Long lost Philly Funk/Soul masterpiece unearthed, to be released

Long lost Philly Soul masterpiece unearthed, to be released

(March 30, 2019) The names Joseph Jefferson and Major Harris are known to fans of soul music generally, and specifically soul music emanating from the City of Brotherly Love. Jefferson penned hits many legendary acts as a staff writer for Philadelphia International Records. He wrote several hit songs for The Spinners, including “One of a Kind (Love Affair)” and “Mighty Love.” Jefferson, a native of Virginia who moved to Philadelphia in the 1960s, also wrote “Brandy” for O’Jays, as well as penning hits for Patti LaBelle. Harris was a member of the legendary Delfonics before going solo and giving us one of the great bedroom ballads of the 1970s and a mainstay on quiet storm radio – “Love Won’t Let Me Wait.”

Long lost Philly Soul masterpiece unearthed, to be released

(March 30, 2019) The names Joseph Jefferson and Major Harris are known to fans of soul music generally, and specifically soul music emanating from the City of Brotherly Love. Jefferson penned hits many legendary acts as a staff writer for Philadelphia International Records. He wrote several hit songs for The Spinners, including “One of a Kind (Love Affair)” and “Mighty Love.” Jefferson, a native of Virginia who moved to Philadelphia in the 1960s, also wrote “Brandy” for O’Jays, as well as penning hits for Patti LaBelle. Harris was a member of the legendary Delfonics before going solo and giving us one of the great bedroom ballads of the 1970s and a mainstay on quiet storm radio – “Love Won’t Let Me Wait.”

The Delfonics made their mark at Stan Watson’s Philly Groove Records, and it was at that label where Jefferson and Harris teamed with Ron Harper and Bill Spratley to form the hard-charging funk band Nat Turner Rebellion. NTR cut more than a dozen songs for Philly Groove Records between 1969 and 1972. Those cuts were slated to appear on an album titled Laugh to Keep From Crying, but that album never saw the light of day for a half century, only being released now through the special vault work of the Reservoir label and Drexel University.

The album features the track “Tribute to a Slave,” which is an homage to the band’s namesake and leader of the 1831 slave revolt that took place in Jefferson’s home state of Virginia. The mid-tempo track fuses a bouncy bass line, a percussive horn section that gives it the feel of a song that would fit in at a stepper’s set with the quartet harmonizing lyrics remind us that the spirit of Nat Turner informs generations of freedom fighters to this very day. “My friend Nat/Though our eyes never met/And our voices so distant apart/yet our hearts can beat as one/I can see what’s begun/Rebellion of the white man’s son.”

“Fat Back” is an upbeat funky number that features electric organs, bluesy guitars and those signature percussive trumpets, fat baritone saxophones. The track shows that NTR heard what was happening in Memphis and incorporated it into their sound, while their remake of the Friends of Distinction’s “Going in Circles” endows the classic track with a rougher, bluesier brand of funk.

Laugh to Keep From Crying is in all ways representative of what was happening musically in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The album features ballad work such as the lush and soaring torch song “Can’t Go on Living” with Harris assertive vocals endowing the song with vulnerability and urgency.

Laugh to Keep From Crying was released a year after Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, so the album’s songs of protest would have found a welcome audience in 1972. However, Laugh to Keep From Crying has something in common with Marvin’s follow up album, You’re The Man, in that both would languish in the archives of their respective labels for five decades before being released this year.

Two question linger. Why so long and why now?

“I think that there was some frustration that they were recording for three years and no album materialized,” says Faith Newman, SVP of A&R and Catalog Development Reservoir, the label that along with Drexel University’s Music Industry Program and music subscription service Vinyl Me Please helped to make the release possible. Newman said that NTR and Stan Watson, head of Philly Groove Records, also had creative differences. “They were having creative differences with Stan Watson over the direction of the band,” Newman adds.  “Stan wanting them to sound more like the Delfonics and they wanted to be more like Sly Stone.”

While those creative differences played a role in shelving Laugh to Keep From Crying, fans will be treated to hearing a mixture of styles as the group worked to locate their creative sweet spot, Newman says.  “And I think 50 years later that is what makes the album so interesting.” Those 50 years have seen the passing of Harper, Spratley and Harris. Only Jefferson survives.

Reservoir purchased the label and publishing company from Watson’s estate in 2012, Newman says. Newman knew about the Delfonics and First Choice, but she wasn’t familiar with NTR. “I started going through pictures and bunch of papers related to this group called the Nat Turner Rebellion,” she recalls.

Newman managed to get in contact Jefferson via Facebook, and the two ended up talking for four hours as he told her about the story about NTR’s rise and demise. Newman pledged to make sure the public finally heard Laugh to Keep From Crying.

That’s where Drexel University comes in. Reservoir and Drexel’s Music Industry Program already had a working relationship, according to Newman. The students studied the history of Philly Groove Records and embarked on projects such as mixing Philly Groove multi-track tapes that had not been mixed that Newman found in Florida. “From doing that, I found out that Drexel had taken in the Sigma Sound Studios (the studio where artists from Philly Groove, PIR and other artists recorded), and in those archives were tapes from the Nat Turner Rebellion”

Newman realized that she had enough of the source material that would allow the album to be completed and released. “What was interesting to me is that (NTR) was before the jump off where Philly became the center of the music world,” she said.

The album will be released through Drexel’s in-house MAD Dragon Records, while Vinyl Me Please will press a limited run of 5,000 albums. Newman said that Jefferson blessed the project, and he is excited to know that the public will finally hear the music that NTR created.

“He’s really happy this has finally gotten to see the light of day and his work is appreciated,” Newman said. “He wishes the other guys were here to share it with him.”

By Howard Dukes

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