Tony Cummings reports on Philadelphia soul music's singer and songwriter BUNNY SIGLER and his recent move into gospel music
The passing of the decades is sometimes a strange experience for journalists as well as musicians. Back in 1974 as a fresh faced soul music journalist I had travelled to the City Of Brotherly Love to research a book, The Sound Of Philadelphia, which was published the following year by Methuen. Among the hundreds of interviews I conducted was a lengthy one with one of my musical heroes of the time, singer, songwriter and producer Bunny Sigler. Bunny holds a unique position in the development of Philadelphia music. Now I am about to conduct my second interview with Bunny 35 years later!
The biggest Philly record label on the '60s was Cameo/Parkway Records and of the '70s Philadelphia International. Bunny was the only artist to have hits for both companies while his smash of 1978, "Let Me Party With You (Party, Party, Party)", is still grooved to in dance clubs today. And as a Grammy nominated songwriter Bunny has written hits for the O'Jays, Instant Funk, Patti Labelle and Shirley Jones. But last year things came full circle for Bunny when he released a gospel project 'The Lord's Prayer'. The album is a deft mixture of old spirituals like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Near The Cross" (on which Bunny is joined by the Sharon Baptist Church Choir) and Sigler originals like "He Walked On Water" (co-written with Noisette 'Saint Man' St Jean Jr) and "He's Comin' Back" (penned with one-time Instant Funk bassman Raymond Earl).
In our new interview Bunny spoke about his spiritual background. "I've been saved since I was about 15 or 16. I was taught to go to church and some of the main people in my life who guided me to God were from England. They were named Mr and Mrs Crump. In fact when I went to England to perform it was like I met a whole lot of people who spoke to me as I was coming up."
The singer was born Walter Sigler in Philadelphia on 27th March 1941. As he told me back in 1975, "They called me Bunny right off because I was born two days before Easter. The first singing I did was in church - Sunday school. I wouldn't say it was very funky, just straight. . . 'Our Father which art in Heaven.' But then I started going to my mother's church, that was a Baptist Church, the Emmanuel Baptist. Now THAT was funky. I really dug the way people got down in church. I sang in school, all the kids did, you know the group kinda thing. I would get home at six in the morning and have to get up in a couple of hours and go to school. I had a little group called the Opals, me and my brother and two other guys. One was called Murphy who looked just like Nat Cole. We did quite a few shows. But a couple of times the group didn't show up and I had to do the show all by myself. A disc jockey called Cannonball heard me and got me to leave the group and sign a contract. I recorded a thing called 'Come On Home', a Junior Parker song, for a company called Craig."
He continued, "They called me Bunny 'Mr Emotions' Sigler, that a name I had given to me when I first started singing supper clubs. I used to get on stage and start crying with my songs and going down on my knees and so on. I'm still that way, I guess. But now I don't cry on stage."
Bunny recorded some more sides. But it was one summer, after performing at Atlantic City's Ambassador Hotel that his big break came. Bunny was singing and improvising on the piano, searching for ideas, when he was brought to the attention of independent producers John Madara and Dave White (Len Barry's "123") by Leon Huff who suggested they check out Sigler's performance at the Red Hill Inn. Impressed, they signed him to a deal that led to the release on Cameo of "Let The Good Times Roll"/"Feels So Good", a soulification of two old R&B hits by Shirley & Lee. It's irresistible groove saw it reach 20 in the US R&B chart and number 22 in the pop chart.
When Cameo Parkway folded, Sigler began hanging around the hallways of Gamble Huff Productions, singing, strumming guitar and practising his newly acquired martial arts skills with wall punches and kicks. The latter proved unsettling to visiting clients leading Kenny Gamble to suggest that Sigler go into a room with Eugene Dozier and try to write some songs. Up to that point, Sigler hadn't even thought about becoming a songwriter.
Around 1970, Gamble Huff Productions became Philadelphia International Records. When Eugene Dozier left the label, Sigler inherited his office. Sigler's songwriting break came when a tune he co-wrote with Phil Hurtt, "(You Are My) Sunshine", was released as a followup single to the O'Jays' million selling 'Back Stabbers'. Other Sigler/Hurtt tunes included on the 'Back Stabbers' album were "When The World Is At Peace" and "Who Am I". The O'Jays' followup album, 'Ship Ahoy', had Sigler's first solo written song, "You Got Your Hooks In Me", and the Sigler/Gamble tune "Don't You Call Me Brother". Sigler's songs, productions, piano and background vocals are sprinkled throughout the Philadelphia International Records catalogue.
Sigler began to look for a group to develop, and through Jackie Ellis he met the TNJs (T for Trenton, NJ for New Jersey), a vocal group that built up a strong reputation around the Tristate area. Backing the TNJs were a band called Instant Funk. The nucleus of the band was bassist Raymond Earl and the Miller brothers, guitarist Kim Miller and drummer Scotty Miller. In 1972, Sigler was given the go ahead by PIR to record tracks for a his own album and he brought Instant Funk and the TNJs into the studio. A single, a remake of Bobby Lewis' "Tossin' And Turnin", gave Sigler his first chart hit (number 38 R&B) since "Let The Good Times Roll."
In 1974, PIR issued two albums by Sigler, 'That's How Long I'll Be Loving You' and 'Keep Smilin''. Though most tracks on Sigler's PIR albums have backing tracks by MFSB, a significant number (including the whole 'My Music' album) feature the Instant Funk rhythm section. The section were also heard on hits by the O'Jays, Archie Bell the Drells, Evelyn "Champagne" King and Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes.
With the Philly soul sound so hot, Sigler got a chance to work with a number of acts as a writer and/or producer, including the Whispers, Ecstacy, Passion And Pain and Carl Carlton. He cut tracks for artists on Curtis Mayfield's Curtom label, including Mayfield himself ("Trippin' Out"), and made a duet album with Barbara Mason. In 1976, Sigler got Instant Funk an album deal with Gamble Huff's TSOP label. A year later Bunny recorded an album for Curtom, "Locked In This Position".
In 1978, Sigler, bringing along Instant Funk, switched to Goldmind, a label started by MFSB guitarist Norman Harris and distributed by Salsoul Records. With his first release for the label, Sigler scored a Top Ten R&B single with "Let Me Party With You (Party, Party, Party)". The album of the same name was a smash in disco clubs. When Goldmind folded, all of its acts were transferred to Salsoul. About a year after its release and thanks to a Larry Levan remix, "I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)", went on to be Instant Funk's breakthrough hit (number one R&B). Both that single and the 'Instant Funk' album went gold. Just like at PIR, Sigler and Instant Funk worked with the acts on Salsoul - Loleatta Holloway, Double Exposure and First Choice as well as acts on other labels.
In the early '80s, after the release of Bunny's 'Let It Snow' album, Salsoul ceased operations. Sigler continued to write and produce, hitting with "Somebody Loves You Baby" (co-written with Eugene "Lambchops" Curry), a million seller for Patti Labelle, and taking Shirley Jones, formerly of Philadelphia International sister act the Jones Girls, to number one R&B with "Do You Get Enough Love" in August of 1986.
Even during his secular career, Bunny continued to sing and write gospel songs including inspirational tracks for Stephanie Mills and the song "Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven, But No One Wants To Die". But it wasn't until Jeff Majors caught him singing at a funeral that his recording career in the inspirational genre began. Majors was so moved by Sigler's performance that he tapped him to sing "Psalm 99" on the album 'Sacred 6'. During the same time, gospel songs began pouring out of Bunny, which became much of the material for 'The Lord's Prayer'.
The release of 'The Lord's Prayer' was the first on Bun-Z Records, a label started by Sigler and his best friend Lloyd Zane Remick. Having represented countless mainstram personalities including Grover Washington Jr and Pieces Of A Dream, as well as preachers like Bishop T D Jakes and Bishop David G Evans, Remick said as the time of the album's release, "Music is a universal language. And what song is known more universally than 'The Lord's Prayer'? I also believe that the music Bunny is singing can help change the world. I know it might sound a little idealistic, but I believe music has the power to unite us."
As it turned out, 'The Lord's Prayer' was not the major gospel radio hit it should have been. The prejudice that exists in the gospel media against artists who have previously worked in secular music effectively blocked Bunny's gospel album from getting the exposure it deserved. In the insular world of gospel radio programme controllers Bunny's vast experience and silky singing talent counted for nothing. Said Bunny about the gospel industry's blanking of his album, "All I can say is, I'm saved and I did a gospel album and I sent it to the gospel stations. I've got a promotion man who's gone to the gospel stations and was unable to get the plays that I would need to get over. A lot of the TV shows that do gospel, they've got one at TBN, all of them are hard to get on as well. It shouldn't be hard for me."
No, it shouldn't have been. In view of the apathetic response given to 'The Lord's Prayer' it remains to be seen whether this hugely talented singer, songwriter, pianist and producer records another gospel album. I certainly hope he does. As he said about his entrance into gospel, "Although I've sung urban music, I never stopped singing gospel music. For me, it's all about ministry. It's such a joy for me to sing gospel music and to sing in church. It was God who truly instructed me to do this project now. God chooses the path we take, so no matter where you were before, he knows where you'll end up."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.