Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Cameo Score Starring Role With 'Word Up'

Having been all the rage among the Elizabethan gentry, who would have thought the codpiece fashion accessory would have been brought back by a group of American soul-funk musicians in the 1980s. Well, in truth I don’t remember the ‘average Joe’ rushing down to the mall to pick up a leather pouch to attach to the front of his trousers, but the soul-funk group in question, Cameo, certainly introduced a unique article of clothing in the promo clip for their 1986/7 worldwide hit ‘Word Up’. But Cameo were no flash in the pan novelty act, rather a well established outfit who had already racked up more than twenty hits on the U.S. R&B charts since the mid 70s.

They originally formed as a soul-funk collective in New York City in the early 70s, under the name The New York City Players. Their line-up varied in numbers and personnel, but often featured up to a dozen in the mix. The New York City Players were essentially the brainchild of vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Larry Blackmon. By 1974 the Juilliard trained Blackmon had pruned down the group numbers (well a bit anyway) and changed their name to Cameo (it was felt their previous name might cause confusion with fellow funk band Ohio Players - Ohio…New York City…sure I can understand that). Blackmon handled bass/drum/vocal duties and among the other group members during this time featured Gregory ‘Straps’ Johnson (keyboards), Wayne Cooper (vocals), and Tomi ‘Tee’ Jenkins (vocals).

Cameo often opened for soul-funk giants Parliament/Funkadelic (see earlier George Clinton post), and were also signed to the same Chocolate City recording label (a subsidiary of the Casablanca label). Early on in particular Cameo suffered from direct comparisons to their more high profile label mates, often being branded as derivative of the Clinton camp’s style and sound, but over time Cameo would clearly transcend those comparisons, and their longevity and inventiveness would support their being regarded as a genuinely class act in their own right. They released their debut album ‘Cardiac Arrest’ (US#116) in 1977, scoring minor hits on the U.S. R&B/dance charts with tracks like ‘Post Mortem’ (#70), ‘Rigor Mortis’ (#33) and ‘Funk Funk’ (#20). This was quickly followed by two albums during 1978, ‘Ugly Ego’ (US#83) and ‘We All Know Who We Are’ (US#58), yielding more R&B/dance hits with ‘It’s Over’, ‘Insane’ and ‘It’s Serious’. Before long Cameo had established a solid fan base and had a strong reputation built around a combination of their outlandish stage shows, a mischievous sense of humour, and a sound that was at times cutting edge, and increasingly divergent of their contemporaries. At the height of the disco movement, a lot of the R&B and soul-funk traditionalists got in on the act with disco-fied dance/funk songs. Cameo scored a string of top 10 R&B/dance hits in the U.S. during 1979/80, including the top 10 efforts ‘I Just Want To Be You’ (#3), but once again illustrated their musical diversity with the outstanding ‘Sparkle’ (#10), which was one of their first R&B ballad style hits. They also continued their prolific studio output with the 1979 album ‘Secret Omen’ (US#46).

Whilst the arrival of the 80s saw the demise of many of the disco-specific artists, band’s like Cameo had plenty of musical heritage to fall back on. They released the cleverly titled 1980 album ‘Cameosis’ (US#25), featuring the not so cleverly titled US#8 R&B hit ‘Shake Your Pants’. By year’s end Cameo had released yet another album with ‘Feel Me’ (US#44). During 1981 Larry Blackmon had decided that he was unhappy with Cameo’s treatment overall on the East Coast by the media and recording industry, feeling the band needed to find a new environment to move beyond what seemed to be a plateau of popularity. Blackmon relocated Cameo to a new base of operations in Atlanta, establishing his own Atlanta Artists label. Cameo’s new recording ‘Camelot’ saw the release of the 1981 album ‘Knights Of The Sound Table’ (US#44), followed up by 82’s ‘Alligator Woman’ (US#23), and 83’s ‘Style’ (US#53) which featured a more prominent use of synthesizer tracks, edging them towards an electro-funk sound, but none managed to change the group’s level of success/popularity from moderate to massive. During the early 80s Cameo’s band roster at times resembled a packed auditorium more so than a funk group, in terms of numbers. Among the crowd during this period were Blackmon, Jenkins, Johnson, Nathan Leftenant, Stephen Moore, Aaron Mills, Anthony Lockett, Jose Rossy, Thomas Campbell, Jeryl Bright, Arthur Young and Arnett Leftenant - meaning when it came to splitting up the royalties, an entire team of accountants had to be hired.

By 1984 the economic factor came into play, forcing Blackmon to cast aside some of the band’s roster, reducing Cameo’s line-up to the trio of himself, Tomi Jenkins and Nathan Leftenant (vocals/trumpet). Blackmon also sharpened Cameo’s sound to a harder edged straight funk style, resulting in the breakthrough 1984 album ‘She’s Strange’ (US#27 Billboard 200). The brooding title track reached #1 on the U.S. R&B chart and became Cameo’s first mainstream Hot 100 hit, peaking at #47 in mid ‘84. ‘She’s So Strange’ also broke Cameo on the British singles charts (#22). The 1985 album ‘Single Life’ (UK#66/US#62) consolidated Cameo’s rise in status, producing the major U.S. R&B hits ‘Attack Me With Your Love’ (R&B#3/UK#65), and ‘Single Life’ (R&B#2/UK#15).

Cameo’s next album clearly represented the high watermark in their long career. 1986’s ‘Word Up!’ (US#12/UK#7/OZ#75) was their biggest selling LP, scoring a platinum accreditation Stateside. The title track single ‘Word Up’ was an electro-funk masterpiece and rocketed up world charts, peaking at #6 in the U.S. (#1R&B), #3 in Britain and #6 in Australia, and raising the profile of codpieces and geometric haircuts globally. The next single ‘Candy’ also hit #1 on the U.S. R&B charts (#21 Hot 100) and #27 in Britain, but in Australia Cameo were officially to remain a one hit wonder on the charts. ‘Back And Forth’ (US#50, #3R&B and UK#11) and ‘She’s Mine’ (UK#35) rounded out a stellar year for the now funk/R&B heavyweights. And like so many heavyweights of the boxing variety do, Cameo’s front man Larry Blackmon (who had never been the shy retiring type) took his level of verbal pomposity to new heights of outrage. He dismissed the likes of music legends Steve Winwood and Peter Gabriel as being false funk pretenders, accused Kool & The Gang of plagiarism, and chastised up and coming rappers as being irresponsible in their attitudes - how to win over your peers.

During 1987 Cameo collaborated with jazz legend Miles Davis on his album ‘In The Night’, but their ensuing 1988 album ‘Machismo’ (the album’s cover a not so understated reflection of the title) was a big disappointment (US#85/UK#74), realising just one minor mainstream hit with the electro-funk ‘You Make Me Work’ (US#85-R&B#4, UK#74) and the R&B top five ‘Skin I’m In’. It seemed that all the strutting and pontificating had worn thin, or at least had not continued to be matched by the quality of Cameo’s musical output.

In 1990 Cameo notched up their last major hit on the U.S. R&B charts with the #5 single ‘I Want It Now’, lifted from their last Billboard Top 200 album ‘Real Men…Wear Black’ (#84/R&B#18). During this period Larry Blackmon began producing other artists, including one of his protégé’s Bobby Brown’s debut album. Cameo’s 1991 album ‘Emotional Violence’ was their first in almost fifteen years to miss the Top 200 in the U.S. and failed to yield any chart hits, but the cover did show that Blackmon’s apartment block hairdo had added a few more floors, giving it virtual skyscraper status. But that didn’t act as an impediment to Blackmon taking on the role of vice president of A&R at Warner-Reprise Records in 1991, though it’s uncertain if it was the reason for his departure from the post in 1994. Whilst attending boardroom meetings and overseeing the careers of other artists, Blackmon’s own group Cameo was put on hiatus, with just a ‘Best Of’ released in 1993 (US#44-R&B).

Following his split from Warner-Reprise, Blackmon returned to duties with Cameo resulting in the 1994 album ‘In The Face Of Funk’, released on his own Way 2 Funky label, with the group hitting the road again, touring with the likes of Teena Marie and the Gap Band. In the decade following, Cameo’s output has been occasional at most, with the albums ‘Sexy Sweet Thang’ (2000-US#64R&B) and ‘Nasty Live And Funky’ (2007). During their most successful period, Cameo hit the U.S. R&B charts no less than 38 times between 1977 and 1995, clearly establishing Blackmon and the boys as one of the pre-eminent funk/R&B acts of the era. For all their over the top posturing and apparent pretence, Cameo had the substance to back it up. They consistently showed a willingness to innovate and push the boundaries of their music style, acting as an influence on future waves of the R&B and even hip-hop genres (and their songs have been sampled too many times to mention).


cameosis said...

thanks for this post -- best funk band ever and my favorite group, no competition. the first record i ever bought was "word up!" -- and i still own it.

if it hadn't been for them, music wise i wouldn't be where i am today; i turn everybody i know to cameo. :)

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

no problem cameosis - thanks for your comment :)