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Interview with Joe Tarsia [Part 1 of 4]

Summary
Interview with Joe Tarsia [Part 1 of 4]

“Interview with Joe Tarsia [part 1 of 4].” , , WGBH Media Library & Archives, (accessed 23 Jul 2014)
http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/13efeb-interview-with-joe-tarsia-part-1-of-4

Transcript

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Interviewer:
Going by the old days in Philly, what did Dick Clark mean?
Tarsia:
Dick Clark was a very influential person in the Philadelphia music scene because uh, it gave our, the music community in Philadelphia access to the national market. And uh, with the, uh, the success of the show, many producers and production companies sprung up all through the city, because if, uh, if you could get to meet Dick Clark, and he was a fairly accessible person, you could personally play your record for him and get a shot at being heard all over the country the next day. So he had a great influence on Philadelphia music and music in general.
Interviewer:
Well, how did Cameo Parkway fit into the picture?
Tarsia:
Cameo Parkway was one of several companies in, in Philadelphia at the time that, um, the owner, Bernie Lowe, was a writer, producer, piano player, and was actually making records before the Dick Clark show had its, had its success. But uh, there was Cameo Parkway, Chancellor Records, I think were the two main record companies that were sort of positioned in the right place at the right time. And when Dick Clark went national, the relationships were already established. In fact, Dick Clark had his own record company, called Swan Records. And uh, he had Danny and the Juniors, and Freddie Boom-Boom Cannon amongst the artists that he had. Uh, so it was a very nice warm, cuddly community that I was fortunate to work my way into it at that time.
Interviewer:
What were you doing at Cameo Parkway?
Tarsia:
Well, my background is electronics. I was working at Philco as a laboratory technician. And at night I was moonlighting in a studio for nothing trying to learn about the business. It was just show business was very interesting to, it was exciting. And uh, I used my electronic background to start servicing some of the, uh, he recording studios in town. And uh, I turned that into a full time job, uh, and convinced them I was a recording engineer, and ran their small in-house studio.
Interviewer:
What kind of music were they recording? What did it sound like?
Tarsia:
I guess by today's standards you'd call it, uh, sort of bubblegum-ish. You know, uh, um, Bernie was a smart producer in that he would listen to the young promotion people and the people in the stock room and the mailroom. And they would go to hops and see what the kids were dancing to, and the next day they would write a song, uh, uh, that was called "The Twist" or "The Fish" or "The Swim." And uh, actually that was all generated from the input of the kids and the young people that worked at the company.
Interviewer:
What do you, when did you actually start working with Ken Gamble?
Tarsia:
Well, my, uh, my, I'm sorry. I started working with Kenny Gamble, uh, I would actually it was sort of a casual, uh, relationship in that Kenny was at that time a young struggling songwriter who was working as a laboratory technician at Jefferson Hospital. And would take off on his lunch hour to come and work, or try to get into the studio or try to get into Cameo Parkway at the time. And uh, it was sort of a closed club, but uh, that's where I first met Kenny. And uh, eventually, which his determination, uh, he finally got a foot in the door and uh, got the respect from people around him and worked his way into being one of the more prolific songwriter-producers in the city.
Interviewer:
Why was Kenny trying so hard to get into Cameo Parkway?
Tarsia:
Well, he rec-, Kenny recognized at the time that Cameo Parkway was, uh, a happening company, and there was access to the national market. So, uh, Kenny was one of many, many aspiring songwriter-producers that were banging at the door. Uh, he was also at the same time, uh, trying to make inroads in New York. Most of being successful in the record business is that, uh, climbing through the window of opportunity. And uh, Kenny would let nothing go by to climb through that window.
Interviewer:
What did you first notice in him?
Tarsia:
Well certainly his, um, I think the thing that impressed me most about Kenny Gamble was that whatever he touched, or whatever he did, seemed to have a magic about it. Um, he would, um, prompt a singer when he was working with him, an walk over to the microphone and say, uh, say to me, put some of this on tape, and hum and sing a few lines and he captured the essence of a song. And, and in many cases, many of the artists that he worked with actually mimicked what Kenny whispered in their ear or laid on a tape as a, as an example. So I think one of his biggest traits beside writing great songs, was he was a stylist. He could, he could tell the singer how to bend a note or how to phrase a line.
Interviewer:
Any particular … that comes to mind?
Tarsia:
Well, it, uh, not really. You know I'll tell you what's wrong with that. It would tend to be insulting to the artist if I told you he told Jerry Butler or Teddy Pendergrass how to sing, you know what I mean?
Interviewer:
No, I think it's more indicative of the collaborative relationship that producing music kind of is.
Tarsia:
Well, I think that, uh, Kenny Gamble, especially with the young Philadelphia talent he worked with, the Intruders, and also collaborated with Tommy Bell with the Stylistics and Barbara Mason and so forth, that he was able to impart to them his, what was in his brain as far as what the songs should sound like. One of the interesting things about Gamble and Huff was that, we always said that they didn't write songs, they wrote records, in that if you listen to the music of Jerry Butler or of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, or the O'Jays, they're not really interchangeable. They were made for those people. In other words, you brought the foot and they made the shoe to fit. And uh, uh, their, their music for the most part was not interchangeable. They wrote specifically for the voice and the talent they were dealing with.
Interviewer:
Let's talk about -- Let's cut for a moment.
When Kenny and Leon Huff started Gamble Records, how did the music that they were making differ from what you had been doing.
Tarsia:
It was prior to Gamble and Huff, predominantly we were doing, uh, uh, top 100 pop type records, uh, with artists like the Dovells and Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avalon, people of that, uh, genre. And Kenny really introduced me to, uh, urban music. And I have to say that he taught, he really did, teach me the essence, I mean it took a long time before I could think like he did, and pretty much do it without him. But I did it his way. And I, I mean, it was not uncommon for him to walk over to the recording console and to make an adjustment. Now where I came from, and I learned to work in the studio, that was like, you know, that's my board, don't touch it. But it seems that we he did worked and was right. And a lot of, I like to think that it went both ways. But a lot of the technique and, and appreciation for what a, what a black record or an urban record should sound like, as compared to a pop record, was something that, uh, I didn't get, uh, through the genes. And I had to get through my experiences with Kenny. And uh, I have to say that, that as we progressed uh, lots of times he wasn't even present because it was no longer necessary, but it was still his influence.
Interviewer:
Could you tell me just what are those differences between the black music sound.
Tarsia:
I think the major differences between the music I was doing say in the '60s as compared to the music in the '70s, is that R and B music, or at least the music that we made was much more focused on the spontaneous feel of, of the players. Uh, many times, we would let a bad note or something that was out of tone because it was right, the feeling was right. And I think that feeling and emotion was an integral part of the music that we were making, as compared to the more highly structured, I call it produced music of, of pop music of the '60s. We even see that with the Beatles and the English Invasion, was a, was really a freer, uh, uh, less structured thing, and I think that the, I think that the English sound actually drew that from American R and B music.
Interviewer:
On that same topic, when we spoke yesterday, you talked about Dick Clark, and what that meant. And you also talked about ... What exactly impact did Dick Clark and American Bandstand leaving Philadelphia have on the Philly music scene?
Tarsia:
When Dick Clark left Philadelphia, uh, the producers and the music community in general, really had to now for the first time do it completely on merit, and were on an even plane with, with the rest of the country. So I mean it really, the major recording centers at that time were New York, LA, Nashville. There weren't too many, outside of the success of Motown, there weren't too many other areas, well, I correct that to the extent that Memphis was also a center. But uh, when, when Dick Clark moved to Los Angeles, then there was a level playing field. And while the music continued to flow, it, its access to instant, uh, to the instant, uh, exposure, was gone.
Interviewer:
What does that exposure mean to American kids?
Tarsia:
Well, one of the things I've always told people that I think that some of the best music ever made never is heard. Because uh, promotion, it is a business. And, and promotion and exposure, radio airplay and so forth, and where you're placed in the retail store all has an influence on how well your record sells. If you walk into the record store and you don't see it, you know, nobody's going to buy it. So all those things are tools to marketing that are really available to the major record companies. So, to the little guys in Philadelphia, or even to Motown or, or, in, in, uh, Memphis or whatever. Uh, they needed, they needed to do it solely on the music. There was no, there was no, um, uh, major push from outside.
Interviewer:
Is it fair to say that when Dick Clark left the bottom sort of dropped out in the Philadelphia music scene?
Tarsia:
Well, uh, Dick Clark left I guess it was in around '63. And uh, at that time, and in late '63 the Beatles had, and Philadelphia really lost its, the spotlight as being a music center for I would say two or three years. It was, uh, the, the, the effect of Gamble and Huff and Thom Bell didn't really start to be felt until the mid '60s, '66, '67, in that time frame.
Interviewer:
What did the Beatles and the whole British Invasion, what did that mean to the American music scene, and what kind of changes? Were people having a hard time getting heard?
Tarsia:
The Beatles had a major impact that they really changed music forever. And I think they, they changed it for the good. Because the highly structured, highly produced, highly orchestrated pop music, uh, of the '60s gave way to a more natural expression. Um, it really opened the door to, uh, uh, to, to the, uh, the young music writer, young music producer. Uh, you didn't have to be in that clique. I mean they really threw open the door, and um, while it was foreign from what we were doing with urban music, with R and B, I think it was overall a good influence.
Interviewer:
Do you remember the first song you cut with Kenny?
Tarsia:
Uh, the first song I cut with Kenny Gamble was, actually, who was a writer and a co-producer was a record by Candy and the Kisses called "The 81." And really it was sort of a rip of a record that came out of Motown. I don't remember the name of the record, but it was a dance called "The 81."
Interviewer:
And what was it like working with Ken at that time. What I'd love to hear about also is his coming in his lab coat.
Tarsia:
When we at the time of "The 81" and that period, which is I would say '64, '65, um, Kenny was not a full time producer. He was a lab technician working at Jefferson Hospital. And uh, he'd have to steal minutes away from his job, come out on his lunch hour and try to make sure that the session was going to occur and he could have his most impact when it was time to eat lunch. And uh, he was a person possessed. His first love was music, and uh, uh, whether it was working until three in the morning in the studio or taking a long lunch hour break that he was always there, always making sure that his music was heard.
Interviewer:
I need you to paint a picture for me. If you could tell me like he was rushing over to the studio in his white lab coat.
Tarsia:
Kenny Gamble as a producer, I think that one of the things that I always, I first noticed about him was that he was always self-assured. He always knew exactly what he wanted to do. And uh, I think one of his better traits was the fact that, uh, he was a great people person, and he knew how to extract from people, uh, his best. He was never critical, he was always complimentary, even when we both knew that, that, that was not going to be the final cut. It was always encouragement, it was always let's try one more, but he would never criticize. So I think one of the, Kenny was really a combination of many talents. Uh, he was a good businessman, he was a good people person, he was a good songwriter, he was a good producer, um, and that all added up to success.
Interviewer:
The Intruders. Now, Kenny and Leon basically had their first hits on the Intruders. You did "Cowboys to Girls" and tell me especially about that lead singer.
Tarsia:
One of the interesting things about Kenny Gamble and one of the early lessons I learned about the people he brought to the studio was he said a lot of people could sing, and he always looked for that unique voice or that unique, something a little bit like green hair. And one of the first groups I worked with Kenny was the Intruders. And the lead singer was a guy named Little Sonny. And Little Sonny had, Little Sonny always sounded like he was stretching as far as he could to make the note. And he had a little rough sound about him, the thing that really attracted Kenny. And I think it's uh, if you look through at Kenny's artists through the years, you'll see that each of them had their own unique character. They, they stood apart from people who just could sing.