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A PhilaTroit Thang

Soul Express speaks with Phil Hurtt and Bunny Sigler about their new venture, A Soulful Tale Of Two Cities.

Joe Hunter, Phil Hurtt and Bunny Sigler (All photo credits: Sierra Hurtt-Akselrod)

Soul Express: I have been waiting so long to speak to you gentlemen regarding your music. Here I am in 2007 talking with you about some fantastic NEW music. Phil, as the man behind this project what was it that gave you the idea?

Phil: Like many of my peers, I’ve been somewhat frustrated with the direction of the genre we call R&B. Additionally, I’ve been disappointed with the lack of opportunities available to the pioneers of the genre, at every level in today’s music industry, to create new recordings. In an effort to chase what’s “hot”, Label heads - most of whom have no understanding of what R&B truly represents - have virtually shut out the demographic that would welcome new material from those pioneering artists, producers and writers.

That demographic is then force-fed whatever the industry decides to label as R&B, as well as a continual stream of “the essential collection of…” or “the greatest hits of…”, “the anthology of…” recordings that this group of music lovers already owns. To make matters worse, the industry continues to ignore the source of all that great material – the original artists.

As a man of faith, I began to pray for a platform from which I could bring about a change. I quickly realized that any change had to come from inside the industry; we must be in it to change it. In late May of 2004, I was hit with much more than a idea, it was a vision. It was complete and clear and we began to follow the path it laid out. We called it “The Masters of Funk, Soul and Blues”.

There was a minimum age 50 years and the average age of the participants is 62...and we did check their ID at the door. (Just kidding!)

Soul Express: LOL! OK, so once the idea was there how did this make you feel? Such a massive project must have created a real sense of excitement?

Phil: My excitement was vastly overshadowed by a sense of awe at the potential it represented. Of course I was excited at the prospect of working with some old friends and meeting some new ones that I had long admired, but had never met. Nothing could have prepared me for the wonderful experiences born out of this project.

Soul Express: I can imagine that! The list of participants on this CD is phenomenal. How much of a task was this to get so many talents together?

Phil: Obviously, the Philly contingent was easiest for me. The first writer/artist/producer on my list was my dear friend, and co-writer on dozens of tunes, the incredibly gifted Bunny Sigler. Then came Kathy Sledge, Russell Thompkins Jr.,( Stylistics) Ted Mills,( Blue Magic) Barbara Mason, Jean Carne, William Hart (Delfonics), Jimmy Ellis (Trampps) and The Philly Degrees (internationally known as The Three Degrees).

Much of the contact with the Motown crew came through various circles of influence which included Motown producers Clay McMurray, Lamont Dozier and our dear friend Pat Cosby (widow of the late Hank Cosby). Once everyone understood the concept, it wasn’t very difficult to bring them on-board.

Soul Express: There must have been obvious choices when reaching out to get personnel together to make this CD. Who did you contact first, and what sort of reaction did you get?

Phil: Without telling anyone what the project was about; I began by contacting my old friends Bob Babbitt, of the Funk Brothers, and Bobby Eli, of MFSB. Without knowing any of the details, they were excited at the prospect of working together.

Once my rhythm sections were secure, we moved to the artists, producers and engineers. The majority of the artists we contacted were captured by the vision and scope of the thing and eagerly signed up.

Soul Express: How long did this project take to record and complete? Were the recording sessions one take, as they would have been many years ago, especially on the Motown does Philly disc?

Phil: We began recording the rhythm for “Philly on Motown” in late-January of 2006 at Larry Gold’s studio – The Studio, as it is appropriately named - in Philly. We moved the operation to Detroit for “Motown on Philly” in early March and set up shop over at Studio A, in Dearborn MI.

In my humble opinion, unless the musicians are reading charts and not concerned about being in the “pocket” or the “feel” of a piece, there will always be more than one take for any rhythm section. Personally I can’t recall ever seeing a one-take performance for a rhythm section. Those guys always think they can do it better with “just one more.” Now, if you’re talking about one-take vocal performances, then there were several that come to mind.

With Freda Payne on “Betcha’ by Golly Wow”, we did two takes but went with the first one. Bunny Sigler’s performance on “Got to Give it Up”, which originally ran for 11 minutes, came out of a jam session with MFSB. Gene Leone is famous for recording everything that happens in the studio and we’re lucky he got that because it was magic. Bunny & Jean Carne’s “Fire and Desire” was also a one-take, as was my vocal on “The Girl’s Alright” was a one-take reference vocal that the crew felt was the best.

Soul Express: Were there any artists / producers who were unable to take part? I would have loved Thom Bell’s string arrangements in the mix!

Phil: Thom Bell is a dear friend of mine I am proud to say that, from the beginning He assured me that he was there for me. I had a concept for Thom’s involvement in ‘A Soulful Tale…’ that got a little side-tracked as the project progressed. I had some very difficult choices to make as several opportunities presented themselves. And when I thought about the ages of the participants, I felt the need to record as much material as possible.

We had just lost Lou Rawls, Gene McFadden and, earlier, John Whitehead, all of whom we had targeted as participants. Originally I intended to record a maximum of 20 to 24 tunes. Sensing that we may never be able to have this group together again, I decided to record as many songs as possible. Just recently, we lost “Papa” Joe Hunter, the original Funk Brother, but we’re fortunate (and honoured) to have his last work on this CD.

All in all, we recorded a total of 47 tracks. By recording so many, we were not able to do some of the other things we wanted to do. The project with Thom is still uppermost in my mind, and I know that he understands what we are trying to accomplish. It was a tough choice to make, but I believe I made the right one. Hopefully, the success of this project will allow me to complete the vision as I originally saw it, with Thom’s involvement.

Soul Express: There is an interesting and diverse range of songs from both cities on this album. How and why were these songs chosen, and how was it decided on whom would perform these songs?

Phil: I felt strongly that we couldn’t miss with the material. They are all hit songs and fan favourites. I presented a list of 100 songs, 50 for each camp, with some suggestions for who could do each song and waited to see what would happen. I did tell them I didn’t want “obvious.” I also didn’t want the treatment for each tune to be a “cover” but, rather, an interpretation of that classic material. I wanted Philly to honour Motown and vice versa. I think they got it.

The big surprise for everyone was George Clinton asking to do “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” But that’s the kind of stuff we were hoping for – something totally out of the box.

Soul Express: I totally agree – his interpretation is really special. How is this album being received in the US, especially in Philadelphia and Detroit?

Phil: As we expected, the response from outside the US has been stronger, initially - from the UK and the rest of the world. It’s something that we knew we would have to deal with, given the state of the industry over here and the weight that big marketing dollars carries with getting airplay and press coverage. We’re a small, family-run company competing with large corporations for shelf-space, airtime and print-space. It’s an uphill battle. The fans in Detroit have been with us since the very beginning, thanks to the support of a local reporter there; a big music fan named Sue Whitall. We didn’t really get the same treatment in Philly, but the fans are beginning to catch on. The UK has been really good to us and, somewhat surprisingly, Japan. It just goes to show you that these songs, these artists, are timeless. The audience is out there, and it is massive, and it is ready and waiting for something like this to come along. Getting it to them, though…that’s the challenge we face.

Soul Express: Having done this are you considering recording an album of brand new material? Vincent Montana has recently returned with some very strong modern, yet typically Philly, productions and has created a real storm here in the UK and Europe. Are you hoping to do something similar?

Phil: Success is a wonderful thing. If the consumer is telling us that this is the kind of project they want made available to them, then they can ensure its continuation by supporting independent labels like Soul Renaissance Records and quality endeavours like ‘A Soulful Tale of two Cities.’

This project was created to honor the past and yet to make history at the same time. However, we’ve now done the “Philly style” thing or the “Motown and Philly style thing”. We don’t intend to get stuck there, we have so much more to offer as writers, producers, musicians etc.

As far as having new material, you bet we do. There is a gap between the natural evolvement of what R&B was, and the acceptance of the distorted idea of what it is now. In my opinion, the gap has been poorly filled with other, less authentic things. The Masters of Funk Soul and Blues are attempting to re-energize the genre by, one, providing a quality recording which features your favourite artists performing your favorite songs and honoring each other - Philly wrapping its arms around Motown and vice versa; and two, creating a platform that will allow us to share with the world what the “natural progression” of R&B music should be; creating and producing “new R&B music as only the Masters can. Ultimately, we hope to share with this younger generation of musicians our decades of experience in order to keep the genre healthy and thriving and true to itself.

Soul Express: Are there any plans to reissue your sought-after Fantasy albums on CD?

Phil: Yes, I have been pleasantly surprised at the interest in those LPs and my daughters, who seem to relish in bossing Dad around, have been after me to get on it. We’ll get it done.

Soul Express: I hope so – there's only so much stylus wear that an LP can take! Now, also working alongside you, Phil, on this project is none other than the legendary Bunny Sigler! How did it feel to be working with so many of the classic Philly artists again, Bunny?

Bunny: I felt like I was 16 again. Haven’t felt this good in years!

Soul Express: Your rendition of “Ain’t Nothin’ Like The Real Thing” is absolutely superb. The emotion you pore into that track is palpable. When you are recording a song such as this what element of the song, or indeed the melody, that enables you to pour out your soul in such a manner?

Bunny: Quite simply, it was the lyrics. If you think about how often, in your lifetime, the “real thing” turns out to be false, and how the really real thing can pass through your hands. Really, it started when we were recording ‘Stop in the Name of Love’, which didn’t make it onto the album. So much emotion went into that one and it carried over. And, you know, the female spectators screaming and showing me how much they liked what I was doing while I was in the studio didn’t hurt either.

Soul Express: Does it feel different today in the studio from when you were laying down tracks in the 60s and 70s? If so what is the difference?

Bunny: To me, it’s no different because I’ve constantly been in the studio. It’s not like I took a long break, I’m always working. To be in the studio, it feels the same no matter where you are in the world. The difference here is that it is live musicians. I’ve been working in the studio, but most of the work was done in the control room. All I’ve had to do is come in and lay down my vocals on a track I never touched. With this project, we had no plan really. We had the idea, and we had musicians, and when we all got together it all fell into place. Being a musician in this setting was a bonus. It afforded me some intimacy with the track.

Soul Express: You have also contributed on the Motown does Philly selections, along with Bobby Eli and Phil Hurtt. Why was this so?

Bunny: I just wanted to have Phil’s and Bobby’s - and our friends in Motown’s – back, so to speak. I just wanted to get in where I could fit in and make sure I was able to support them in whatever way they needed me.

Soul Express: Do you have any favourite song on the album, and if so what is it about the song that makes it so special?

‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing’, because it took me where I didn’t know I could go and brought me outside myself. I went for a natural peformance, and didn’t try for it. Also ‘Fire and Desire’ because of Jean Carne, she’s amazing. Phil and Bobby (Eli) had to teach me the song because I didn’t know it very well. Regarding all the songs I sang, I felt no pressure. I was able to sing and have Phil yell “sing harder” and really work me over, which contributed to me going beyond where I had planned to go. I’d rehearse one thing, and end up doing something completely different for the take.

Freda Payne is a wonderful, beautiful lady. She was amazing to watch as she worked. Such a professional.

Soul Express: Having worked with both Philly and Motown artists such as MFSB and the Funk Brothers, were there any differences in how each city’s musicians approached making music? Were the Funk Brothers any different in approach to MFSB, and vice-versa?

Bunny: Oh, it was altogether different; A different method. In Philly, we didn’t try to imitate Motown, we wanted to make it a little Philly. And they did the same with us. The songs we did in Philly started with us jamming and then culling that into the tracks you hear. In Detroit, they’re much more methodical, but the result is the same. What you got from both cities was the best of what we all could do, and I think it shows.

We had wonderful camaraderie with everyone from the musicians to the background singers to the staff. It was a true labour of love. I strongly believe that everyone that was there was meant to be there.

Bobby Taylor was telling us some inside stories of Motown. You can be from a different city, but you find out that you’ve gone through the same ups and the same downs. The film ‘Cooley High’, which was about Detroit, could just as easily have been about Philly. Motown and Philly were like mirrors of one another. They were a bit more pop, and we were a bit more gritty, but it’s all the same.

Soul Express: After having solo set releases in 2003, and also working with Larry Gold do you intend to get into the recording studio again for some new music?

Bunny: Definitely. I’m doing some Gospel, after having worked with Jeff Majors, and I’m searching for a way to do both Gospel and R&B. There’s also a recording of the opera Othello, in which I played the lead, that will be released worldwide next year on Blue Note/Germany. I’ll also be reprising the role in Rome this June.

Soul Express: Wow! I wasn't expecting that! Your song “Can I” was my number one favourite of 2003 and I still play it to death now! How did the hook-up with Larry come about and will you be working with him again?

Bunny: Larry and I have been friends for years. I just wish there was a way we could have used this one particular line I’d written, but he said it was too “devilish.” (Laughs) I don’t know why, I’m not a devilish person. Seriously, though, it’s just nice to hear that people like what I do. I love to just go in and sing and do what I do and move people.

It’s not just with the voice, you know. With our sessions, I tried to wear something classy and different to each one and, let me tell you, that took a lot of clothes. From summertime to wintertime – from two-piece suits to fur coats – that’s how long we were in there. But, you know, you gotta look good.

Soul Express: Are there any artists out there today who you feel carry the torch for the music that you, Phil and all the greats created in the past? The reason I ask is that I am 34 and I have grown up with your music and consider it to be timeless. Little today actually grabs my attention in the same way, and I would like some insight into how those I consider legends view today’s artists.

Bunny: Christina Aguilera’s performance of ‘A Man’s World’ on this year’s Grammys was one of the greatest performances I’ve seen in recent memory. I always knew she had it in her to sing like that, but I was still surprised to see her cut loose. And when she fell to her knees and started really laying into the song, I fell right down with her. She is phenomenal…almost too soulful for today’s market. She’s got soul that you can’t teach; she’s so far above everybody else. But when you’ve been singing like that since you were a child, it comes naturally.

A lot of people out there pretend to have that kind of soul and practice the runs so that they can perform them perfectly, the same way, each time. If she sang the same song 100 times, each time would be different. When I sing, I don’t know how it’s going to come out. On ‘Aint’ Nothing…’ there’s a part when my throat cracked, I’d hit the lyric so hard. Phil liked it because it sounds like I’m crying, so it stayed.

All I can say is I am blessed to be singing at the ripe old age of 39 (again). On “Got to Give it Up,” I wasn’t kidding when I sang “I got my energy back.” I plan to sing as long as God lets me and as long as people want to hear me. I hope that’s a long, long time. Hey, that sounds like a song!

Soul Express: It does – better get back in the studio and lay it down as I'm eager and impatient for more! As far as the Philadelphia sound is concerned, do you feel that this will be a musical legacy that will not only outlive us all, but also perhaps have a renaissance?

Bunny: I went into a shop downtown, and they grabbed me telling me how much they love ‘Fire and Desire’. I had no idea how much people loved this song. I played it for some young hip-hop guys I work with and they were surprised that a song could still be good 5, 6, and 7 minutes in. They’re used to 3 minutes and fade.

I am impressed with the love that I see people have for this album and it’s out there now. Like a snowball, once it picks up some momentum, they’re not going to be able to stop it. This project should revive Philly and make the music new all over again. How can you miss? From the start, Jean carne opens up the show with such energy. Phil killed ‘The Girl’s Alright’ and the Three Degrees (Philly Degrees) have never sounded so funky as they do on “Ain’t it Peculiar.” They put, what we call, “grease in the fatback.”

Soul Express: Are there any plans to return to the UK or Europe?

Bunny: I never know, they call and I come. The last time I was there, it was to fill-in for an artist that couldn’t make a show. All they have to do is reach out and I’ll be there. Or call and I’ll come running.

Soul Express: Well, whatever is in the pipeline for you we here at Soul Express will be championing it! Thank you so much for the insight into the PhilaTroit thang!

Bunny: Thanks for having us and tell the world that we are here to stay and to give us some airplay. Pretty please.

Phil: Many thanks to Soul Express for this wonderful opportunity to speak to your readers. The support of publications like yours is an important key in assuring that lovers of Soul music remain well-informed as to what is new exciting and available to them as consumers. And there’s more exciting things to come!

-Barry Towler

Photos courtesy of Sierra Hurtt-Akselrod.