In an era of digital downloads threatening the record industry record labels like Truth and Soul are a breath of fresh air. Truth and Soul is the kind of label that doesn’t aim on big sales, but is there to satisfy the needs of collectors like me. In limited editions the company releases actual vinyl reproductions of obscure R&B LPs and 45s. Few of what they release will immediately ring a bell. To appreciate the value of what Truth and Soul releases takes some digging. And digging I did on this particular 45. The research for this entry took me about a month to complete, but it turned out to be quite worth while. What makes this 45 interesting, besides it featuring a young Clarence Clemons, is that it proves that brilliance is never born in a vacuum. Most of the great music acts we admire come from a scene of friendly competition. While forming their own specific sound they take what they admire from other artists while trying to beat the competition at their game. In areas where the competition is tough bands or artists are born that at one point or another will leave the competition behind. Berry Gordy realized this when he nurtured a similar competition within his Motown label. For every Marvin Gaye there’s a J.J. Barnes that didn’t quite make it.
One of those competitive scenes was Plainfield New Jersey. Not far from the Asbury Park scene familiar to Springsteen fans, the seeds for Parliament and Funkadelic were sown out of a barber shop run by genius to be, George Clinton. There George processed hair and his future base player Billy Nelson assisted him. “A lot of people used to hang out in that barber shop ’cause it was definitely a popular place to be” Nelson remembers years later. From the barber shop Clinton’s Parliaments were born, the name inspired by a cigarette brand. Clinton peddled between Detroit and New Jersey, hoping to score a recording deal with Motown. Finally the group landed in a contract with the now obscure Revilot label which would lead them to score a hit with “(I Wanna) Testify”, the worlds greatest Funk Dynasty, then a rather average Doo Wop group, was on its way! Unfortunately Revilot folded near the end of the sixties, taking ownership of the Parliaments with it. Inspired by the MC5 and their big stacks of Marshall amps, Clinton then formed the group that would go on to rock the music business. Scoring a record contract at Westbound, Funkadelic released their first self titled album in 1970.
While Clinton took many of the barbershop’s most talented musicianship with him on his Mothership, there was quite some talent left behind aiming to have their own slice of the pie. While hustling for a deal Clinton had to compete with Sammy and the Del Larks on the barbershop scene. In the late to mid-seventies Sammy changed his stage name to Tyrone Ashley and formed the Funky Music Machine. As such Sammy scored a record deal with the tiny Black Top label and recorded an album’s worth of material with Clarence Clemons blowing his saxophone on the sessions. Even though the group did a very successful show at the infamous Apollo theater in Harlem, the record was shelved and never saw light of day. That is until recently when Truth & Soul records acquired the master tapes which had that survived a house fire in the late seventies that destroyed most of what was recorded in the home studio of Black Top records. Aside from releasing the original LP, “Let Me Be Your Man”, two 45s have been released. The “Gotta Clean Up The World” 45 is undeniably influenced by Funkadelic’s earlier work, albeit somewhat smoother holding a larger commercial potential. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the 45 had seen the light of day in ’71. Combined with the reports of the Funky Music Machine being an impressive and tight live unit, they could have been serious competition to Clinton’s Mothership.
That was the easy part of the research. Where it got tricky was the mention of an 18 year old Clarence Clemons being part of the sessions. As a big Springsteen fan this peaked my interest. At the time the 45 was recorded Clarence was already way past 18. So could that slim looking young man on the back of the cover indeed be Clarence. Though Clemons is quite a bit heftier today, there was a time where he was called the Big Man because of his length, not his weight. Next to the skinny and short Springsteen of the early seventies, almost everybody looked big of course. After asking around two bits of information have led me to believe that “Clean Up The World” does indeed feature the Big Man on his mighty saxophone. The first part came from the record company itself, admitting the age they mentioned in the liner notes was probably not correct. The second part of info came from a Springsteen historian over at the Greasy Lake, Earthslayer. He confirmed that Clemons was indeed part of the Plainfield scene around that time. While working as a counselor for the social services, Clarence jammed in bands with exotic names as Little Melvin & the invaders or Norman Seldin & the Joyful Noyze, in his spare time. Clemons did some odd studio jobs as well. Soon however, Clemons would change his base of operations to Asbury Park after meeting Springsteen at the Wonderbar in September ’71. After Springsteen needed a session player for the recording sessions of “Greetings From Asbury Park”, it wouldn’t be long before the Big Man could quit his day job.
“Gotta Clean Up The World (before it cleans up you)”, Funky Music Machine
Available through Truth and Soul records
A big thank you to all involved in this article. Rexlic over at BTX for bringing this 45 to my attention. Earthslayer over at Greasy Lake for an important part of the puzzle. Red Kelly from the “B” Side and Laurence Grogan from 16 Funky Corners for the help. Truth and Soul for providing the mp3 to use on this article. And last but not least the Big Man’s management for looking into it with interest as well.
About the author: I started blogging out of a fascination with Soul music, Bruce Springsteen and Americana in general. Over at Boss Tracks I'm blogging on Bruce Springsteen and the songs he covered. http://bosstracks.blogspot.com/