It may come as a surprise to some that fast-as-quicksilver rhythm guitarist Kim Miller of '70s Philly soul band Instant Funk likes smooth jazz groups like the Rippingtons, but it's true. Then again, listen to Miller's songs, which are sprinkled throughout the recordings he did with Instant Funk (their gold single, "I Got My Mind Made Up," went to number one R&B), rather as the main act or backing their mentor Bunny Sigler on some of his own solo records or his producing assignments. For instance, check out Patti Brooks' cover of the hyperkinetic "I Love Love Love You" or Instant Funk's cover of Miller's dreamy ballad "What Can I Do for You" and you'll hear Miller's definite knack for catchy melodies.
Kim Miller was still a child when his older brother Scott "Scotty" Miller hooked up with Raymond Earl in Trenton, NJ, in the early '60s. While competing in a talent show, bassist Earl met drummer Scotty, who was the solo instrumentalist for a five-piece vocal group called the Imperialistics. Earl had his own instrumentals-only group, Royal 5. Liking what he heard, Earl eventually joined the Imperialistics. Sometime later, the two teenagers formed the Music Machine. Earl and Scotty would practice in the basement of the Miller home while Kim watched. Listening to guitarists Freddie Stone and Al McKay of Earth, Wind & Fire, Kim started taking guitar lessons at age nine and oftentimes would fall asleep while practicing in bed. He'd also make sure to play with guitarists that had more advanced skills than he did in order to learn and progress. The two brothers were encouraged by their family, particularly their grandmother. After being sufficiently convinced that Kim had the chops to play with the group, Scotty welcomed him to the band.
In 1968, they began backing a local vocal group, the TNJs (for Trenton, NJ). Appearing at local dances and venues, the group began to build up a good reputation. Philly soul artist/producer/ songwriter Sigler was introduced to the TNJs by their manager, Jackie Ellis. Sigler produced one single for the local Newark label ("She's Not Ready" ) and one for Cameo-Parkway ("I Think I'm Falling in Love"). Around 1971, Ellis christened the backup band Instant Funk because they could come up with funky grooves at the spur of the moment. They worked the chitlin' circuit, backing Sigler and various other R&B acts. In 1972, Sigler, a staff producer at Philadelphia International, was given the go-ahead to start cutting tracks on himself as a singer and brought Instant Funk and the TNJs into Sigma Sound Studios. The first single was the sweet-as-candy ballad "Regina." Another 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, Philadelphia International issued two albums by Sigler: That's How Long I'll Be Loving You and Keep Smilin. My Music was Sigler's first album in which Instant Funk performed all of the backing tracks. Though most tracks on Siglers' Philadelphia International albums have backing tracks by MFSB, a significant number feature the Instant Funk rhythm section. The band can also be heard on hits by the O'Jays and Archie Bell and the Drells. Most of the Philadelphia International back catalog has been reissued through their own imprint, Sony Music's Legacy label, Rhino and U.K. label VCI. Instant Funk can also be heard on hits from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (featuring Teddy Pendergrass), Hungarian jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo, and others. Kim (incorrectly identified as "Ken" in the album credits) co-wrote with Sigler the second single, "Baby Rattle Snake." The band worked in the studio almost constantly, resulting in a slew of unreleased tracks, some with Sigler producing, some finished and some not. With the Philly soul sound so hot in the '70s, Sigler was given a lot of producing assignments, meaning more work for his backing musicians, Instant Funk and the TNJs.
One of the most long-lived recordings of that era was an album the group did with Carl Carlton. Carlton had worked with Sigler during his Backbeat years; 1975's I Wanna Be With You is generally regarded as Carlton's best album, with most of the songs written by Sigler and all of the backing tracks done by Instant Funk (including Dexter Wansel and Theodore Life) and members of the MFSB Orchestra.
In 1976, Sigler got Instant Funk an album deal with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's TSOP. The album, Get Down on the Philly Jump, had two singles that were popular in the disco clubs: the title track and "It Ain't Reggae (But It Sho Is Funky)." During this period, Sigler and the group worked on a soundtrack for an unreleased movie named Superdragon. The band also backed Wansel on his Life on Mars album on the title track and "You Can Be What You Wanna Be." Another standout album for which the band did all the backing tracks was singer Evelyn "Champagne" King's debut album, Smooth Talk. Instant Funk can be heard on two tracks on her gold follow-up LP, Music Box: "No Time for Fooling Around" and "It's OK." They're also heard on artists Sigler produced for Curtis Mayfield's Curtom label, including the January 1977 self-titled debut of Mystique featuring Ralph Johnson, Mayfield's own Heartbeat album, and a duet album with Sigler and Barbara Mason, among others.
In 1978 Sigler amicably parted ways with Philadelphia International, bringing along Instant Funk. They continued to tour together and record songs at Sigma Sound and Alpha International. A little earlier, MFSB guitarist Norman Harris had decided to leave Philadelphia International to start his own label, Goldmind. He secured a distribution deal with Salsoul Records. Sigler, seeking more success as a recording artist, signed with Harris' label, and backed by Instant Funk, scored his first Top Ten R&B single with "Let Me Party With You (Party, Party, Party)," co-written by the Miller Brothers, Earl, and Sigler (number eight R&B). Sigler also got a deal with Goldmind for Instant Funk (by now a ten-piece band with horns and a raw lead vocalist, James Carmichael).
By this time, the TNJs had disbanded, and Sigler decided to augment the group. Before any product could be released on the band, Goldmind folded and all of its acts were transferred to Salsoul. Instant Funk's first Salsoul release was the single "I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)." A year after its release date, the record was remixed by Garage club DJ Larry Levan and that's when "I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)" went on to be Instant Funk's million-selling breakthrough hit (number one R&B). Co-written by Earl and the Miller Brothers with input from Sigler, the track pulses with erotic rhythms, layered percussion, and the ultra-catchy, "Say what?!" The inspiration for the song primarily was the music of Donald Byrd's protégés, the Blackbyrds ("Rock Creek Park"), another popular funk band of the '70s. An album, Instant Funk, was issued in January 1979 and included the follow-up single "Crying" b/w "Dark Vader" and a Kim tune, the pop-jazz instrumental "Wide World of Sports." The track was also the flip side of "I Got" and received airplay on Frankie Crocker's WBLS in New York and a number of other stations. Both the "I Got" single and the album Instant Funk went gold.
Just like at Philadelphia International, Sigler and Instant Funk worked with acts on Salsoul, including Loleatta Holloway, Double Exposure, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. Instant Funk backed Sigler on his Salsoul albums and singles, and the band itself released six albums on the label. In the early '80s, Instant Funk released a TSOP single that was inspired by Muhammad Ali ("Float Like a Butterfly"). When Salsoul became inactive in the early '80s, choosing instead to focus on its newly founded First Choice Home Video division, the band toured for a few years and eventually broke up. Kim began playing guitar on New York recording sessions. The Miller brothers and Earl backed Skipworth and Turner on their hit "Make It Last." In 1993, Kim became a born-again Christian; he still collaborates with Earl through his Ray Ray Music. ~ Ed Hogan, Rovi