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Archived “Philly Sounds” Inaugurates Libraries Diversity Webinar series

June 8, 2021

Music is part of our everyday experience. It is deeply rooted in every culture and is evidence of human engagement, heritage and traditions. Music tells a story and helps us connect with and understand diverse cultures and experiences across generations.

The recordings from the Sigma Sound Studios Collection, for example, help tell the story of “The Philly Sound,” a period of musical innovation deeply rooted in Philadelphia’s Black community.

“Philadelphia was one of the most prominent Black music centers in the late the 1960s and into the 1970s and 1980s. You think of Detroit and Motown; Memphis and Stax Records; Atlantic Records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama—Philadelphia and the Sigma Sound Studios is in that same vein of significant commercial recordings of Black centered music,” explained Toby Seay, Director of the Audio Archives, during a virtual tour of the Drexel Audio Archives, hosted by the Drexel Libraries, on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Fifty Drexel students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members attended the event, which was the inaugural event for the Drexel Libraries’ newest webinar series, Promoting Diversity through Drexel’s Archival & Special Collections. The Libraries developed this event series to facilitate conversations and connections to issues of diversity and inclusion by bringing to life the contributions historically marginalized communities have made to Drexel University, the City of Philadelphia, and beyond.

The Sigma Sound Studios collection was donated to Drexel University for storage, preservation, and research in 2005, and the Audio Archives is continuing its work to preserve the original tapes and migrate the audio to a digital format so future generations of researchers and audiophiles can access the recordings and connect with this important piece of history.

Preserving audio visual materials like the audiotapes from the Sigma Sound Studios, however critical, is not without challenges, Professor Seay said as he walked through the Audio Archives, pointing out the shelves upon shelves of magnetic tapes. The collection includes about 7,000 reels of tape in 13 different formats from artists like Pattie LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, Gladys Knight, David Bowie and Stevie Wonder, to name a few.

“Sound recordings are some of the most important human materials there are. When you can listen back to someone who may not be with us anymore, these things are hugely valuable as cultural heritage objects,” Professor Seay said. “The problem is, they were created with a machine, and they require a machine to play them back. Preserving a tape on a shelf is important if you want to keep it safe, but it doesn’t do any good unless you can preserve the machine that plays it back. Then we have a third problem: obsolete media means the machinery is also obsolete—no one is making them.”

The answer to the issue of preserving audio materials is digitization. “It was determined years ago that the proper archival method for audio is digitization,” he explained. “[However, digitization] is very resource heavy. It takes expertise, working equipment and time.”

During the event, Professor Seay also shared some of the physical objects and equipment in the collection and played snippets of a few of his favorite tracks from the collection, from the first song he ever heard by the Nat Turner Rebellion to the song, Mt. Airy Groove by Pieces of a Dream—a reference to the neighborhood in Philadelphia where he now lives.

Following Professor Seay’s virtual tour, Bill Gunter, Don Hinson and Jerry Martin, members of the Drexel University Black Alumni Council (DUBAC), added another historic perspective to the webinar as founders of the WKDU Black Experience program in the 1970s. These alums moderated questions and spoke about their time with WKDU and the importance of music.

“Listening to these recordings took me back to the time when we began broadcasting [in 1972],” said Gunter. “[Some of these artists] were part of the sound we brought to the radio at WKDU and the Black Experience in Music… It was personal expression. We didn’t have a program director telling us what to play, so each of us could express ourselves individually… We had a lot of things in there—news, public affairs, and community outreach as a part of the format.”

Don Hinson added that the group did not call themselves disc jockeys—they were communicators and their shows reflected—and connected with—the Black community in Philadelphia.

“It was a core foundation around the music that we were expressing and of course appropriately labeled The Black Experience in Music–that was the core,” Hinson reflected. “We played some commercial stuff, but [most of it wasn’t commercial.] [I played] some jazz, a little Latin, Caribbean, African. It was all part of the black experience. We prided ourselves on putting out music that wasn’t necessarily commercial, but it reflected the community and black folks in general.”

Watch the complete recording of the event on the Drexel Libraries’ YouTube channel.

Drexel Libraries’ webinar series: Promoting Diversity through Drexel’s Archival & Special Collections

The Drexel Libraries is bringing to life artifacts and historic resources that explore the diverse contributions historically marginalized communities have made to Drexel University, the City of Philadelphia and beyond through its new webinar series, Promoting Diversity through Drexel’s Archival & Special Collections.

This webinar series features conversations, virtual tours, and demonstrations with curators, archivists, librarians and researchers. It showcases archives and other collections of cultural and historic artifacts housed across Drexel University and beyond. Upcoming sessions will include guest speakers from the Drexel University Archives, The Legacy Center, The Academy of Natural Sciences, and The Robert & Penny Fox Costume Collection. More details will be announced later this summer.