Hearing newly-released albums from Philadelphia’s Nat Turner Rebellion (“Laugh to Keep From Crying”) and Sounds of Liberation (“Unreleased”) is both a breath of fresh, funky air and a set of testaments finely tuned to the tenor of our times – the sociopolitical black consciousness of inequity, racism, poverty and problematic police interaction.
Released by local labels – respectively Drexel University’s MAD Dragon Records via Vinyl Me, Please and Dogtown Records in connection with Brewerytown Beats – each album’s soulful songs, thick rhythms and testifying vibes exist alongside Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” when it comes to smartly considered protest music.
While Sounds of Liberation consisted of Germantown/Mt. Airy jazz-heads feeling their way, playing for prison inmates and community centers in their area, West Philly’s incendiary Nat Turner Rebellion was made up of what its leader and songwriter, Joseph Jefferson, called “wild kids…I mean, truly wild kids.”
The hook: both Philly acts were conceived between 1969 and 1970 with these previously-unreleased albums’ sessions recorded from 1969 to 1972 (in the case of Nat Turner Rebellion), and 1973 (for Sound of Liberation’s second album). How each came to go unreleased until the present has as much to do with the eternal mess that is the record industry – as well as mystery and missing tapes – as it does with the artists and the new labels who connected to do due diligence when it came to this collective music and their respective looks at community and chaos.
“I don’t think that any of these musicians think about their place in history, what is important today as opposed to yesterday, or how the material from their past is relevant within that,” said Brewerytown/Dogtown label head, Max Ochester. “What’s important is telling their story, having their story told and getting the music out there. The Nat Turner Rebellion people are doing a good job of getting their story out there, letting everyone know who made this music and why, and what the band was about. We’re doing that too with Sounds of Liberation. These were kids coming of age, expressing themselves, in the name of liberation and spirit and what they stood for at the time.”
Worth a shot
Ask Joseph Jefferson whether or not his Nat Turner Rebellion has a seat at the table with au courant hip hop artists or nu-R&B singers, and he’s not going for it. “Nope,” he’ll say, bluntly. He often speaks with great brevity and directness. “There was nothing like Nat Turner Rebellion before it. There’s nothing like Nat Turner Rebellion after it.”
Did he ever think that the Sigma Sound Studios-recorded blood, sweat and tears of his work, and that of fellow, now-deceased Rebellion members Major Harris, Ron Harper and Bill Spratley would ever see the light of day?
1969-70 | The time when both the Nat Turner Rebellion and Sounds of Liberation were conceived.
“Absolutely not,” he answered. “Watson had it, and that wasn’t good. I was at a place in my life where those Nat Turner Rebellion recordings were history, so I never looked back.”
That is until somebody made Jefferson – a Virginia native who landed in Philly playing for the Sweet Inspirations and the Manhattans – look back. That, someone, was the Manhattan-based independent music publisher Reservoir Media Management, who acquired Philly Groove and its sister music publishing company Nickel Shoe Music in 2012.
Reservoir’s Faith Newman hooked up with Drexel University professor and audio archivist Toby Seay to host Uncovering The Philly Groove, an educational music mixing course based upon Drexel’s acquisition of a treasure trove of reel-to-reels, cassettes and DATs left in the vaults of Sigma Sound Studios founder Joe Tarsia.
“What was left was either major label acts’ fare such as outtakes and demos or small labels that just didn’t hold on to its own material, such as Philly Groove,” Seay said. It was within that 7,000+ piece collection that the booty of lost Nat Turner Rebellion tapes was found.
First things first. Watson is Stan Watson, the longtime owner of Philly Groove Records who signed NTR as a vocal quartet in 1970, as his label already had success with another creamy harmony act from Philly, The Delfonics. Soon-to-be-famous producer and composer Thom Bell did A&R for the label and wrote the Delfonics’ biggest hits, such as “La-La Means I Love You.” The femme-fronted First Choice was signed there. Reputed Black Mafia member Bo Baynes reportedly held a position at Philly Groove as a “promoter.”
Jefferson said that despite everything that Watson was or wasn’t, the local record mogul was, at the very least, daring enough to sign Nat Turner Rebellion. “We saw things in a way that was different from how the powers that be saw them – like Philly International’s crew,” Jefferson said. Watson may have preferred that they sounded like the Delfonics, but he was ready to give deep radicalism and deep funk a try.
So, there was Nat Turner Rebellion with their tight harmonies, their Sly and the Family Stone funk-rock kick, their incendiary consciousness-heightening tunes such as “Tribute to a Slave” and “Getting Higher Together” – and the name’s connection to the Virginia slave insurrection of 1831.
“That name fell into place because of my mother when I asked about Turner,” Jefferson said of a tale that was the soul of black history and independence. “She put me on the path to understanding that situation. And when she was done talking, I thought ‘COOL.’ Until she found out I was naming the band after Turner. She warned me not to use the name, that she had fears about how and what this group was going to speak to with that name. It wasn’t as bad as she thought it was going to be. It was the ‘60s. Times were changing. I wanted to reflect that.”
1973 | The year the unreleased second album by the Sounds of Liberation is believed to have been created in a studio recording.
Jefferson and his friends (“none of those guys were as devoted as I, though”) never truly did get a chance to reflect its rage. Though “Slave” was released as a single to zip chart success, an album’s worth of additional radical songs never saw the light of day. By 1972, after much band in-fighting (“I said we were wild, it wasn’t pretty what happened between us,” noted Jefferson), Nat Turner Rebellion busted apart.
“When I left Philly Groove, there were periods where I was still Nat Turner,” Jefferson said about some of the hardness left behind by the nature of rage (Jefferson apologized to me at the end of our blunt chat, saying he still has some residual Nat Turner vibes to this day). “I didn’t see much hope there. I was too bust being hopeful about the next thing.” The next thing for Jefferson, in 1972, meant writing the O’Jays’ “Brandy,” the Temptations’ “Aiming at Your Heart” and some of The Spinners’ biggest hits, such as “Sadie.” Of those hits, Jefferson said, “I did what I could do, man.”
“Will the kids today get it? I can’t say because I never ever thought they’d ever get a shot at even hearing it.”
– Nat Turner Rebellion leader Joseph Jefferson on band’s radicalism in today’s society
Fast-forward to 2014, and Jefferson was happily retired in New Jersey when he received a phone call from Faith Newman about the resurrection of his Philly Groove catalog, and “how I would feel about X if Y would happen,” he said with a laugh. Would he be up to see his precious Nat Turner Rebellion material released if everything was cleared?
Newman had found boxes of photos in the Watson family basement when they were selling Reservoir their label when she came upon photos of Nat Turner Rebellion. “I saw the big Afros, the fists raised, and wondered who this was, why haven’t I heard of them and why didn’t they put out music,” she said. Tracking down Jefferson on Facebook, one thing became apparent. “He wasn’t interested,” Newman said.
“I wasn’t interested,” Jefferson said. “Why? Because I wasn’t interested.”
What changed Jefferson’s mind was consistency and persistence. “Faith was very consistent in her persistence and doesn’t give up easily. She believed in what she believed in, in the same way that I believed in that music when I authored and recorded it in the first place. I don’t know if she convinced me or I convinced myself, but it happened.”
Reservoir had to step up with an undisclosed amount of money.
“This was a product that didn’t belong to me – I didn’t own it even though I wrote it – so they had to make it beneficial to me,” Jefferson said. He gave the Mad Dragon Dogtown label and passed it onto his son, Khan Jr., with whom Ochester is partnered), Sounds of Liberation started when the vibes man was living off Chew Avenue, close to Monnette Sudler.
“I used to work at the YWCA on Chestnut Street with a young guy who had a friend that played vibes,” Sudler recalled. “He kept saying I should meet him, so we were introduced on the phone – Khan was friendly – and said that he could come to my house and jam. The first thing I thought was how big and heavy those things were, but there he came, with Omar playing congas, and spent the afternoon playing music.”
The communal vibe of Sounds of Liberation kicked in immediately as all of its members lived in one small area, practicing almost daily at Khan’s garage, and continued through to its mission statement of playing for and with the community. Ochester even found paperwork related to Sound of Liberation’s initial desires to become a not-for-profit group playing and composing solely for community-based initiatives.
“I was going through Monnette’s archives, and I found Xeroxed copies of ‘thank you’ letters from the principals of high schools and the warden at a state prison,” Ochester noted.
Unlike Nat Turner Rebellion, the black, socio-political revolution of Sounds of Liberation was a quieter one that found its spirited rage in calm, free jazz verses on its own first, self-released album, “New Horizons,” in 1972 (later reissued by Porter Records in 2010). Mostly, the revolution was televised and promoted via Sound of Liberation’s dedication to a communal ideal, playing for school children and prison inmates at community centers and jails.
“A lot of bands had names such as ours,” Sudler said with a laugh. “There were a lot more opportunities to play for community and families what with all the neighborhood festivals – that was important to keeping music alive and people aware. The musical environment in Philly was different then. You had more community involvement. Everybody was about black awareness, education and liberation.”
Ask Sudler if the intention of Sounds of Liberation was in league with the socio-conscious hip hop of the present day, and she’ll say, “Yes, perhaps, in a roundabout way.”
Sounds of Liberation didn’t so much break apart, but rather spirited itself into diverse solo forms and projects, with several of its members continuously acting as collaborators. Jamal and Lancaster would work together in different configurations throughout the decades and even became business partners in the loosest sense of the term with their co-ownership of the original Dogtown label.
“Byard and Khan owned it first, but they never did anything official – even registering it – so part of my mission with Dogtown and this release is to give them recognition, preserve their legacy and get some stuff back in their pockets,” Ochester said. “Byard passed away, and Khan hasn’t made music for 10 years as he’s been sick. He should see some financial gain after having had such a long career.”
Once Ochester found the tapes and photos from the 1973 Columbia U session (as well as the artist who had created the cover for the first Sounds of Liberation album, Leroy Butler, who contributed original artwork for “Unreleased”), he set about reuniting the band at Khan’s house. What might have been an hour’s worth of listening turned into an evening’s long trip down memory lane.
“Everybody was genuinely excited to hear music they hadn’t heard in nearly 50 years,” Ochester said. So excited, in fact, that Sounds of Liberation is gathering together to play the “Unreleased” album release party on June 13 at Union Transfer where Sudler, Mills and Hill will be joined by bassist Charles Veasley, reeds man Elliott Levin and several other key Philly jazzbos dedicated to freedom and liberation.
“I told Max that he is a great detective and historian who knows how to tracks things down and be dogged about it – I like that about him,” Sudler said with a laugh. “That’s what this music needs – people who care as much about the sound as they do its intent, with some smarts and willpower to do the leg work.”