Decades Later, Nat Turner Rebellion Makes Its Debut With 'Laugh To Keep From Crying'

May 7, 2019
Originally published on May 9, 2019 10:13 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has the story of the Nat Turner Rebellion, an R&B group that recorded in Philadelphia in the early '70s but whose debut album, titled "Laugh To Keep From Crying," has never been released until now. Only one member of the band is still alive. Ken says the saga of this release, thanks to the efforts of a college music department, is almost as interesting as the music itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAUGH TO KEEP FROM CRYING")

NAT TURNER REBELLION: (Singing) Oooooo ooo-ooo (ph). Oooooo ooo-ooo. Ah-ha-ha. Oooooo. Yeah, yeah now. I've got to laugh to keep from crying. Oh-boom-boom-boom (ph). Oh-boom-boom-boom. Trying just to keeping on laughing. Oh-boom-boom-boom. Oh-boom-boom-boom. I've got to laugh to keep from crying.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Between 1969 and 1972, a band called the Nat Turner Rebellion recorded for Philly Groove Records, whose big acts were smooth vocal groups like The Delfonics and First Choice. The Nat Turner Rebellion was a lot louder. They were a funk band that featured rock 'n' roll guitars and blasting horns. Given the era they were working in, they were sort of a cross between Sly Stone and Blood, Sweat & Tears. But really, they sounded like no one else.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAT BACK")

NAT TURNER REBELLION: (Singing) Guitar player, who is the hardest (ph) in the land? Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Guitar player, who is the hardest in the land? Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Down on the bottom, they start playing with our band (ph). Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Down on the bottom, they're still playing with our band (ph). Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

TUCKER: The band was led by Joseph Jefferson. He named the group after the slave who led a violent uprising in the south in 1831. Jefferson didn't shy away from the Nat Turner of history; he once posed for a publicity shot with a noose around his neck, and one of this album's most prominent songs is called "Tribute To A Slave."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRIBUTE TO A SLAVE")

NAT TURNER REBELLION: (Singing) My friend Nat, though our eyes never met, no, no. My friend Nat - mmm hmm, Lord have mercy - though our eyes never met. And our voices so distant apart, yet our hearts beat as one. I can see what's begun, a rebellion on the white father's son. My friend Nat...

TUCKER: The Nat Turner Rebellion consisted of a quartet whose most frequent lead singer was Major Harris. They recorded at Philadelphia's famous Sigma Sound Studios, and the Philly Groove label released a few Nat Turner Rebellion singles. But the band broke up acrimoniously in 1972. Jefferson says that another member of the band, Bill Spratley, pulled a gun on him during an argument over the band's money.

Philadelphia's Drexel University audio archives inherited the Sigma Sound's tape collection. In going through the thousands of donated tapes, the distinctiveness of the Nat Turner Rebellion jumped out to listeners at Drexel and to Faith Newman from Reservoir, the company that owned the publishing rights to the Philly Groove catalog. Together they assembled this album, now released via Drexel's student-run Mad Dragon Records label.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T GO ON LIVING")

NAT TURNER REBELLION: (Singing) As I wander through this lonely world, I face each lonely night without you, little girl - without you. Oh, yeah. As I look out my windowpane, I can't see the sun for the rain since you stepped aboard that train - since you stepped aboard that train. Oh, baby. I won't give up until I see your smiling face, a face that could never be replaced, honey. No, I can't go on living, no, no, if you're not giving your love to me, frequently.

TUCKER: Singer Major Harris would go on to join The Delfonics and score a solo hit in 1975 with the song "Love Won't Let Me Wait." Joseph Jefferson, the only member of the band still alive, became a full-time songwriter, helping to write such superb hits as The Spinners' "One Of A Kind Love Affair" and "Mighty Love." The music on "Laugh To Keep From Crying" is all over the map stylistically; had the band survived, a more coherent album would probably have resulted. But that doesn't mean the passion and bristling intelligence of the Nat Turner Rebellion shouldn't be widely heard and appreciated today.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed "Laugh To Keep From Crying" by the Nat Turner Rebellion. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be journalist Daniel Okrent. His new book is about an earlier chapter in American immigration history, in the first part of the 20th century, when the junk science of eugenics merged with immigration law to keep Jews, Italians and Eastern Europeans out of the country. Hitler took inspiration from some of this thinking. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MCBRIDE'S DAUGHTER")

NAT TURNER REBELLION: (Singing) I met my love in Oxford, Penn. She was attending a county school (ph). So I retrieved her from that madness - didn't want... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.