They Still Know Who They Are: An Interview with Larry Blackmon and Tomi Jenkins
By Christian John Wikane
Numbers - the kind that have six zeroes on the end - have never been the motivation for Cameo. In 2009, however, numbers are very significant: this year marks the eve of the group's 35th anniversary. It was that many years ago that the New York-based band, led by drummer Larry Blackmon, debuted with a single called "Find My Way" on Chocolate City Records, a label managed by Cecil Holmes through Casablanca Records. Nine is another important number. That's how many lives Cameo has lived in the years since. Line-ups change, styles evolve, and record labels merge, but Cameo has maintained its core funkiness for four decades.
Pick up any Cameo compilation and it will serve up a solid history of late-20th century funk and R&B. From "Post Mortem" and "I Just Want to Be" to "She's Strange" and "Skin I'm In," Cameo's appeal stems from the nexus where innovation meets commercial appeal. Dig the quica on "Shake Your Pants" - not exactly the most obvious ingredient for a Top 10 R&B hit but Cameo never spent much time in the orbit of anything obvious.
Larry Blackmon and Tomi Jenkins, who've kept Cameo going since Cardiac Arrest arrived on record store shelves in 1977, recently discussed the past, present, and future of Cameo and what longtime fans can look forward to in the coming year. New songs, re-recordings of classics, a DVD, and an illustrated book are all in the works as Cameo celebrates its impressive legacy. 35 years on, Cameo still keeps it hot!
From what kind of music environment was Cameo born?
Tomi Jenkins: It was an amalgam of all kinds of things that were swirling around at the time, musically. Before we were Cameo we were the New York City Players. We worked a lot. We did a lot of cover songs and stuff like Earth, Wind & Fire and Ohio Players. Larry is from New York so he had a lot of different influences. He played drums behind singing groups, which is why our vocals are so meticulous in certain areas. Parliament was very influential, but we didn't really know it at the time. I used to always listen to them. I liked Funkadelic more than I did Parliament, actually, because it was a little more rock-ish and crazy.
Back then, there were groups that you never heard of anywhere outside of New York. They just had one or two records out on a 45. That was it. Dreams was a group that had a song called "New York City" and it was really horn-driven like Weather Report. That was a big influence.
Cameo recorded "Find My Way" in 1975, which was the single that introduced Cecil Holmes' Chocolate City label through Casablanca. Tell me about the origin of that song.
Larry Blackmon: We used to play a place called Better Days, which was a gay nightclub. Our manager, unbeknownst to me at the time, was gay as well. Obviously, that being one of the places he frequented, he got us a Monday night gig there. There was a gentleman there named Johnny Melfi that we met through our manager. He worked with Broadway shows to some capacity. He had a song called "Find My Way." He was enthralled with the group and asked if we would record that song, which was a disco song. I produced the song for the group and we did it.
I don't know how the contact developed, maybe through Johnny Melfi, but somehow it was taken to an attorney named Sandy Ross and Sandy pitched it to Neil Bogart at Casablanca. It was a single and Neil Bogart (President of Casablanca) was crazy about the song. It charted at 99 with an anchor. From what I heard, Neil thought that we were white, but I don't know if that made a difference as to the deal. Nevertheless, he liked the song.
You were still known as The New York City Players when you actually recorded "Find My Way." When did the group become Cameo?
Blackmon: We were playing in Toronto at the time. Cecil Holmes (Senior Vice President of Casablanca) called me and said, "Larry, your name won't work." He said that PolyGram, which had just acquired Casablanca (I think they had 51% of the company), had the Ohio Players. They thought, of course, that wouldn't work so he asked me to give him another name and I was playing with the name Cameo. Cecil called back and said that the name cleared and that was okay.
It's interesting to hear "Find My Way" now because it didn't really reflect the sound with which you were later identified.
Jenkins: I don't think we ever did another disco song that way. Our dance songs were a lot more funky. That was just a straight disco song. When we had our first hit in New York, which was "Rigor Mortis," that, I think, defined us and really took us away from everything else that was there at the time. We were the antithesis to disco and, ironically, that's how we were signed to Casablanca -- through a disco record.
What do you remember about when "Rigor Mortis" hit?
Blackmon: At the time I was working at a clothing store on Wall Street. WBLS had these slots where they had the world premiere of a song and maybe two other slots that were featured. These features told you that you'd be hearing that song eight times a day, at least. I couldn't remember a song ever being released on any of those features that did not wind up being a hit. Our song came on, much to my surprise! I had no idea that it had been placed. While I was fitting a customer, I asked one of my associates to take care of him and I went to my locker and the rest was history. I left right on the spot. I was taking classes, as well, at Julliard at night on an extension program because my parents couldn't afford it and I applied for the subsidized scholarship and I qualified. I was going there at night while working at that clothing store in the morning and I hated it. I mainly did it to, hopefully, become a pit musician on Broadway. I did it more for the resume. Very few people ever finish Julliard or Berklee.
Describe the dynamic between the band members.
Jenkins: Basically, we had the New York crew and we had the southern crew, which we acquired later on. The New York crew was kind of like was the nucleus of the act -- me, Larry, Greg, and the guys from Long Island, Nathan and Arnett. Essentially, that was the dynamic and as far as writing songs...everybody had input. Larry and I wrote a lot of the songs, and Nathan. Later on, a couple of the guys broke off because they didn't feel that they're getting their songs heard or respected. When you have a big group, everybody can't do everything. We were always open to whoever came up with the bomb song -- that was that. If you wrote the song that was the one that we thought was going to be a hit, that's who got it played.
Tell me about Wayne Cooper.
Blackmon: We had been together for awhile. Wayne Cooper came to audition for the act and he blew me away with his vocal ability. Wayne was gung-ho.
Jenkins: Oh my goodness. Wayne Cooper -- the greatest singer and the most pure individual. Wayne was real. There's so many funny things I could tell you about Wayne. He was always getting into something. He didn't back down from anything. He knew how good he was. He had a little attitude. He was funny. Wayne had been with us when Charlie Singleton came along and we were in New York in the studio, recording. Charlie came in for the first time. Wayne just said, "I'm going to tell you one thing. I do all the high parts" (laughs).
The territory has been marked off!
Jenkins: He was an amazing singer and performer. When he passed, it was really devastating, especially during the early time when nobody spoke about AIDS. Nobody wanted to hear about that. We honor him. What we're going to do when we do this big tour for the anniversary, we're going to have a big screen in the back and when we do "Why Have I Lost You," we're going to show Wayne on the big screen in the back. We're going to definitely honor him. People never forgot Wayne Cooper.
Blackmon: Wayne wanted to do his own solo album and we were in production on that not long before he passed. I know that if Wayne were alive today, he'd be one of the premier vocalists out there. He was just phenomenal.
Were you ever concerned about being pigeonholed?
Blackmon: Never. We were a record company's dream. We took care of our own creative business and we did what we did. They didn't really interfere with the recording process or influencing the sound of the band. It wasn't until we moved to Mercury that others tried to get involved in that process but we wouldn't allow it because, ultimately, it was our career. Record companies come and go.
When Chocolate City closed after PolyGram's acquisition of Casablanca you formed Atlanta Artists, which was distributed through Mercury. What was the motivation to re-locate in Atlanta?
Blackmon: Half of the group was from the south and we would always have them fly up, put them in hotels, and rehearse and do whatever we were doing. We would always have to drive at least ten hours before most of the dates. We just decided to move to Atlanta. It would lower our costs because we could drive to where we needed to go, bus-wise, being that five other members from the south, we no longer had to fly them to New York. It made sense.
Why did the band get trimmed down to three?
Blackmon: I did that for marketing, moreso, because you had less people to look at. If you notice, that was a trend that followed. Then you had Guy, Gap Band, and this one and that one. We were the first to do a lot of things.
What do you enjoy about leading Cameo now?
Blackmon: What I enjoy about now is that things are not such a blur. I enjoy the anonymity now. I enjoy being able to do things. If you're on a beach, the natural way of life is you have high tide and low tide. When things were a blur, the tide was high. When the tide is low, then you can see some of the imperfections of things you'd like to adjust.
Over the past ten years, I decided that we would go back to the way it was in the beginning, in having a life and doing this. It feels good. It keeps the fire burning by doing what you enjoy doing but not trying to keep up with the rat race, per se. Ultimately, the universe will decide what's for us or not for us. As to there even being an us, I work with a lot of people who love what they do and we all enjoy it and it's not hard to keep this act together. Actually, it's been one of the easiest things ever. One would think it would take a great deal more but the universe has been very benevolent towards us and we enjoy this. As far as we're concerned, as far as I'm concerned, it's not to be measured by others on the outside. This is our life. This is what we live and what we do. This is who we are.
I have meticulously set up a business plan that makes sense. When we were earning a dollar a CD, or starting out with 90-something cents and going towards a dollar and something, that was ridiculous. Now we are more of a record company than we are artists signed to a major label. There's no need for that now. We have a distribution arrangement whereby we earn what is more of a fair split. What's for us will be for us in that regard but we enjoy doing what we do. I love everyone I've worked with.
What is your ideal situation now for the group, in terms of getting new material out there?
Jenkins: The ideal situation would be to release the record ourselves, which we're going to do, with major distribution. That's all we need. The marketing and the publicity, that's also very important. That also will be taken care of by us. That's the ideal situation.
I credit rap music and I credit the entrepreneurs that sprung up through hip-hop music and rap to really put the labels on notice, to really say these guys can do it out of the back of their trunks and sell 300,000 records without a label. That's a beautiful thing, not to mention, the new ways of distribution that have sprung up over the last few years, which I've taken advantage of with my solo record (The Way, 2006). I released it through CD Baby and iTunes. It's really nice for guys like me who did it all myself. It did well, got some recognition, sold a few copies.
What would you say is your proudest moment with Cameo?
Jenkins: One of my proudest moments was being nominated for a Grammy. Winning an American Music Award was great. In general, just from being a 16-year old kid telling your sisters...every year you tell them, I'm going to be famous when I'm 17, I'm going to be famous when I'm 18. When you're 18 years old, you decide to go on the road with a group of guys that you met and you do all this and then the next thing you know, you're signing a record contract. The next thing you know after that, you're hearing your song on WBLS. Then you're part of this whole thing that is totally amazing.
I sit here and tell you now, it still blows my mind knowing the odds and the possibilities of that type of thing happening. I'm very proud of the fact that, first of all, God gave me the ability to do music and to write lyrics and to create something from nothing. My proudest moment is just the fact that I'm able to still sit here and be creative and talk about doing something with music and being with guys like my brothers who I've known for 37 years. We went through wars and everything and remained together. There's a lot to be proud of, to have people love what you do and to anticipate you coming to their town to perform. Those types of things, if you're smart, you'll never take for granted.
Blackmon: There have been so many of those, I can't even say. I guess when we first went gold. We went platinum after that but with that happening the first time...just to have accomplished what we've accomplished. It was about the work for me. It was always about the work. Always. I never asked to come up front to wear this red cup thing. That was never my intention. Never. I hated it and still have problems with it because I'd rather the music sound exactly as I'd like for it to sound because, since I've been up front, it hasn't been what I consider to be acceptable to me but that's one of the things you have to deal with.
Well, how did that happen in the first place?
Blackmon: When we changed personnel, the fellas felt that since I was singing a lot of the leads to some of the singles that I should come up front. I would choreograph and set up the show anyway, even though I was on drums. They felt that we had to have a show of some type and it would be harder if I was playing drums for us to have that impactful front, something to look at. I did that reluctantly. Imagine what it's like for 20-something years to have to wear that red codpiece.
Michael Jackson tried to wear it on the Bad (1987) album. He set his whole band up to look like Cameo. He thought it was so cool. He came to one of our shows in disguise with his sister. Janet came backstage with one of the Gordy girls that married Jermaine. They were crazy about the act. We were at the Universal Amphitheater. Michael didn't come backstage but that's when I met with Frank DiLeo (Jackson's former manger). Michael was in the next room. He didn't want to come out. He made his band look like Cameo. If you look from Thriller to Bad, you can see that transition. I notice things like that. I notice that Bart Simpson's hair was made to look like mine and I notice things like Randy Jackson coming on The Tyra Show saying that he had the hi-top fade before Larry Blackmon. That is so bull****. I started that hairstyle. When you see those things, and you see them go all over the world...I have nothing to prove to anyone.
If it never happens again, I've done as much as I can do. I've always felt that people staying together and people working together for obtaining the musical goals they wanted to achieve meant more to me. I've always felt that that example was a healthier one. It's not like we're trying to save the world. I get much more out of it working together and knowing that the lives of everyone else of the people I'm working with are being enriched as much as mine. That's a good feeling.
It's an incredible history you have.
Jenkins: If I stop to think about it, it really is amazing. It's so funny because Larry and I wrote "Word Up!" and "Candy" and maybe two years ago I found the yellow pad that I wrote the lyrics on for "Candy" and "Word Up." I came up with the original ideas for "Candy" and "Word Up" and "Single Life" and all those songs. I took them to Larry and we fleshed the whole thing out and wrote more stuff. I'm looking at these crossed-out words. Then in the â€˜90s, you finally start getting paid. In the late-â€˜90s you finally start seeing big royalties because rappers started sampling. I love it. It's fantastic. First of all, it's great that they do it because they wouldn't do it if they didn't think the song was good. I get a nice little residual for writing the song. It's a good thing. When Heavy D. sampled "Rigor Mortis" (on "Big Tyme") that was a shocker. That was kind of cool.
Now I understand there's a Cameo anniversary project in the works. What does that entail?
Jenkins: We're going to redo some classic songs and we're going to do a CD of all new material and some remix stuff. It's going to be really comprehensive. We have a lot of people that we want to bring in and be a part of this. We're trying to bring all the guys back, whoever wants to be involved is welcome to be involved. Whoever we can find to be down with this thing, whether it be putting something down in the studio or picture taking, whatever. We want to give props to everyone whoever came through Cameo. Everybody had an impact no matter what you did. We used to say that all the time in the studio. If you're sitting in the studio, it doesn't matter if you put one lyric down, you're influential in the recording. That's how we approached everything.
We have pictures galore. We're just compiling all the stuff, obscure songs that we never released. It's going to be for the fans, for the real Cameo fans that still, to this day, amaze me. When you're inside of it, you don't really know sometimes how influential the music was. The music was ahead of its time in a lot of ways.
Blackmon: We want to have an interactive CD, a double CD set of songs - both new and songs that people love that we did - and the other side to be an interactive situation with every member that's ever been in the act have some background on it. Having someone like my cousin, Larry Fishburne, or Tommy Davidson, doing the narration and for other stars that people would find interesting to say that Cameo played a history in their lives to some degree. I hear it so many times - "My children were conceived on your record." There are a lot of people out there that if they were aware that Cameo is still together they would certainly participate. We've been raising the investment funds and the other things we've had to do to put that together.
Larry, you mentioned that when the tide was low, things were clearer. Can you pinpoint when that first occurred?
Blackmon: There were several moments of a glimpse of clarity. I'd say that first one was 1983/'84, then again in the â€˜90s, and then again in 2000. I'm looking to do what we do. I don't believe in running out and getting producers that are doing whatever everybody else is doing and chasing the tail. We just want to bring a feeling of certain music. We're anxious. I have a feeling it will be okay. Musically, it certainly will.
We have to do it how we do it and the way that we're comfortable doing it. We don't feel as if we've ever been a part of this industry en masse and the style du jour. That's never mattered to us. If you look at the career of Cameo music, one would be able to tell that. One would not expect there are consequences as a result of being different. I've seen it happen in a lot of ways. We were never built to tour forever or do songs that we did 25 or 30 years ago. If my guys want to work, I have to do whatever is in the band's interest, to satisfy everyone. It sort of takes you back to the days when we were a cover band. You stay close to the music that way instead of becoming a product of what you became. That, we don't want to do. I'd rather cut my throat than do that.
With me, when it comes to production, it's about how the sounds motivate you, not the quick-hurry-up-and-turn-on-the-vocoder effect. I don't even listen to what they do with that stuff. You have to have musical integrity. The industry, business-wise with record companies and multi-national conglomerates, their bottom line is different for a lot of reasons.
Jenkins: We're still creating good music and even now, it's even harder because the budgets for record labels aren't what they used to be. They don't give you the support that you need, the marketing. They say, "We're going to throw you out there and if the record don't sell, see ya!" Veteran acts, like us, who know what we're doing...that's the one thing that I think if a record label came along that just allowed artists like us to be whatever we wanted and to do it because we're proven sellers of music, that label would be successful because people miss that. It's obvious that they miss it.
I think the true measure of a band's musicianship is what can you do when you're up on that stage? Can you sustain the groove? Hold our attention? Inspire us? Move us? Can you make what's on the record even better? Can you do something different? Those are the things I think are lacking in the music you're hearing on Top 40. To me, it just doesn't resonate. There are so many effects that are detracting from the actual music - "Let's disguise the voice with Autotune. Let's make these superficial improvements."
Jenkins: They're not improvements. I was talking to my ex-wife today and she was listening to Charlie Wilson's record and he's got a song with T-Pain on it and I said, "Are they doing the Autotune thing?" She said, "Yep it's all through the record." I could not believe that this man who has one of the most wonderful, distinctive voices in music is resorting to that. It makes my head explode.
I feel like the bands you grew with out of the mid/late-â€˜70s really knew what they were doing. They could create music that was new and innovative, even though there were influences of bands before, you really did lock into your own identity.
Jenkins: When we created "Word Up!," these cats didn't want to release that record. They said it wasn't good, it's not going to sell, it's too different and this English guy in London said, "This record is a smash. If you guys don't release this song, you're crazy." They did. Of course, the rest is history.
Then, as we got up to the mid-â€˜80s, things started changing because people at the record labels started to change. People started replacing music people with all other kinds of people! It starts getting crazy and you start butting heads and then things happen and then the next thing you know you don't know who the hell is running the label. That's just the business.
Here we are 2009 getting ready to try fight through this era and that's a whole new challenge. I know I'm probably going to have an uphill battle, maybe even with some of my own compadres, but I think if we did the type of music that we know and that people love us for, I think that it could make a difference. If Cameo came up with some new funk, how would that be? I think it's mistake for anybody to do anything that's outside of their nature in the first place. The audience will smell you out in two seconds. I'm not about doing that and I think that if we came out with just a funk record like we did in the â€˜70s, people would go crazy!
I think they're ready for something that's a bit more authentic that's still danceable. I think the only challenge now is you have to set your expectations within certain parameters. The number two album on Billboard sold, what, 44,000 last week? It's a different field in terms of actually selling CDs. In terms of getting your music out there and getting people interested, I think the ground is really fertile. Universal keeps re-releasing your music but what's missing is new Cameo music. If the people are given a taste and they like it, then they'll buy it. It's just a matter of making it available to them.
Jenkins: I'm optimistic. That's our challenge, to not fall victim to trying to sell records. We were never about numbers. We were just about expressing ourselves and just letting things go. That's why a lot of our records were very broad. There was something unique and something different on every song.
Blackmon: Tomi and I are in the process of laying a strategy out. We have a couple of loose ends to tie up. It's a funny kind of thing. We try to do what we do and it happens in its own time. Certain things you can't force. It's more important for us to bring what we feel is a representation of this act today to the market. After selling over 17 millions CDs and records, we don't feel we have anything to prove to anyone.
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With a style that changed throughout its decade and a half on top of the R&B charts, Cameo became one of the most popular soul/funk bands of its era.
Formed in 1974, Cameo started out as a 13-member group created by former Juilliard student and New York-area clubgoer Larry Blackmon, called the New York City Players. Signed by Casablanca Records to their Chocolate City imprint in 1976, the group soon changed its name to Cameo. Cameo started with a deep, funky sound, but it was obvious from the start that their sights were set on the dance floors. Their first albums Cardiac Arrest, Ugly Ego, We All Know Who We Are and Secret Omen contained dance floor songs such as "Rigor Mortis", "I Just Want To Be" and "Find My Way," the latter which was a major disco smash and was included on the soundtrack to Thank God It's Friday.
By the time Cameosis came out in 1980 Cameo had gained considerable momentum through singles such as "Shake Your Pants". Albums such as 1981's Knights of the Sound Table and 1982's Alligator Woman saw the band playing up their eclectic style.
However, by the time the mid-1980s approached, Larry Blackmon and crew were ready to move on. Cameo stripped down to a quartet that included Blackmon, Tomi Jenkins, Nathan Leftenant, and Charles Singleton (who left later in the decade). Inspired by the edgy synthesizer arrangements being pushed forward by the new wave groups of the time, Blackmon moved the band into a hard-core "electronic funk" direction, utilizing the new technology becoming available in the recording studios and focusing on heavily sequenced drum machines, bass and occassional horn arrangements. He put his trademark "Ooow!" into the forefront of Cameo's mixes and markedly changed their sound.
1983's Style was the first disc to capitalize on Cameo's new sound. She's Strange came out in 1984 and its "12-inch mix" was a major smash in the R&B clubs. The title track and its follow-up "Talkin' Out the Side of Your Neck" were minor successes on the pop charts. 1985's Single Life was also an R&B hit that saw some crossover success.
"Word Up!" hit radio airwaves in mid-1986 and instantly became one of the biggest pop songs of the year. Critically acclaimed with large amounts of club and radio airtime, the resulting album Word Up! turned Cameo into superstars. The follow-up tracks "Candy" and "Back and Forth" were also huge hits for the funk trio. By the end of 1986 "Word Up!" seemed to be everywhere: radio, clubs, MTV, Coca-Cola commercials, and even in people's conversations as it became a national catch phrase.
Cameo had become one of the most well-known bands in the world, but the touring and fame that came from Word Up! took its toll. The group became overexposed, and needed to take some time before releasing its follow-up. Two years later Cameo released Machismo to lukewarm pop response but favorable critical reviews and R&B success. 1991's Emotional Violence also did well critically, but didn't contain the radio singles that Word Up had. 1994's In the Face of Funk album contained an excellent cover of Slave's "Slide" that got some club play, but for the most part, Cameo's reign was over.
Despite dropping from the heights of the Word Up days, Cameo has stuck together. The trio has continued to tour the globe to this day.