Nat Turner Rebellion - Laugh To Keep From CryingNat Turner Rebellion

Laugh To Keep From Crying

Philly Groove Records

14 May 2021

A heady brew of funk, rock, soul and militant Black Power politics fuels the Nat Turner Rebellion’s long-lost debut album, finally coming out half a century after it was made.

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High-energy funk rhythms, wah-wah guitar, exuberant brass, tight vocal harmonies, politically charged lyrics rooted in black history… all the ingredients of classic soul are there. So why has it taken 50 years for the Nat Turner Rebellion to reach our ears?

The four-man band were pioneers of the Philly Soul sound but also – and perhaps fatally for their commercial prospects – pioneers of Black Power and the political protest music movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

None of them is called Nat Turner: that’s the name of the black slave who led a bloody uprising in Virginia in 1831, for which he was lynched and then skinned alive, making him a martyr for the Black Power movement. Topical today, but not exactly radio-friendly stuff in an America still a racial tinderbox after the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

After forming the group in 1969, the vocal quartet of Joe Jefferson, Major Harris, Ron Harper and Bill Spratley wrote and recorded dozens of tracks during their time together at Philadelphia’s legendary Sigma Sound Studio. They released a couple of singles in the early Seventies – their black consciousness signature song Tribute To A Slave and the celebratory Love, Peace & Understanding – but failed to have a hit.

The group’s debut album, due for release in 1972, was shelved after disagreements with Stan Watson, the label head of Philly Groove Records at the time. It’s taken til now to be heard and, tragically, all four of the band members have since died, the last of them – Jefferson himself – in 2020.

At the time Watson wanted them to sound more like a classic Philly Soul vocal group like The Delfonics or The O’Jays, singing lavishly orchestrated romantic love songs, in tune with the successful brand created by producer Thom Bell and songwriters Gamble and Huff.

Jefferson and his bandmates, influenced by the more hardcore Sly & The Family Stone and The Temptations, as well as Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones and inspired by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, saw themselves as having a rougher, rootsier and more political edge. Their album, Laugh To Keep From Crying, shows why.

It’s easy to overpraise an archival re-release like this because we all love the romantic notion of the “lost classic,” but there’s a strong argument that if it had come out at the time we would still be celebrating it today. It’s equally easy to see why the label, concerned about its bottom line, might have preferred to play safe at a time of racial tension and a growing counter-culture movement fuelled by the Vietnam War.


Songs like Tribute To A Slave, celebrating Turner’s bloody rebellion against slavery, and Getting Higher Together, a very different celebration of recreational intoxication dating back to Cro-Magnon man, with a funky groove recalling Sly Stone, did not exactly fit the Philly Soul brand at the time, and were certain not to get radio play.

Not all the album is political or provocative. The lush ballads Care (disguising a controversial lyric), Can’t Go On Living and Never Too Late, with the soaring falsetto vocal of Major Harris to the fore, would fit neatly on any compilation of classic Philly Soul alongside The Stylistics and The Delfonics. By contrast, the euphoric Fruit Of The Land, a galloping Black Power anthem included on the UK release, could equally have been recorded by The Temptations in their pomp.

But the band’s image, with clenched fists and Afros, sent an unmistakeable message to their audience.

Jefferson, who identified so strongly with Nat Turner that he once posed for a publicity shot with the inflammatory image of a noose around his neck, had a gift for composing strong hooks, which he exhibited in his day job writing songs for The (Detroit) Spinners, Stylistics and Three Degrees, while Major Harris’s voice was not wasted when the band broke up in 1972 – he joined The Delfonics and went on to have a big solo hit with Love Won’t Let Me Wait.

The music they made together as the Nat Turner Rebellion went unheard for decades until the tape archive of Sigma Sound, where countless Philly Soul classics – and David Bowie’s soul album Young Americans – were recorded was donated to Philadelphia’s Drexel University.

In 2012 music publishers Reservoir acquired Philly Groove Records and their A&R chief Faith Newman discovered the tapes, along with several others gathering dust in a Florida storage facility. The following year, Newman tracked down Jefferson, the band’s sole surviving member at that time, on Facebook, and eventually met him, getting his blessing to release the unheard works and vowing to see the project through.

The 14-track collection, Laugh To Keep From Crying, made its US debut last year in a limited vinyl run via a partnership with Drexel University’s own label, Mad Dragon Records, and is now getting its long overdue UK release.

Jefferson was the only member of the group to be alive when the album finally came out, though he died in July 2020. He said of the belated release: “So here we are, paying tribute to ‘My Friend Nat’ 50 years later. My only wish is that the other members of the Rebellion could be here and witness this firsthand: Bill Spratley (Baritone), Ron Harper (First Tenor), Major Harris (Lead/First Guitar), Sam Jackson (Manager).”


All words by Tim Cooper. You can find more of Tim’s writing on Louder Than War at his author’s archive. He is also on Twitter as @TimCooperES with an extensive archive of journalism at Muck Rack.



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