Last November, when I was in between jobs, I made a few trips down to central New Jersey to dig up information about the Del-Larks. I must have gone to every record store in a 20 mile radius spouting out the same list over and over: "Ever heard of the Del Larks? How about Queen City records? Tyrone Ashley? Sammy Campbell?" Everywhere I went, I got the same blank stares and the same "Never heard of them" shrugs. I eventually made it into the last record store in the area and began spitting out my well-rehearsed phrases, "Hi my name is... I'm trying to track down information about... Have you ever heard of...?" I hadn't even gone through the whole list and was just about to give up due to the vacant looks on the faces in front of me when I got to the name of Sammy Campbell.
Almost immediately, the teenager behind the counter stood up and exclaimed, "Sammy Campbell? He's my uncle!" Wow! What luck! "You want to talk to him?" Sure. He picked up the phone, dialed a number, and within two minutes we were heading out to my car. Five minutes later we were outside a small wooden house in a quiet residential neighborhood. We went into the house and were greeted by a gray-haired man about 5' 7" tall wearing brown pajamas who looked liked he'd just gotten a Don King hair do or recently got out of bed. He reached out to shake my hand and said, "Hi. I'm Sammy Campbell. Pleased to meet you." For the next two hours he proceeded to tell me the story of his career, from his high school days in an early incarnation of the Del Larks and their friendly rivalry with George Clinton's Parliaments to his near-fatal association with George Blackwell, the circumstances around the release of Job Opening and his eventual solo career under the name Tyrone Ashley and ultimately to his present day efforts.
The Del Larks were formed by Sammy's brother David (deceased) in the 1950's while they were in high school. Their first records were doo-wop songs released on George Eastman's Ea-Jay label. They then put out a record on Atlantic-distributed East West. In the early 60's Sammy was writing his own songs and was hired by George Blackwell to write for his Smoke Records outfit it Newark. According to Sammy, Blackwell kept him on staff for a year, but never released any of his material and never paid him. Sammy made money promoting local concerts and performing with the Del Larks.
For one concert he promoted at the Cotton Club, with both the Del Larks and the Parliaments performing, he borrowed $350 from George Blackwell and his wife for advertising. The night of the show, the club was packed. Seeing this, the Blackwells approached Sammy and demanded their cut of the profits. Sammy told them to see him after the show. Later that night, Mrs. Blackwell approached Sammy - a penetratingly fierce look in her eyes. Putting a loaded gun to his head, she demanded the money. Luckily, Sammy's brothers came into the club at just that moment and dis-armed the woman. Sammy told her and her husband that he would give them what he owed them back at his house. They all went to his house and Sammy had his sister count out $350. Angrily, George Blackwell demanded half of the profits. Sammy calmly requested that his sister count out another $200, which she proceeded to do. Sammy then told George that he didn't have to accept any of the money he was offering him, but that he was going to give him what he borrowed and only enough more to make the loan worthwhile. He had given George the better part of a year with his writing efforts for Smoke to no avail. He had even presented George with two finished masters to release, but George has steadfastly refused to do anything with them.
Frustrated by his business relationship with George Blackwell and unaware that Blackwell would secretly release two of Campbell tracks (SOS for love/ Listen to my radio) on a label called Vision, Sammy decided to terminate his association with Smoke and start putting out his own records. He released SOS... on Queen City Records, his own label. Still performing with the Del Larks, he wrote a song for his group that he felt confident would finally launch him to greater levels of success. The group recorded his new song, Job Opening, at Tony Camillo's studio in Greenwich Village and proceeded to look for a label to release it. The Savoy label expressed interest and at least one member of the group believed they should let Savoy release it, but Sammy didn't think the deal was a good one for himself or the group and he decided to release it on Queen City, so confident was he that the record would be a hit. Job Opening had it all: good production; uptempo, danceable beat; a topical title, which he knew most of his friends could relate to; and phenomenal lyrics, with a great poetical twist to them:
As I walked along the lonely street I was almost hypnotized.
Sammy trades lead vocals back and forth with Ronnie Taylor, and the rest of the group, in classic call and response manner, chimes in with the refrain, "Take the job, heartmender." The song is split into Part 1 and Part 2. Part 1 is mostly vocal and Part 2, mostly instrumental with an amazing sax solo from what sounds like the Mike Terry school. Sammy spent the last money he had at the time to press 500 copies of this legendary record. He told me it began to get some local airplay initially; everyone who heard it thought it was great. Enter George Blackwell again. When Blackwell found out that DJ's were spinning Sammy's disc, he used his influence and his wife's formidable power to prevent the DJ's from pushing it any further. Out of money, he disbanded the Del Larks and concentrated on writing and performing solo. Sammy believes that if George had been smart, he would have let the record go as far as it was destined to and then sue Sammy. But George was not after the money, he only wanted revenge.
After this, Sammy moved out to California for a brief period and did some writing for Galaxy Records. Galaxy thought Sammy would be another Little Johnny Taylor and recorded him on a bluesy track he'd written. Sammy's next effort was refused by the label, since it wasn't in the same vein, so he peddled it to Chess/Checker/Cadet and Phil-LA of Soul. Since the Chicago set up was further away from his home in New Jersey and since he had been hearing good things about the Philadelphia label, he decided to release his song through Phil-LA of Soul. This time, he chose to put the record out under a pseudonym that he thought up with his girlfriend.
He thought the name Tyrone Ashley would get him a better chance of airplay since he'd already released discs under his own name without much luck. The A-side, Let me be your man was written by Sammy when he was living one floor directly above a cute girl he had a crush on. "Please let me be your man" was the phrase that kept dancing in his head when he thought of her and the song grew from there. This was to be Sammy's most successful release, reaching #20 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1966. In the early 70's Sammy continued to tour based on his hit record, but didn't release anything else he cut on himself.
Instead, he put more effort into recording other people. He pressed copies of a record by a female group and a few acetates by a male group known as the Riots. During a tour of the Carolinas, he approached radio stations with both. He was disappointed when they expressed interest in the Riots' tracks on the acetate but not in the girl group whose record he'd actually pressed up. Out of money again, he could not afford to release the Riots disc and shelved the project.
In the mid 70's he was approached by Ian Levine to go to England to record a new song that Ian had written to capitalize on the Del Larks name recognition among the Northern Soul crowd. Sammy has bad memories of this experience, since he believes Ian had little respect for him as a writer and producer and only wanted to use him as a vocalist on what Sammy describes as "some fast, European disco shit." Suggestions by Sammy to improve the tracks were ignored by Ian Levine until the same recommendations were made by the studio engineer.
Sammy still maintains and uses a recording studio he built in a shed behind his house several years ago, and he can often be found there. He has recorded a number of local singers on some of his new material, but has yet to release anything. He lost interest in recording himself when his mother died a few years ago while he was recording a new album.
Some other information Sammy provided: Raymond Davis left the Del Larks to join the Parliaments and was recently touring with the Temptations (1995, 1996). He's now back with the P-Funk gang who are recording and touring as "The Original P". Sadly, all other members of the group have passed away.