His songs for the Spinners were elegant, captivating Top 40 audiences in the 1970s and standing the test of time. He made much more confrontational music with Nat Turner Rebellion, with song titles like “Can’t Go On Living” and “Tribute To A Slave.”
Joseph B. Jefferson, the Philadelphia musician who founded the Black Power funk and soul band Nat Turner Rebellion in the late 1960s and went on to cowrite 1970s hits for the Spinners, has died. He was 77.
The cause of death was cancer, said his wife, Rosa Criniti Jefferson, who was at her husband’s side when he died on Sunday at their home in Mount Laurel.
Mr. Jefferson, a self-taught drummer and organ player who grew up in Petersburg, Va., settled in Philadelphia in the late 1960s after playing a run of shows at the Uptown Theatre on North Broad Street with the gospel group the Sweet Inspirations.
Due to a foot infection, Mr. Jefferson didn’t accompany the band to Las Vegas to back Elvis Presley, but instead stayed behind in West Philadelphia. There, he worked on his own music as the Nat Turner Rebellion, a band named after the 1831 Virginia insurrection by enslaved people and influenced by Sly & the Family Stone and the Temptations.
The group, which Mr. Jefferson formed with three childhood friends from Virginia, including singer Major Harris, recorded for the Philly Groove label. They were known as a hellacious live act: “We put blisters on their behinds. We were crowd killers,” Mr. Jefferson told The Inquirer last year.
But the band’s rugged sound and militant politics were at odds with the lush sophistication of then-popular Philly groups like the Delfonics and Intruders. Conflicts within the group led to a breakup in 1972, before their music was ever released.
Mr. Jefferson was crestfallen when the project he had put his heart and soul into fell apart, he said last year. But he adapted, supplying songs for producer-arranger Thom Bell to use with the Detroit vocal group the Spinners.
Bell, who called Mr. Jefferson “a major musician,” said that when the songwriter showed up at the South Broad Street offices he shared with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, he smelled of patchouli oil. Bell sent him home. He returned in two days, cleaned up, and Bell later gave him an office to work in on a trial basis.
Mr. Jefferson passed the audition with the first song he offered Bell for the group: “One Of A Kind (Love Affair),” which went to No. 1 on the R&B singles chart.
With Bruce Hawes and Charles Simmons, Mr. Jefferson also wrote the Spinners hits “Mighty Love,” “Games People Play,” and “Sadie,” sampled by Tupac Shakur on his 1995 hit “Dear Mama.”
Mr. Jefferson and his wife were married at the Latin Casino nightclub in Cherry Hill in 1976 with the Spinners serving as groomsmen and vocal group Sister Sledge as maids of honor.
“Joe is a Philly legend,” former Sigma Sound Studios engineer Dirk Devlin said last year. The contrast between the songs he wrote for others and those he created for Nat Turner Rebellion demonstrate his versatility.
“As a musician, he just had an amazing ear for melody,” said Faith Newman, of music publishing company Reservoir Media, who began working toward reissuing the NTR in 2012.
“He just had a knack for creating these hooks that are so memorable. It was such a great time for Philly music. People just assumed that the Spinners are from Philadelphia because they had their greatest success there, and part of their great success had to do with Joe.”
Bell’s productions of Mr. Jefferson’s songs for the Spinners were elegant, captivating Top 40 audiences in the 1970s and standing the test of time. He made much more forceful, confrontational music with Nat Turner Rebellion, with song titles like “Can’t Go On Living” and “Tribute To A Slave.”
“It’s really funky,” said Newman. “It’s like a straight-up, fatback funk record. It’s not polished and carefully arranged. It’s a lot grittier than the Spinners. And then the pictures of the band are worth a thousand words.”
Mr. Jefferson took his Nat Turner persona so seriously that he posed with a noose around his neck in one publicity photo. And when he and his future wife were dating, she thought his name was Nat.
“He introduced himself as Nat Turner,” she said on Monday. “What did I know? Two years later, he told me his name was Joseph Jefferson.” She never got used to calling him by his given name. “I couldn’t call him Joe,” she said. “So I called him Giuseppe.”
When Laugh To Keep From Crying was finally released last year, a half-century after the band was formed, Mr. Jefferson was initially reminded of his frustration when the band failed to break through in their own time, his wife said.
“At first it was: Why didn’t it happen when he wanted it, when he was Nat Turner?” she said. “But then he was very emotionally overwhelmed about it, because it did come true, only 50 years later.”
Mr. Jefferson’s tears of joy were mixed with sadness when his music finally saw the light of day, in part because he was the band’s only surviving member.
“I’m like, ‘Wow!’ Is this for real?' Somebody pinch me here,” he said last year. “Why, all of a sudden, out of a clear blue sky, somebody is taking notice of what I tried to do 50 years ago?”
But it was also a reminder of all the time that had passed, and the bandmates who were lost. “I’m the last man standing,” he said. “Why are the guys not here? Just for a day to see this?”
“There was not a thought in my mind that this could have happened. Not in a million years,” he said. “This is my vision. This is what I wanted. Just the recognition. Just the aura of recognition.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Jefferson is survived by two half brothers, George Anthony Jefferson and Donald Lee Jefferson. No funeral or memorial service is planned at this time.