Digital killed the analog star. So what's next for Philly's musical workhorses?
You know The Sound of Philadelphia when you hear it. Bright melodies ride riptide rhythms while fat, juicy horns punch through swirling satin strings and rumbling piano. Somebody already wrote, “It sounds like a long, sleek Cadillac with all the trimmings rolling down South Street in slow motion, everyone’s head bobbing in rhythm as it drives by.” Amen.
Of course, you can’t talk TSOP without talking Gamble & Huff and Bell, and rightfully so. Philadelphia International Records (PIR) was a national hit-making machine, and produced over 150 gold and platinum records by artists like the Jackson 5, the O’Jays and Teddy Pendergrass.
But this isn’t a story about producers or the frontmen (or women) who normally get the gloss. This is a story about the unsung heroes of the record business, the workhorses who tighten, rave up and otherwise trick out countless records with no expectations of fame or glory. Instead of the glare of the stage spotlight, these virtuosos work anonymously in studios and basements. Sometimes, though never admitted above a whisper, they do it just for the credit line and once in a while just for the musical satisfaction.
Session players. They’re the recording industry’s minutemen, waiting on the sidelines, ready to rock. They have to be supremely adaptable by trade and able to deliver on demand, whether it’s a homogenized, commercial riff fit for a beer commercial or an inspired, balls-out solo. Their expertise lies in listening to the bare bones of a song, slashing out the perfect guitar riff, bass-line or what-have-you that’ll bring those bones alive, maybe even make ’em dance—then laying it down perfectly.
“It’s one thing to be a great musician when you play live on stage but it’s different when you become a recording musician,” says famed PIR producer Kenny Gamble.
Performing in concert, a musician needs to play a 20-year-old song like it’s the first time. Recording, the artist needs to play a brand-new part, maybe minutes old, and make it sound like they’ve been playing for 20 years.
TSOP is a product of the golden age of independent recording studios. Back then, there was enough session work at the indies—independent studios operating out of second-tier cities like Philly, Detroit and Memphis built in rebellion against the stiff corporate studios in N.Y.C. and L.A.—that local A-game session players became de facto studio house bands.
Studio house bands seared their indelible grooves into every record churned out of their respective studios. The Funk Brothers funkified Motown Records, Booker T. & the M.G.’s drove deep nasty grooves into the Memphis soul stew coming out of Stax, and in Philly, Mother Father Sister Brother (MFSB), a nebulous collective of session players that functioned as the house band at Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studios, stirred in that special sauce that gave TSOP its sleek-black-Caddy tang.
“We couldn’t have done it without the musicians,” says Gamble. “It was the sound of Philadelphia. The musicians, the songs, the artists—everybody played a part, but the musicians, they worked .”
The physical shape of the recording rooms played a big part in the sound too. The 40-foot echo chamber in Sigma Sound is part of what gave TSOP recordings an aural atmosphere of being recorded inside a giant velvet hot air balloon.
“Studios had personalities,” recalls Joe Tarsia, owner of Sigma and principle engineer on countless TSOP records. “There was a time when I could tell you if it was a West Coast record or an East Coast record. In New York, I could tell you the studio.”
Then digital killed the analog star. The old-guard music industry crumbled and the Internet brought major labels to their well-padded knees. Though most press coverage focuses on how going digital has robbed the suits of their pots of gold, the platform switch has also revolutionized the other end of the rainbow. With labels too broke to spend money on record production and the proliferation of affordable digital home recording equipment like Pro Tools, professional recording studios have shuttered one after the other in the last decade, even legendary emporiums like Sony Music Studios and the Hit Factory in Manhattan. Tarsia sold Sigma Sound in 2003. Meanwhile, almost any artist who so desires can build a passable home studio and record alone at home, assembling songs brick by digital brick.
Where do these changes leave our humble servant, the session player?
“In Philadelphia, more often than not what [session work] means is that you still get to go and play, but maybe at someone’s house. There’s not much of a difference between someone’s house and a studio anymore,” says Devin Greenwood, local producer and sometime session guy who’s played keys on Norah Jones and Amos Lee records. “But it still means that you play for a bit and leave with some money.”
Some money. The general consensus on scratching out a living exclusively as a session player is that it was never easy, and it ain’t getting any easier. Older heads say, like the cost of studio time, overall the average pay has gone way down. In Philly, even barter is common—a few licks on your buddy’s record here for a studio hour there. House sessions generally don’t pay as much as old-school studio hours, if they pay at all. Most session players report gluing together a living with a creative combination of session work, gigging as sidemen, teaching and other musical odd jobs.
Now, with the studio system fragmented, the very concept of session work is being redefined. Remote session work—exchanging tracks online—brings new opportunity for the seasoned session player, especially for artists not living in Los Angeles or New York. Musicians like local horns arranger Jay Davidson now regularly play on tracks without meeting the other artists on the record. Producers email him an MP3, Davidson writes an arrangement, invites other horns session players over to his home studio to learn the part and lay it down, then he zips the file back.
PW recently sat down with legendary sound engineer Joe Tarsia to chat with him about session players, the subject of our Music Issue, and how ludicrous-speed changes in recording technology is transforming how records are made.
I was curious. What would happen if I pulled six local session players -- the handsome crew featured in this week’s Music Issue -- together in a studio, tossed in a guy I met at a wedding the night before who claimed to be a musician, and instructed them to create a new song from scratch in record time?
PW's Music Issue 2014