that you are who you think you are. There’s a lot of fear factors in life, so I had a lot of them on my plate. … But what a wonderful gift that someone can give someone else: belief in yourself.”
For Jefferson, it’s never too late for a little bit of faith, either.