George Clinton's Barbershop
It's time once again for this week's music history installment. I've been listening to funk lately, specifically the groups Funkadelic and Parliament. Both groups were founded by funk icon George Clinton who is considered, along with James Brown and Sly Stone, one of the three men most responsible for funk music as we know it today.
I didn't know much about Clinton before this week, barely even recognizing his name outside of The Roots member Questlove's Covid-19 DJ mixes that I listen to on Youtube. It took only a little searching and a look at his entry on Wikipedia to discover that at one point he owned and operated a barbershop in Plainfield, New Jersey for several years before he made it big with P-Funk.
Clinton learned how to cut hair in Newark, New Jersey, just a few miles from the Hudson River and Manhattan Island on the other side. He worked at a local shop there for a while before he realized that Newark had very few opportunities for advancement so he moved just to the south. There he was presented with an opportunity. The barbershop where he found a job was on the market. He'd saved enough money to invest and bought a majority share in the place while he continued to work there as well. This gave him the income from his own haircuts but also a portion of all the other barbers' cuts as well.
The Funkadelics and George Clinton.
At the time--this was the early Sixties--the most popular hairstyle in the area for black heads was the process. This was different from a perm as familiar to white hair or hair straightening for black hair. It created a wavey look similar to that worn by Nat King Cole. It was so popular that Clinton was surprised when he saw natural black hair, having never really been exposed to its natural nattiness.
From his long experience in Newark, Clinton was the most requested barber in the place. People would come in and wait an hour just to get into his chair. Sometimes, they would come in and see he was busy. Other chairs were wide open, but they would decline and announce they would come back later.
Killer Mike and George Clinton in Killer Mike's barbershop during an interview for NPR.
The barbershop had previously been a traditional place with rickety chairs and rough decor. He added curtains and cushioned chairs and renamed the place the Silk Palace. Throughout the next ten years, he would employ a huge percentage of the P-Funk mob, many of the musicians who would later perform with him in Funkadelic and Parliament.
Throughout this time, Clinton was actively pursuing a musical career. He regularly would skip out on the barbershop to go to auditions or meet with music industry insiders across the Hudson in New York. It was common that he would have a line of customers waiting and have to leave to make an appointment or arrive on time to a last minute meeting.
He managed to put out several songs during this period, but only one managed to find any success with the market. "(I Wanna) Testify" came out in 1967. It was issued by his band at the time, The Parliaments, which was unique from the later Parliament. It was recorded for a record label in Detroit and the only member of the band that actually appeared on the record was Clinton himself as none of the others could afford to travel the distance from New Jersey. The Parliaments were a doo-wop band and had a very different sound from what Clinton would later develop with Funkadelic. The song reached #3 on the Billboard R&B chart and #20 on the Pop chart.
During this time, Clinton was considered a force for good in the community, offering a place for youth and men to gather. His work as a musician added to this reputation as he was bringing along several of the local youth along for the ride. This created a great deal of goodwill for Clinton and the Silk Palace Barbershop as Plainfield had become a rather violent and dangerous place by this time.
At one point Clinton came into possession of several hundred thousand dollars of counterfeit twenty-dollar bills. He, along with other folks at the shop, would dip the bills in coffee to hide the obvious whiteness of the paper that had been used in their printing, hang them on the wall of the barbershop to dry, and then dispense of them around the neighborhood. At one point a cop came into the shop looking for some suspects in another matter. He meticulously avoided looking at the wall full of coffeestained twenties. In an interview on NPR, Clinton reported the conversation with the cop as follows:
"You know, I like the fact that y'all take care of these kids and give them a place to hang," he said. "But if I knew anything about any funny money, I would get rid of it," he said, "'Cause they on to it."
He proceeded to get rid of it. Having purchased the barbershop when he was only nineteen years old, Clinton finally found success by his late twenties and sold the place on. It had been a proving ground for Clinton, support for his early musical endeavors, and a springboard for a large number of the members of his subsequent funk groups. Without it, we may never have had the pleasure of listening to "Cosmic Slop" and other fantastic funkadelic rhythms.