Radio concert was a studio standout

Posted: November 09, 2011

SIGMA SOUND Studios' chief engineer and former co-owner Joe Tarsia remembers Billy Joel's radio concert debut being quite the event.

Tarsia had been behind the board for a bunch of the record label-sponsored, "WMMR @ Sigma" shows, a series he recalls as "the first of its kind in the nation" and "a great way to promote a new act."

The series also brought wider attention to Sigma, then noted primarily as home to the sophisti-soul Philadelphia International productions of Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell. Later, it would also attract album makers like David Bowie, the post-Motown Jacksons, Laura Nyro and (to Sigma's now-closed New York branch), Talking Heads and Madonna.

Other rockin' artists - including WMMR radio series initiator Todd Rundgren, Bonnie Raitt, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Robin Trower - also would get a bump up from doing the Live From Sigma Sound broadcasts, Raitt most memorably with a song called "Blender Blues," which she later came to dread.

But the Joel show, 11th in the series, was unique on several levels.

"They only had an hour to set up and soundcheck. Bands now spend a week just getting the drum sound right," recalled the now-retired Tarsia. Sigma Sound Studio, still at 212 N. 12th St., is now known as Sigma Sound Entertainment.

The atmosphere during the Joel set was so charged "that a fight broke out in the control room between 'MMR concert producer Dennis Wilen and one of Joel's roadies when he dared to lean over the board to adjust the piano level."

Tarsia was blown away by the power and accuracy of Joel's vocals and playing, as well as the depth in his melodies.

The Sigma man relished Rhys Clark's drum sound so much that "I ordered a set of the same fiberglass drums he used for our studio, but no one else ever played them like he did."

Tarsia was a bit surprised that Joel's first label, Parmount, didn't immediately snap up the rights to the 16-track master of the red-hot Sigma show.

"But a couple years later, after 'Captain Jack' took off locally and Columbia had signed him, they [Columbia] came back to us and bought the tape."

And secretly squirreled it away, until now.

- Jonathan Takiff

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