lost soul, found: philly’s nat turner rebellion

April 16, 2019
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The story of Nat Turner Rebellion, a musical group formed in Philadelphia in the late 1960s, is one of those glimmers-in-the-eye tales — right place, right time, right people, right sound. Participants in a temporary Black musical Utopia, the kind that popped up in communities all over the U.S. during the 20th century, when a few like-minded souls got together to make music that’s proved enduring, even if many of their names were left behind. 

Some of those names are being re-discovered. Laugh to Keep From Crying is a newly excavated 14-track document of Nat Turner Rebellion’s participation in Philadelphia’s version of that utopian moment, of four voices drawn to the city’s soul scene, right before it became so big, they named a sound after it.

In 1969, Nat Turner Rebellion (vocalists Joe Jefferson, Major Harris, Ron Harper, and Bill Spratley) recorded “Tribute To a Slave,” a Jefferson-penned track that invoked the spirit of the group’s namesake, and soon after signed to the local label, Philly Groove. Jefferson recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the group was a great live act, “We put blisters on their behinds. We were crowd killers.” They gigged around Philly, and even opened shows for the might Delfonics. Yet none of the follow-ups they recorded over the next two years at the city’s celebrated Sigma Sound Studios — where the famed Philly International sound was taking shape — took off. So no other Nat Turner Rebellion music saw the light of day at the time. Though listening to Laugh to Keep From Crying now, there’s a timeless-ness to the group’s rough-edged (can we say, punk?) psychedelic soul, and a rare focus.

Nat Turner Rebellion (photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media)

Those unreleased recordings languished in a Philadelphia storage unit until 2005, when a cache of 7000 master tapes — now known as The Sigma Sound Studios Collection — were donated to the city’s Drexel University, home to one of the best music-industry university programs in the country. The Nat Turner Rebellion tapes are now being co-released by the Drexel music program’s in-house record label (MAD Dragon Records), and Reservoir Records, with the blessing of Joe Jefferson, the group’s lone surviving member.  

(And if you’re near Philadelphia, mark May 1st on the calendar: Drexel will celebrate the release of Laugh to Keep From Crying, with an evening that will include a discussion with Joe Jefferson, as well as a preview of a forthcoming documentary on The Sound of Philadelphia.)

Find Nat Turner Rebellion’s album on all the streaming services or at Vinyl Me Please.