Note: My brother’s visiting from out of town this week, so I’ve got less time than I normally do for blog-type stuff; fortunately, our friend Robert, of the always entertaining Mulberry Panda 96, has returned for his second stab at a Cutouts Gone Wild!, and fans of Philly soul are going to be glad he did. Thanks, Robert! —J
Memphis and Detroit have nothing to be ashamed about, but for me, the most exciting soul music came out of Philadelphia in the 1970s, particularly the strings-laden, socially conscious kind produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Philadelphia International Records, home to artists like the O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, and Bunny Sigler. (Here’s where you say, “Bunny who?” Here’s where I repeat his name.)
Sigler never scored huge crossover hits like those other artists did, but as Epic/Legacy’s retrospective of his years at PIR proves, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. He did have a #22 pop hit in 1967 with “Let the Good Times Roll/Feel So Good” on the Cameo Parkway label, but by ’68 the label had expired. Unfortunately, Sigler’s contract hadn’t, and until it did, he wasn’t allowed to record for anyone else. Frustrated by this sudden halt in his career, he started hanging out at the offices of Gamble and Huff, who were friends of his, and chose to vent his frustration by practicing karate moves in the hallways, which scared visitors. In order to get Sigler out of the halls and away from clients, Gamble and Huff moved him into a room with a staff writer and put him to work.
As a writer at PIR, Sigler penned O’Jays classics like “When the World’s at Peace” (with Gamble and Phil Hurtt) and “You Got Your Hooks in Me,” and on Sweeter Than the Berry he covers the group’s big hit “Love Train,” emphasizing its gospel foundation over seven minutes of impassioned vocals. (No slouch when it comes to singing, Sigler was nicknamed “Mr. Emotion” in his early years.)
Sweeter Than the Berry also features the tender “Regina” (download), which must’ve sounded mighty fine coming out of AM radios in 1972, and the upbeat love songs “Keep Smilin'” (download) and “Things Are Gonna Get Better” (download). But my favorite tracks may be the most lighthearted ones: the 1975 Christmas jam “Jingle Bells [Part 1]” (download); “I Lied” (download), in which Sigler makes screeching-tire noises over the sound of screeching tires; and the infectiously fun and funky “Shake Your Booty” (download). I defy you to remain seated starting around the two-minute mark of this song as Sigler begins counting off numbers and his backing band, Instant Funk, matches him with horn blasts for every digit. High-pitched background chatter from Sigler’s “nieces and nephews” is also thrown into the mix, and there’s a false ending, which is followed by “Uncle Bunny” finally calling it quits, which is then followed by another minute of music. It’s hard to keep a great song down.
If it sounds like I’m making Sigler out to be the Ray Stevens of Philly soul, that isn’t my intention. Instead he’s the guy at the party gently telling friends like Gamble and Huff to lighten up, have a drink, dance a little. For every “For the Love of Money” or “Am I Black Enough for You?,” Billy Paul’s brilliant but commercially disastrous follow-up to the #1 “Me and Mrs. Jones” (Gamble pushed for it to be a single, much to Paul’s dismay), Philadelphia International needed a song like “Shake Your Booty” in its catalog to remind everyone that, well, things are gonna get better. And until they do, it can’t hurt to laugh.
The Best of Bunny Sigler: Sweeter Than the Berry can be purchased at Amazon.com.