Following its recent albums collection for disco-dance band Skyy, Cherry Red's Robinsongs imprint has turned its attention to another Salsoul Records group: Instant Funk. The 5-CD box, out now, chronicles Instant Funk from 1976's Get Down with the Philly Jump through 1983's Kinky plus a selection of bonus tracks for the first three albums.
The Instant Funk story is intertwined with that of Bunny Sigler. The singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist was a mainstay at Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Philadelphia International Records where he recorded three solo albums. The third, 1976's My Music, featured Instant Funk as his backing band. A keen talent spotter, Bunny envisioned something greater for the band. Prior to the release of My Music, he'd urged Gamble and Huff to sign them to PIR's TSOP imprint. They debuted with the Muhammad Ali tribute "Float Like a Butterfly;" the single-only release was penned by Bunny, Ron Tyson (of The Ethics, Love Committee, and The Temptations), and Archie Bell (not Thom Bell's brother Anthony as is stated in the liner notes). It's appended to Get Down with the Philly Jump (CD 1 of this box) as a bonus track, along with another non-LP side, "It Ain't Reggae (But It's Funky)." Sigler then took the group into Sigma Sound to record the full-length album. He'd written or co-written every track, and arranged most of them. Ron Kersey, Dexter Wansel, and Bruce Hawes all contributed charts, as well.
The only members pictured on Get Down with the Philly Jump were bassist Raymond Earl and brothers Steven Scott "Scotty" and Kim Miller on drums and guitar, respectively. Much like "Float," the LP's ten songs weren't redolent of the typical, plush PIR sound. Instead, Instant Funk delivered on their name with taut and greasy grooves blending soul, funk, and a dash of jazz in the woodwind writing. The deliciously swaggering "The Mack Is Back," the taunting "I Know Where You're Coming From," and frenetic "Hop Two, Hop Two (Get in Line, Say Get in Line)" were built for the dancefloor. The instrumental "Go for Yourself" even recalled past Philly triumphs such as "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)." Bunny, his brother James Sigler, and T. Life's "Give Me Your Love" was among the more lyric-oriented material, and Bunny and T. Life's "So Glad I'm the One" upped the romantic quotient as a quintessential slice of breezy '70s soul. The relaxed, mostly-instrumental "We Can Work It Out" (not the Beatles song, but another Bunny original) further underscored the band's versatility.
When Sigler defected from PIR to the upstart Salsoul label, Instant Funk followed him. At Salsoul, the group - now totaling nine members - continued to back not only Sigler but other artists including Double Exposure and Loleatta Holloway, and returned to the studio for a new album. 1979's self-titled Instant Funk (CD 2), produced by Sigler and recorded at Sigma Sound (as well as Philadelphia Music Works and Alpha International), established the group as a potent musical force on the charts. The lineup solidified, too, with Raymond Earl, the Millers, pianist Dennis Richardson, lead singer James Carmichael, trumpeter Larry Davis, saxophonist Johnny Onderlinde, trombonist Eric Huff, and guitarist George Bell all credited on the album.
The not-quite-overnight-sensations' Salsoul debut went to No. 1 Disco, No. 2 R&B and No. 12 Pop, most notably yielding the erotic R&B chart-topper "I Got My Mind Made Up" written by the nucleus of Earl and the Millers and boasting memorable exclamations of "Say whaaat?" It made it all the way to No. 1 Disco and R&B, and placed respectably within the pop Top 20. Public Enemy, De La Soul and Tupac Shakur all drew on the song in the hip-hop/rap era. The album recalls James Brown in some places, Parliament in others, even Earth, Wind and Fire at times. There are quieter moments such as the ballad "Never Let It Go Away," but Instant Funk's debut is largely characterized by steamy disco-funk. "Wide World of Sports" is a brassy instrumental with machine gun drums and jazzy interplay, while "Dark Vader" may be the biggest and baddest Star Wars tribute record of them all. The theatrical opus riffs on the George Lucas film with its opening rap, before launching into the tale of a "tall black man" who's "left his mark on the universe": "Dark Vader's comin'/He's comin' back/He said he would!" This high-octane record is rounded out by three bonus tracks including the 12-inch and 7-inch versions of "I Got My Mind Made Up" (the former mixed by the famed Larry Levan) and 7-inch single of "Crying."
Instant Funk entered New York's Blank Tape Studios with Sigler for a follow-up, Witch Doctor (CD 3), but tensions were brewing between the band and its longtime champion. Sigler ended up retaining the production credit on Witch Doctor, but ceded much of the creative input to trumpeter Larry Davis who shared top billing in his capacity as arranger. Sigler later remembered not fully being on board with the brassy single "Slap, Slap, Lickedy Lap," which pushed the bump 'n' grind of "I Got My Mind Made Up" even further into explicit territory. The carnal track stalled at No. 28 Disco. The album's other single release, "Bodyshine," was built around an "I Got My Mind Made Up" groove but reached that same disappointing Disco chart plateau, also hitting No. 41 R&B and No. 103 Pop. It didn't help the band's cause that disco itself was on the wane, sales-wise, when the album was released in late 1979. Sigler did place two songs on the LP, the boisterous title track and the mellow ballad "I Had a Dream." 7-inch single versions of "Slap, Slap," "Witch Doctor," and "Bodyshine" have all been added here.
Following the disappointing placement of the album (No. 23 R&B/No. 129 Pop) and failure to capitalize on the success of "I Got My Mind Made Up," Instant Funk and Sigler came to realize that they were better together. Their future collaborations were more harmonious, but never reached the heights of Instant Funk. 1980's The Funk Is On (CD 4) attempted to court the post-disco crowd with a pop-rock approach and also emphasized synthesizers in the arrangements to lend the LP a then-contemporary sheen. But the title track penned by Brass Construction's Randy Muller was as funky as anything the group had recorded. Both it and Dennis Richardson's bouncy "Everybody" narrowly missed the top twenty of the Dance chart; MFSB veteran flautist-arranger Jack Faith provided the strings and brass for "Everybody" and Larry Levan handled the urgent mix. Bandmates Raymond Earl and Scottie Miller's "You Want My Love" also emphasized the funk in Instant Funk; guitarist Kim Miller dialed up the romance on the smooth "What Can I Do for You." The album's two Bunny Sigler tunes, the sleek "Can You See Where I'm Coming From" (co-written with brother Jimmy and Kenny Gamble) and happily upbeat ode to "You're Not Getting Older" ("...you're just getting better!") were also arranged by Faith, who found room in "Can You See..." for his flute.
The Funk Is On is joined on CD 4 by 1982's Looks So Fine. This time, Sigler co-wrote more than half of the album and even sang on a couple of tracks including the typically driving title cut (featuring the girl group Direct Current on vocals) and the soft ballad "Jumpin' to Conclusions" (the album's second single) on which he shared vocals with James Carmichael. Kim Miller, Dennis Jones, and Diane Jones Lyle's "Why Don't You Think About Me" was released as the first single, but the swaggering stomper stalled at No. 59. Not unusually for Instant Funk, there were lighter moments such as the basketball tribute "Slam Dunk the Funk;" the album was very much a continuation of its predecessor, with even more pronounced use of synthesizers in the arrangements.
The fifth disc brings together the group's final two Salsoul LPs. Instant Funk V (1983) debuted a slimmed-down band, featuring just Raymond Earl, ki Miller, Scotty Miller, and Dennis Richardson. They were joined in the studio by additional musicians including the returning Bunny and Jimmy Sigler and James Carmichael as well as a horn section. As producer, Bunny fully embraced the '80s big drum sound on the opening "No Stoppin' That Rockin'," one of two tracks mixed by Tom Moulton. The single returned Instant Funk to the R&B top 40 for the first time since "Witch Doctor." V proved, though, that they were chasing their contemporaries rather than setting the trend; the album alternately recalls Parliament-Funkadelic, The Gap Band, Zapp, and other then-current artists. Still, it wasn't without highlights including the hard-driving "Who Took Away the Funk" (a No. 70 single), the shimmering West Coast yacht rock-esque "You're Gonna Get Yours," and attractive ballad "Smack Dab in the Middle." The most bizarre item was undoubtedly the revival of The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," outfitted with a disco rhythm, bleating brass, burbling bass, and flashy guitar.
Instant Funk's Salsoul tenure ended with their second album of 1983, Kinky. The foursome expanded to seven, with the addition of Donald Lamons on piano, Michael Giss on congas, and Elijah "EJ" Jones as lead vocalist. Shep Pettibone mixed the opening track and lead single "(Just Because) You'll Be Mine." A modern reworking of the classic Instant Funk sound with prominent synths and rock guitar, it became their final R&B chart entry with a peak of No. 71. Maestro of steamy soul and funk Leon Ware was represented with the sensual "Passion" (co-written with Bunny) and uptempo ode to a "Kinky" gal. The group revived Sigler and Kenny Gamble's searing "Don't Call Me Brother" to inject a bit of social commentary into the album. It was clear that Bunny and co. were paying attention to the inroads being made by hip-hop artists; "Don't Call Me Brother" has a rap section and the closing track, the appropriately-titled "Funkiest Party in the World," likewise nodded at the burgeoning genre.
Instant Funk: The Albums 1976-1983 is a potent collection from Salsoul's funkiest band. Though there are no bonus tracks for the final four albums in the set, most of the albums here genuinely qualify as rare on CD. Get Down with the Philly Jump has never been available in the format as a standalone release outside of Japan and South Africa, and the final three LPs have never been released on CD outside of Canada (where they were reissued over 15 years ago). Oli Hemingway has remastered, and Charles Waring has penned the liner notes in the 20-page booklet. This deep dive into the Funk can be ordered now from Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada, and the track listing can be viewed here. And if you're a Salsoul fan, don't miss the definitive 3-CD Christmas Jollies I + II: The Extra Jolly Edition, out now from Cherry Red, SoulMusic Records, and The Second Disc!
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