Blast from the past at record conference

“Don’t Hang Up” by the Orlons rattled the Gothic-style rafters of the Class of 1949 Auditorium in Houston Hall, but no one got up to dance. Two of the men who made Philadelphia one of the brightest lights in the popular music galaxy, Joe Tarsia, founder of Sigma Sound Studios, and Dave Appell, who worked as a composer, engineer and producer at Cameo-Parkway Records, nodded their heads in time to the driving beat. They were at Penn as featured speakers when the national conference of the Association of Recorded Sound Collections met here May 28 to June 1.

In a nostalgia-laced conversation, Tarsia and Appell reminisced about the days when Dick Clark ruled the TV airwaves from 46th and Market and, in a Center City sound studio, they filled America’s appetite for the new music called rock ’n’ roll. They played some of their hits—“Didn’t I” by the Delphonics, produced by the legendary Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, “Mashed Potato Time” by Dee Dee Sharp—and told great stories. They talked about the remarkable technological advances that have been made since they started with two monaural tape recorders—and told great stories. They traced the history of independent studios from the days when you could cut a record on Monday and have it in the stores on Friday to today’s complex process—and told great stories.

“We were interested in real sound, not over-engineered, none of those Phil Spector ‘wall of sound’ techniques,” said Tarsia. “I learned that if the room is right, you make a great record.

“On ‘Bristol Stomp,’” Appell added, “all we had were bass drum, maracas and a guitar.”

Appell, whose first hit was the 1958 novelty tune “Mexican Hat Rock,” a bizarre amalgamation of the “Mexican Hat Dance” and “O Dem Golden Slippers” (“the nuns loved it”), revealed one of the secrets of his songwriting success—find a song that had come off copyright and re-work it. “Ida” became “Wild One” for Bobby Rydell. “South Street?” “That’s the Stephen Foster classic ‘Camptown Races,’” Appell explained as the audience gasped in recognition. “I always liked that tune.”

Originally published on June 12, 2003