If you’ve listened to R&B or hip-hop over the past 40 years or so, it’s almost a guarantee you’ve been seduced by the sweet touch of Bunny Sigler (AKA Walter Sigler, AKA Bundino Siggalucci). From the ’70s through the ’90s, Bunny wrote and produced big singles and late-night turntable hits on R&B royalty like Patti LaBelle, The O’Jays, Chaka Khan, The Spinners, and Lou Rawls, which, in turn, were sampled to become the backbone for a second generation of hits by Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, Lil’ Wayne, Outkast, Justin Timberlake, and too many others to namecheck here.
It didn’t take long for the most important soul label of the decade to realize they’d found a genius
A proud son 0f Trenton, New Jersey—seriously, he name-checks the town in more than one song—Bunny would hit I-95 to to play clubs and cut singles for various labels around Philadelphia going all the way back to the late ’50s. By the time he started kicking around the offices of Philadelphia International Records in the early ’70s (literally, as his hallway karate moves would scare off many visitors to the label), the town had become the center of the R&B universe. Producers Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell struck gold with a sophisticated new sound that eclipsed everything else in R&B to the point that powerhouse labels like Atlantic and Columbia stopped even trying to compete with them and just started sending their top soul acts to Philly International’s Sigma Sound studios for a nugget of the gold those Mighty Three were mining.
With so many acts trying to “get down with the Philly sound,” Gamble, Huff, and Bell had to bring in songwriting talent like Bunny to ratchet up the quantity while keeping up the quality, and it didn’t take long for them to realize they had a fellow genius on their hands: Sigler didn’t just write, produce, and arrange, he also turned out to be a multi-talented session musician and a back-up singer with an elastic voice that scaled heights, plumbed depths, and got as gritty or creamy as any song called for.
Bunny crafted love songs with operatic drama and tear-stained sincerity
Working with some of the finest R&B acts of the time, Bunny could light up a disco as easily as he could break down thorny social issues, but the man had a special gift for orchestrating epic love songs with operatic drama and tear-stained sincerity. Just gather up the ballads he crafted for The O’Jays alone—a powerfully passionate list that includes “Sunshine,” “I Swear I Love No One But You,” (which later donated its heart to Mary J Blige’s “No One Will Do“), and the monumental “You’ve Got Your Hooks In Me”—and you’ve got a suite of songs that will leave you a breathless puddle on the floor. Listen to those songs on your good headphones (and you should, since these are perhaps the most exquisitely produced pop records ever cut) and you’ll also be able to hear Bunny singing the oilwell-deep bass parts that anchor the O’Jays’ sweet harmonies. And it wasn’t just the O’Jays: Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, The Spinners, The Stylistics . . . if you listen to any record cut by pretty much any group recorded during Bunny’s time at Philadelphia International, you’ll hear his voice in the mix.
So, yeah, Bunny could do it all—at least as well as any of the superstars that surrounded him—which is why it only made sense that he would make a million-selling masterpiece himself. And he did. Except, of course, for the “million-selling” part.
That masterpiece is Sigler’s magnificent That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You, and it ranks with anything you’ll ever hear by Teddy Pendergrass, Barry White, Al Green, or any of the other lovermen whose lush seduction suites seemed to be an entire decade’s aphrodisiac.
“That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You” should be a wedding-day cliché
If you want to bask in the glow of Bunny Sigler’s gifts and wallow in the injustice of his obscurity, start with the album’s title cut, which deserves to be a wedding-day devotional as common as Etta’s “At Last,” or Luther’s “Here And Now.” It’s a pledge of eternal love that crests and crashes from verse to verse, falling softly back down to Earth the moment Bunny finally sings (the hell out of) the song’s title. His melody is so timelessly beautiful, his production so meticulously dynamic, and his singing so dramatically and yet offhandedly sincere, that you might not even notice—and surely won’t care—that the song doesn’t even have a chorus. It doesn’t even have a hook. And yet, it’s as catchy as any song that relies on the usual pop songwriting tropes to stick in your head.
The more conventional, creamy doo-wop throwback “Picture Us” should also be a first-dance staple and late-night dedication cliché, but there’s a reasonable chance that more people will read this plea to hear the song than bought the single at the time. Moving from old-school harmonies to something altogether darker, weirder, and more modern, “My Other Love” is pure soul opera, with drama exploding all around Bunny, who doesn’t just deliver a piercing, tortured, Marvin-level lead vocal, but also sings every one of the densely layered, eerily arranged background harmonies himself. Oh, and that’s also him on sitar, piano, bass, and organ.
You’ll never hear “Love Train” the same way again
Like the best songwriters, Sigler also knows how to rearrange other people’s songs in to something completely his own. The two tracks on this album he didn’t write, songs that everyone already knew by heart, are turned out in shockingly fresh ways that make it clear that Bunny didn’t depend on the originals for anything more than a spark of inspiration. Brother Ray’s “What’d I Say” becomes a moaning, groaning, snarling Philly funk stomp that manages to sound as downright dirty as Ray’s must have come off 15 years before. Even more breathtaking is the slow-rolling gospel overhaul of “Love Train,” which sounds so natural in Bunny’s hands that it’s hard to imagine the song didn’t start life in pews of a wooden church. Where the O’Jays’ disco smash celebrated unity, Bunny begs for it. Over a slow-rolling groove, he shares the song in a call and response with his choir (some or all of whom just might also be Bunny) that may not make you forget The O’Jays’ version, but will at least guarantee you never hear it the same way again.
That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You showcases every side of Sigler’s mind-boggling virtuosity
The rest of That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You is a solid mix of R&B floor-rockers, sweet soul slow-drags, and even a bit of Caribbean-flavored country which, together, showcase every side of Sigler’s mind-boggling virtuosity. Every song works on its own terms yet hangs together as part of a perfect whole. So why didn’t anyone buy it?
There was a theory that Bunny’s label didn’t work his records too hard because he was worth more to them as a producer and songwriter for other artists, but it’s more likely that the album’s mix of doo-wop romanticism, oddball humor, and apparent glee in pushing musical boundaries are what kept his own music a secret even as he helped other artists strike gold. Decades on, though, the very things that may have limited his chart potential at the time are what make That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You so damn enjoyable.
Bunny’s masterpiece might have found an audience if anyone had time to sit with it
Bunny’s masterpiece also might have found an audience if anyone had the time to sit with it, but even Bunny was back in the studio working on tracks with a new backing band, Instant Funk, as soon as his album landed in record stores. Thinking they had some hits on their hands, That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You was quickly reshuffled, repackaged, and re-released as Keep Smilin’. In the process, “My Other Love,” “What’d I Say” and the wonderfully weird calypso-country showtune “Marianne” were all kicked to the curb in order to make room for Bunny’s three new songs. Despite the quality of his new stuff (especially “Sweeter Than The Berry,” with its jaw-dropping a-capella breaks) That’s How Long I’ll Be Loving You remains the better record, and the confusing rush to replace it with an almost identical collection ensured folks wouldn’t pay attention to either LP. Still, consider it one of the many blessings of the digital music era that you no longer have to choose between them and can instead combine them in to one glorious playlist (as we’ve done for you below).
After leaving Philly International, the Great Bundino went on to make solo records for other labels, write and produce more hits for other artists, and even made appearances on records by The Roots and Mazde while hip-hop and R&B producers lined Bunny’s pockets by sampling his earlier productions. All in, the Bunny Sigler story isn’t a sad one: His talents were rewarded and he seemed to live a life filled with the same love, joy, and humor that shines through his best music. The only thing he missed was the widespread appreciation and recognition of more music lovers like you. So spread the word and spread the love for the man who made soul music just a little sweeter. Bunny might not be here to feel the love, but everyone who hears him surely will.
BONUS CUTS: Here’s your collection of Bunny Sigler’s solo recordings on Philadelphia International Records:
And that ultimate O’Jays album of Bunny Sigler songs? We put that together for you, too: