In April, members of Vinyl Me, Please Classics will receive Laugh To Keep From Crying, the brand-new debut LP from Philadelphia funk and soul band Nat Turner Rebellion. The band — which featured future members of the Delfonics — released three singles before disbanding in the early ’70s. Until last year, an archive of their 20-something recorded songs were among the material in the vaults at Sigma Sound Studios, the legendary Philly studio, as part of the Drexel Audio Archives collection. VMP staffers Alex Berenson and Andrew Winistorfer partnered with Drexel University and Reservoir Media to take those songs and turn them into Laugh To Keep From Crying, an LP and a new 7-inch — which we envision as the band’s fourth single — that picks up where the band left off when they broke up almost 50 years ago.
You can sign up to receive the album here, on Thursday, March 28 at 12pm EST. Below, read how this release came together, after more than a year in the making.
Andrew Winistorfer: So this one has been percolating for more than a year, in my memory. We got sent the zip file of the 20-ish Nat Turner Rebellion songs I feel like in December 2017, but it might have been a month or two after that. Anyways, this one has been in the works for a long time. And it all started with your old university professor, right?
Alex Berenson, Senior A&R, VMP: We’re going to take this story back a few years. I’m a graduate of Drexel University in Philadelphia, and while I was in college, like most college kids who love music, I was in a band. Me and my bandmates were all in the music business program at Drexel, and as a part of one of the classes, our band got selected as a pet project where a class basically becomes your record label. The class helped us get artwork, and record an EP, and get studio time, and made flyers, and booked us some shows, and that kind of thing. The professor for that class was Marc Offenbach, who works at ATO and Drexel and is working to find ways to promote the archive at the university for Sigma Sounds. We didn’t actually put that together until months after we got this project rolling, which was a funny thing to realize.
But we were in New York taking some meetings with some labels, and at the meeting my connection to Drexel comes up. Marc tells us that Drexel now is in partnership with Sigma Sounds, and they have this band that they’re excited about that they have a bunch of unreleased material from called Nat Turner Rebellion. He says one of the members was in the Delfonics, and asks us to listen to the music, and thinks this would be a great project for us to link on.
So we got the music, and you, me and Cameron at VMP listened to it. And we all fell in love with it immediately. It feels Philly soul, but like a mishmash of other genres. “McBride’s Daughter,” one of my favorite tracks on the record, could be a 10CC song in my opinion. The group picked up all these different strands of music and made something new with this footnote of Philadelphia Soul. It felt crazy to be one of a handful of people at that point that had heard the entire thing.
Yeah, the thing that was really beautiful about listening to the songs is that it felt like they were still figuring out exactly what they wanted to be. They could play their asses off, but they never completely settled into a genre. They could be as funky as Parliament, but also do these really slow ballads. They could do prog-rock, and like proto-punk too.
It made it challenging to come up with the tracklist on this, because they cover so much ground. I remember us two spending a couple weeks last summer trying out different configurations. I know at one point, I had four different versions on my phone that I’d listen to while mowing my lawn, and I’d be like, “No, that song needs to go sooner.” And then we got together, and since you’re the queen of our On Rotation playlist, your tracklist was incredible. I was like, “Oh yeah, she does this as her job.” (Laughs) Yours is basically the tracklist, with some changes from Faith and Joe Jefferson. This ended up as the debut album from them they never got to finish. It was crazy to take this thing from some reels of tape on a shelf to a finished album with our names in it.
It was also crazy to partner with my alma mater on this; when I left Drexel I never thought I’d be working on something with them, you know?
And eventually we’ll be doing a release event with them, yeah?
It’s all TBD, but yeah, we’ll be in Philly in May at Drexel for an event.
This one started from scratch, so talk through how the package end of this came together.
Outside of three 7-inches, none of this had ever been pressed before and none of it’s been available on digital either. Marc and his team basically handed us the music, and you and me got to work on the tracklist — we settled on 12 songs and a 7-inch with two more — under the guide of Faith Newman at Reservoir and Joseph Jefferson from the group to produce the record. We went out and found a graphic designer based in Denver named Rick Griffith who owns and runs Matter, a firm in Denver. He put together this beautiful package that we had to make from scratch because there was no art for any of their releases until this. We had the audio remastered by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound, and the test presses were one of the best I’ve ever heard in my 2 ½ years here.
And this one has all the bells and whistles that Classics titles do; 180 gram vinyl, etc., etc. Though this is a gatefold, and has that added 7-inch. This is a project that feels like an extension of the things we’ve done in the past with Ayalew Mesfin and Wells Fargo, just in the Classics track. Can’t wait for people to hear this.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.