In April, members of Vinyl Me, Please Classics will receive Laugh To Keep From Crying, a Vinyl Me, Please curated compilation of the mostly unreleased — until now — work of Nat Turner Rebellion, a Philly soul/funk/R&B group that released three singles, and recorded many more, in a very short window in the early ’70s before breaking up. We partnered with Drexel University and Reservoir to make this happen. Learn what went into pulling the album together here, and sign up here.
Below, you can read an excerpt from our Listening Notes booklet for the album.
“You don’t know what a revolution is. If you did, you wouldn’t use that word. A revolution is bloody. Revolution is hostile. Revolution knows no compromise. Revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way. Who ever heard of a revolution where they lock arms … singing ‘we shall overcome?’ You don’t do that in a revolution. You don’t do any singing, you’re too busy swinging.” — Malcolm X, excerpt from “Message to the Grass Roots” speech delivered to the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference, King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, November 10, 1963.
In 1821, Nat Turner, who was born into slavery in Southampton County, Virginia, escaped from his enslavement when he was 21 years old. Nearly a month later, he returned to the plantation owned by his slaveholder after receiving a prophetic vision to do so. His visions would continue as he lived in bondage but, this time, he felt that they now directed him to lead a slave revolt, to enact revenge on white citizens for slavery. In August 1831, 10 years after he started receiving his visions, Turner commenced with his planned revolt and, with other enslaved men — numbering 40 at highest count — killed Turner’s master and his family, and any other whites in their path. In 48 hours, Turner’s cohort killed or injured nearly 60 whites. Turner was caught, jailed, and sentenced to death, which included being hung and skinned. As Randolph Scully stated in Religion and the Making of Nat Turner’s Virginia: Baptist Community and Conflict, 1740-1840, the incident “shattered the comforting white illusions of reciprocity, respect, and affection between slave and master.” And the aftermath of the revolt saw an increase in community groups of whites in the South who enacted their own murderous revenge on enslaved blacks prior to the Civil War.
In 1963, black Americans were at the crossroads of a new revolution — one that advocated civil rights, equal rights and uncompromised rights. It was in 1963 that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a majority black crowd of over 250,000 estimated attendees on his March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, urging an end to horrific racism across the U.S., and espousing nonviolent civil disobedience as a tool for “overcoming.” This was the latest, but hardly a new revolution.
Both during and after slavery, prophetic and coded spirituals and traditional gospel songs would power a unifying hope for black Americans. By the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1963, spiritual songs continued to power activism. But a new sound would come to represent a new uprising. As Rickey Vincent writes in Party Music, “Gospel songs, and the sounds of gospel music, would continue to be used as fodder for civil rights workers through the decade. But as black power began to emerge as a theme, a new sound of resistance emerged, and the range of songs used by the movement expanded to popular rhythm and blues tunes.” He continues, “Soul music — black popular music — would become the template for new movement songs. Conversely, the movement in the streets would inspire a rhythm-driven awakening of music in jazz, in funk, and in soul that captured a people’s aspirations just as the people were awakening.” And by the time that Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, new political and musical revolutions were on their way.
Joseph B. Jefferson, a multi-talented musician and writer born into a musical family in Virginia — his mother directed a church choir and his father played guitar — was part of that musical revolution. He wound up settling in Philadelphia, which, in the 1960s, was on its way to becoming a black music mecca, the third coast of soul music, along with Detroit with Motown Records and Memphis with Stax Records. Jefferson didn’t intend to be part of Philly soul history; as John A. Jackson writes in A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul, “During the mid-1960s, Jefferson was the road drummer for the Manhattans R&B vocal group. While playing in Philadelphia, [he] came down with a foot infection so serious that he had to withdraw from the tour. He rented a small apartment in West Philadelphia for what he thought would be a couple of months. ‘I’ve been in Philly ever since!’ he exclaimed in 2003.”
One of Jefferson’s first music projects as a leader, vocalist and songwriter was the Nat Turner Rebellion, a group name obviously inspired by his fellow Virginian’s historic 1831 revolt. Existing as a vocal quartet, and also consisting of members Major Harris (who’d later go on to solo fame), Ron Harper and Bill Spratley, Jefferson’s group reflected part post-Civil Rights black consciousness, part post-soul black rock and funk and part sweet soul harmonies that would become a main ingredient in 1970s Philly soul. Stan Watson signed them to Philly Groove Records in 1970. Watson, a one-time West Philly-based record store owner, helped discover the Delfonics, and made their hit song, “La-La Means I Love You,” the debut Philly Groove recording in 1968. The Nat Turner Rebellion recorded for Philly Groove (and its subsidiaries Delvaliant and Philly Soulville Records) between 1970 and 1972 and, out of those recordings, only a few singles were ever actually released.
Despite touring with the chart-topping Delfonics and being produced by guitarist Norman Harris, who would eventually become a founding member of MFSB, the house band of Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble’s The Sound of Philadelphia Records, a promised album was never delivered, as the group disbanded before that could be completed. (In the eight-year history of Philly Groove Records, only eight full-length LPs were issued, and they were for the Delfonics and female trio First Choice.) And while the singles of Nat Turner Rebellion barely enjoyed limited regional success upon their original release, and while none of the songs placed on Billboard’s Top 100 R&B chart, today their recordings are highly sought after among soul and R&B collectors, with 7-inches going for $30 or more. Even more powerful is the historical significance of the music, recorded at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, which gives a look into the period of Philadelphia soul between the post-Civil Rights, Black Power movement and the emergence of The Sound of Philadelphia as a major force in the 1970s recording industry, on both the black and pop charts — a sound that Jefferson would eventually play an integral part in.
Laugh To Keep From Crying pairs some of Nat Turner Rebellion’s out-of-print and hard-to-find single releases with previously unreleased works which have finally been unearthed to see the light of day, the LP that they should have made in 1972 finally coming to fruition. “Tribute to a Slave,” recorded in November 1969 and originally released as a single A-side in 1970, is a soulful stomper that powerfully addresses the real Nat Turner: “My friend Nat, though our eyes never met.” The vocalist also conjures Turner’s omnipresent, continuous influence in Black Power revolutions and uprisings throughout the U.S., singing, “You might be here with us, in the midst of all this fuss.” “Fat Back” is a funky, scat-fueled workout, a showcase for the band’s musicians and, likely, anyone caught on the dance floor while the song plays. Earlier recording sessions yielded one of the previously unreleased cuts, a cover of the Friends of Distinction’s smooth 1969 R&B hit, “Going in Circles.” Also previously unreleased is the uptempo “Fruit of the Land,” a radical statement of black pride proclaiming “Wantu Wazuri,” which means “beautiful people” in Swahili. And “Care,” also previously unreleased, recalls the signature Delfonics sound of sweetened strings and vocal harmonizing. Its subject matter, dealing with a tense talk with a spouse, foreshadows the use of controversial subjects and dialogues within songs that would propel several TSOP singles a few years later to the top of the charts.
While touring with the Delfonics as a member of Nat Turner Rebellion, Jefferson met producer Thom Bell through his brother Tony Bell, a guitarist with the Delfonics’ traveling band. Jefferson told writer John A. Jackson, “[Thom] liked a lot of the stuff I was writing [for Nat Turner Rebellion].” Soon, Jefferson signed a contract to work with Bell’s publishing company and his first assignment was to pen a song for the Spinners’ Atlantic Records debut. Jackson continues, “As it was, Jefferson had recently broken up with his girlfriend. He proceeded to turn the words she wrote on a wall the day she left (‘I’m leavin’ you, I love you, I can’t stay with you’) into a song. When Jefferson began to sing the song for Bell, Bell abruptly cut him off at the second verse, telling the songwriter, ‘You don’t have to play any more. That’s a hit record, man!’” The song, “One of a Kind (Love Affair),” reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and No. 11 on the Pop chart in 1973. Jefferson continued his successful career as a composer for several Philly-based groups, helping to craft more R&B hits, including the Spinners’ “Mighty Love” (1974), “Love Don’t Love Nobody” (1974), and “(They Just Can’t Stop It) Games People Play” (1975), and the O’Jays’ “Brandy” (1978).
As for Nat Turner Rebellion vocalist Major Harris, he is featured so heavily on “Can’t Go on Livin’” b/w “Laugh to Keep from Crying” (1971) that the single was issued under the name Nat Turner Rebellion Featuring Major Harris. After Jefferson’s move to becoming a full-time songwriter, which effectively ended Nat Turner Rebellion, Harris joined the Delfonics and, after they split in 1975, had a solo hit that year with “Love Won’t Let Me Wait.”
While the group’s recording output only lasted two years, these recordings reveal so much more. As a group on the forefront of the Philly soul explosion of the 1970s and the backend of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s, they were tapped into being a part of the revolutionary soul music movement, both with their works and their invoking the original Nat Turner Rebellion. In that, to reference Malcolm X, they could do their singing and swinging all at the same time.