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Reviews: Bunny Sigler and Billy Paul’s Philadelphia International Classics from BBR

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When Philadelphia International Records turned 40 this past year, there was no single campaign to recognize the milestone.  In the U.S., Legacy Recordings offered up the sizzling rare concert Golden Gate Groove, and the U.K.’s Harmless label delivered the most comprehensive box set to date of the label’s music.  But a great deal of the heavy lifting has come from another U.K. label, Big Break Records.  The BBR team has delivered a selection of generously expanded, beautifully designed album reissues from the PIR back catalogue including two recent releases: Bunny Sigler’s 1974 label debut That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You (the first of three PIR albums released by Sigler before he decamped for New York’s Salsoul Records) and Billy Paul’s 1973 War of the Gods, his fifth solo album and third for PIR.

Though he supplied many memorable songs for the Gamble and Huff roster (including “Drowning in a Sea of Love” and “Sunshine”), Walter “Bunny” Sigler had long had his sights on stardom as a singer.   Once billed as “Mr. Emotion” for his impassioned vocal quality, Sigler first teamed up with Leon Huff at Cameo-Parkway in 1967, and scored a Top 25 Pop hit with “Let the Good Times Roll/Feel So Good” as produced by Huff with John Madara and David White.  Sigler followed Huff, now with Kenny Gamble, to their Neptune label and finally to PIR.  Following some one-off singles, Bunny got the okay for his first PIR long-player: That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You.  This lost gem of an album has been rediscovered by Big Break for an expanded reissue, and it’s as perfect an example of the Philly Sound as any.

The album’s opening salvo implores that “Things Are Gonna Get Better.”  The lyric is directed at a lover, yes, but it’s also imbued with an optimism that spoke on a much broader level.  Social responsibility was always a key theme in Gamble and Huff’s ouevre, and it’s not hard to believe that co-writers Sigler, Allan Felder and Ron Kersey all believed that things were going to get better for every man.  The sentiment of the lyric was supported by Norman Harris’ sympathetic orchestration, which from its very first notes identified the song’s origins in the City of Brotherly Love: those jazzy horns!  Those dramatic strings!  That beat!  It’s funky yet elegant.   Though Sigler’s voice lacked the resonance of a Lou Rawls or a Teddy Pendergrass, his passion shines through in every track, including the title song.  The big ballad “That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You” retained some intimacy largely due to Sigler’s vocals, and the song surely turned the ladies’ heads in Bunny’s direction.  As would have “Somebody Free,” a sultry ode to a lady who makes our Bunny “walk a different walk, talk a different talk.”  This harmony-packed track, complete with a spoken rap from the singer, could be a lost vocal group gem.

The rest of the album (produced by the artist) is varied, perhaps too varied to have established Sigler as a formidable artist in his own right.   It’s no less enjoyable, however.  A disco workout on “I Lied,” with Sigler’s emotive, whooping, over-the-top vocals foreshadows Sigler’s later, commercially successful work at Salsoul.  It’s back to romance with the sweet doo-wop of “Picture Us,” first recorded by The Cruisers on the pre-PIR Gamble label.   Then Sigler detours to somewhere else entirely (Mexico?) with the lighthearted, atypical “Marianne.”  Its mariachi brass, marimba sound  and freewheeling lyric (“I would try to turn the moon to cheese/If I thought it would keep you pleased”) make it one of the most offbeat and fun items in the PIR catalogue.  “My Other Love” is as dark as “Marianne” is light.  Richard Rome’s textured arrangement can nearly hold its own with Thom Bell’s most dramatic work.  Ronnie Baker handled the arranging honors on “Your Love is Good,” a real swinger on which he’s prominently joined by the cooing female background vocalists (the Sweethearts of Sigma?).

There’s more on Bunny and Billy right after the jump!

The most eye-opening track on the album, however, might be Sigler’s slow-burning reinvention of “Love Train.”  When “Love Train” was selected for That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You, the future No. 1 hit single was simply an album track from the O’Jays’ Back Stabbers.  Sigler takes it to church, offering an equally valid yet totally different interpretation of the Gamble and Huff song.  He reinvents another R&B classic with a deconstruction of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”  Its organ introduction could have come from a prog-rock record!  In addition to his vocals, the multi-instrumentalist handled guitar, bass, organ and sitar parts on the album, and “What’d I Say” shows off his virtuosity.

BBR’s handsome reissue has been expanded with two bonus tracks: the single mixes of “Love Train” and “I Lied,” while J. Matthew Cobb offers a knowledgeable and illuminating essay on the album’s creation.  Cobb is aided and abetted by Sigler himself.  But that’s not all from Bunny in this batch from BBR.

Sigler is co-writer of “I See the Light,” the six-minute spiritual opus that opens Billy Paul’s War of the Gods.   Though it followed up 360 Degrees of Billy Paul and the iconic “Me and Mrs. Jones,” the album only notched up a No. 110 placement on the U.S. pop chart (though it fared considerably better on the R&B chart at No. 12).  This could be attributed to the album’s lack of a strong commercial single, something that eluded Paul in the wake of the titanic “Mrs. Jones.”  But War of the Gods is ripe for rediscovery, as BBR’s new reissue proves.  Its comparatively few tracks (just six) were all written or co-written by PIR founders Gamble and Huff, and the weighty album described in Andy Kellman’s new liner notes by Paul as “the best album I’ve ever done in my life” finds Paul as a Philly answer to Isaac Hayes or Marvin Gaye, both of whom produced “heavy” extended song suites in the soul idiom.  One glance at the album artwork, with a masked devil facing off against a beaming being of light, shows that Billy Paul and Messrs. Gamble and Huff had more on their minds than just dance and romance.

The album’s tone is set by “I See the Light,” a slow-burning, hypnotic odyssey of self-discovery (“the light was standing in front of me…shine on, shine on me”) in which arranger Paul’s deep baritone is in service of a melody (arranged by Lenny Pakula) that threatens to turn torpid but instead surprises with its triumphant refrain.  The song’s eventual majesty catches the listener off-guard, but it’s ultimately a curtain-raiser for “War of the Gods.”  Siren-like electronics open the lengthy, 10+-minute Bobby Martin-arranged track, in which Paul proclaims, “The time has come for the War of the Gods.”  The melody shifts and turns, with Martin’s arrangement veering along with it from a dirge to jazz to a Latin groove as the narrator addresses both “the master of tricks, the master of pain” Lucifer and “the strong, the mighty” God – who might have the “title” of “Allah, Buddha, Hare Krishna, Jehovah…[or] Jesus.”  Needless to say, Paul and the song’s co-writers Gamble and Huff were on the side of the angels, with Paul passionately testifying for his Father in the War.  But he’d come a long way from that thing with Mrs. Jones.

The album can roughly be divided into thirds: the one-two punch of those initial tracks, the three-song “pop” mid-section, and the epic, spiritual finale.  (Bobby Martin handled arrangements for all songs other than the opening and closing tracks.)  Of those three “lighter” songs, “The Whole Town’s Talking” is as compact as ‘War of the Gods” is epic.  With jazz singer Paul in his best R&B/pop vein, the catchy tune has PIR’s trademark female backing vocals (which had been deployed so very differently in “War”) standing out over the irresistible and airy orchestral blend including prominent horns, strings, winds and piano.  In the song, apparently the townspeople heard about Billy’s love life through, what else, the grapevine!  (There’s no relation to the Sherman Marshall song, “The Whole Town’s Laughing at Me,” recorded at PIR by Teddy Pendergrass on his debut solo album.)  “Thanks for Saving My Life,” too, should have met with more success as a single; it did make a none-too-shabby showing at No. 37 Pop and No. 9 R&B.  Paul sings the hell (or heaven?) out of this lightweight but enjoyable ode to a cherished partner.  Most interesting is “I Was Married,” a jazzy memory ballad of those relationships that just didn’t work out.  With a sinuous saxophone weaving in and out of its seven minutes’ length, it’s somewhat akin to “epic pop.”  The single version, included here as one of three bonus tracks, cuts the song down by three minutes; “The Whole Town’s” is shorn by two minutes.  (The third bonus track is the 5-1/2 minute “War of the Gods (Part I)” single.  The flipside has not been included.)

For the closing plea for “Peace Holy Peace,” Paul is joined by a 22-member choir and an appropriately churchy organ.  Though War of the Gods isn’t one of the singer or label’s most accessible albums, it’s doubtless one of the most provocative and passionate.  Like the Sigler reissue, War of the Gods has been remastered by Nick Robbins and the package is a well-designed one, right down to the replica PIR label artwork.  Taken together, these albums show off the full spectrum of the Philadelphia Sound: romantic, lusty, spiritual, socially conscious, funky, and sophisticated.

Both titles can be ordered below!

Billy Paul, War of the Gods (Philadelphia International LP 32409, 1973 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0184, 2012)

  1. I See the Light
  2. War of the Gods
  3. The Whole Town’s Talking
  4. I Was Married
  5. Thanks for Saving My Life
  6. Peace Holy Peace
  7. War of the Gods (Part I) (Single Version) (PIR single AE7-1080, 1973)
  8. The Whole Town’s Talking (Single Version) (PIR single S 2225 (U.K.), 1974)
  9. I Was Married (Single Version) (PIR single 3538, 1973)

Bunny Sigler, That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You (Philadelphia International LP 32859, 1974 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0182, 2012)

  1. Things Are Gonna Get Better
  2. That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You
  3. I Lied
  4. Picture Us
  5. Love Train
  6. Marianne
  7. My Other Love
  8. Your Love is Good
  9. What’d I Say
  10. Somebody Free
  11. Love Train (Part 1) (Single Version) (PIR single 3545, 1974)
  12. I Lied (Single Version) (PIR single S 2376 DJ (U.K.), 1974)

Written by Joe Marchese

November 28, 2012 at 10:05

Posted in Billy Paul, Bunny Sigler, News, Reissues, Reviews

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