I’m sitting in the Hut, a tiny converted garage perched behind a house in dire need of a few more slices of vinyl siding, with the illest ad hoc catwalk you’d ever want to cannonball off looming over a circular, aboveground pool. From the outside, it’s a drab affair; but inside, the Hut is a makeshift, chaotically beautiful two-room recording studio, the pride of Plainfield, New Jersey—better known to residents as Queen City.
Stacks of music paraphernalia and debris both clutter and fortify this weakly lit mini-museum: 45s, analog compressors, turntables, keyboards, reel-to-reel machines, and . . . wait, is that a Commodore 64 on the floor? Then there are all the faces. A mishmashed tapestry of photos stapled to the walls creates a surreal timeline of rhythm and blues and hairdos, promo pics of black starlets, doo-wop groups, and psychedelic slingers sportin’ smiles and ‘dos from the pin curl to the jheri curl. Somewhere in here—tucked right next to the toilet, I’m told—is a vocal booth.
“I didn’t pursue my music the way I should’ve,” Sammy Campbell, the Hut’s 66-year-old proprietor, producer, and primary artist, tells me with a sigh, sitting in front of his fading recording console. “When everyone else from around here was on the up-and-up, I sorta went into pause mode. Really, 1968, ’69, ’70: Those should have been my years to shine.”
Unless you happened to be a Plainfield teen kickin’ Afrolistics during said years—or you’re currently an obsessive crate-digger from England, Japan, or Brooklyn’s own Truth & Soul Records—you’ve probably never heard of Mr. Campbell or his more disco-friendly alter ego, Tyrone Ashley. I’ve come here to meet both: the guy that Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bernie Worrell raves “had a voice like velvet,” and whose groups, lore has it, could give Plainfield funk-in-the-box icon George Clinton a run for his money any day, back in the day.
Actually, let’s face it: Unless you come from or live there, odds are you’ve never even heard of Plainfield, let alone Sammy, Dr. Funkenstein’s onetime musical foil. A hop, skip, or jump from Newark, NYC, or Philly, Queen City endured industrial decay, race riots, crack cocaine, and the fame (or blame) for flinging that ineffable sonic stank known as Parliament-Funkadelic into the stratosphere. (Where’s the statue for
that?) Shoot, in Plainfield you can’t fire a bop gun without hitting some relative, friend, or streetwalking gremlin who was once tractor-beamed onto that overcrowded mother ship for a hot, grimy minute.
“I will always have respect for George Clinton,” say Sammy (who by day makes ends meet via construction jobs) over the rewinding whir of a freshly discovered, freshly baked (literally) tape reel. “He was my boy and everything, but I was never swallowed up in all his mess. I respected the talent of the Parliaments, the Funkadelics, but I had my own thing.”
That own thing was embodied in a long string of songs and groups, beginning in 1954 with the Del Larks, then Sagittarian Fire, Black Fire, and the group I’m here to hear, the Funky Music Machine. “Plainfield had many groups, but the two that rose to the top were the Parliaments and the Del Larks,” Sammy says. “I’m talking real harmony now—a cappella harmony. That real street-corner shit!” He laughs. “We’d practice in a bathroom, a hallway, or at George’s barbershop, the Black Soap Palace. That was the place to be.” Friends and competitors, the two groups would share the stage at skating rinks, high schools, and (as they got older) nightclubs. “The Parliaments had that flashy show, and George would dance his ass off,” Sammy recalls. “But they couldn’t do shit with our harmony, man—not when we had Ray Davis, the best bass singer in town!”
Throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Del Larks tasted a modicum of success with several singles, but blew an audition for The Ed Sullivan Show, which still gets Sammy heated. Then, fatigued with nipping at record execs’ heels, Campbell created his own record label, Queen City Records, and balanced working factory jobs with writing, recording, and producing. His first r&b hit, “Job Opening,” came through the door in ’64, (the track’s lyrical hook would be poached years later for Honey Cone’s smash hit “Want Ads”), featuring a young Eddie Hazel on the six-string. By 1967, however, just as the Parliaments began to testify and take off (taking Hazel, Ray Davis, and Sammy’s first cousin, Billy “Bass” Nelson, with them), the Del Larks sputtered.
“I needed to change something up,” says Campbell, playing me a song whose opening line—”My life till now has been a jagged road/Full of disappointments, can’t make it alone”—could sum up a career. “So I changed my name.” Now, the motive behind Sammy adopting the name Tyrone Ashley is somewhat shrouded in mystery, and might or might not involve a stolen car. Regardless, that became his new moniker for the rest of the ’60s and ’70s. He whipped up another band, the Funky Music Machine, and proceeded to cut raw funk and silky soul over the next few years—and while one of those cuts, “Let Me Be Your Man,” would gather popular tender and earn the band a gig at the Apollo with Al Green and Wilson Pickett, most of that material would go largely unheard. Until now.
“We found out about Sammy through this crazy soul record he produced by a group called Black Velvet,” says Leon Michels, co-owner of Truth & Soul Records and bandleader of his own instrumental outfit, the El Michels Affair. “That record had a Plainfield address, so we looked it up in the yellow pages, and Sammy had the same phone number.” One visit led to another, eventually leading to the first T&S release showcasing Campbell/Ashley’s oeuvre: Tyrone Ashley’s Funky Music Machine: Let Me Be Your Man. The plushly packaged CD/LP features both instrumentals and vocal tunes recorded between ’68 and ’70, a dozen gems steeped in gospel, funk, and psychedelic soul. Ashley’s strengths as a songwriter, arranger, singer, and producer shine, and though the musicianship (mostly Jersey locals peppered with some original Parliamentarians and Funkadelics) on cuts like “Gotta Clean Up the World, Parts 1 & 2” will free your ass, it’s the beaming vocal harmonies that’ll haunt the core of your soul. These are songs soaked in spirit, from the plaintive, Del Lark–drenched opener “Come On Home” to the sublime, otherworldly “Love Sweet Love.”
A few months after my first meeting with Sammy in Plainfield, we cross paths again at Truth & Soul’s Williamsburg headquarters. He’s decked out in fly vines for a photo shoot, barely sucking it in for the camera; his reconstituted Del Larks, here to lay down some new tracks, bide their time by wolfing down fried chicken and catfish. When he’s finally done, Sammy, with an impatient glance, leads his grizzled posse just outside the studio into a weakly lit hallway, where these five mere mortals proceed to pound out harmonies full of bounce, sweetness, and heartache—a reverberating old-school plea for George Clinton’s long-gone mother ship to finally revisit the plain fields of home.