Rhythm and blues group
The R&B vocal group Cameo broke through to pop chart success with several singles in the 1980s, most notably the top-ten hit "Word Up!" in 1986. Their list of top-level R&B hits is somewhat longer. But listeners who know Cameo only through a group of hit singles are missing the qualities that have made them among the most durable African-American vocal groups of the modern era. Cameo has remained among the last active survivors of the funk movement of the 1970s because they have not only kept up with the times musically but also, for many years, have tended to anticipate major trends. They were among the first African-American acts to make Atlanta, Georgia, their headquarters, and songwriter and frequent lead vocalist Larry Blackmon has shown a knack for putting various strands of contemporary black music together in original and entertaining ways.
At the core of Cameo lie three musicians: Blackmon, Tomi Jenkins, and Nathan Leftnant. In performance the group has varied in size from those three to as many as 13 members, with rotating groups of musicians added as necessary to fulfill the requirements of particular tours or of the styles current at a particular point in time. The founder and longtime creative sparkplug of the group is Blackmon, who came from New York City's Harlem neighborhood and grew up near the famed Apollo Theater. Starting at age four, he was taken to the Apollo by an aunt and uncle, and he kept going on his own. He saw, as he told Geoffrey Himes of the Washington Post, "everyone from Otis Redding to King Curtis, Bill Cosby to Sam Cooke, Pigmeat Markham, Jackie Wilson, Flip Wilson, Marvin Gaye, even the Jackson 5 when they were babies. It gave me a real sense of history and the importance of keeping that tradition going."
Another influence on Blackmon, one that showed up in the complex arrangements of many Cameo songs, was classical music; he studied at New York's Julliard School. Working as a tailor by day and frequenting New York clubs at night, Blackmon was inspired by the Ohio Players and other horn-heavy funk bands of the early 1970s to create a group of his own in 1974. At first the group was called the New York City Players, but soon they changed their name to Cameo; the new name referred to the cameo-style (raised-relief portrait) jewelry that was popular in urban communities at the time, often bearing images of African figures. With a full horn section in action, the group numbered 13 players at its largest, and after a few years of playing New York dance clubs, they were signed in 1976 to the Chocolate City label, a subsidiary of the larger urban independent label Casablanca.
Love That Funk
At this point, just before the rise of the lush, mechanical disco style, funk music with a big beat and a slightly skewed attitude was at a creative high-water mark, thanks to the efforts of the related Parliament and Funkadelic groups, for whom Cameo sometimes opened while on tour. The stage antics of classic funk acts like Bootsy Collins would shape Blackmon's own emerging stage personality; his trademark over the next three decades of touring would be a bright red codpiece that he tried several times to retire but was consistently forced by popular demand to continue wearing. Cameo released their debut LP, Cardiac Arrest, in 1977. Three singles from the album landed on Billboard magazine's R&B chart, and when Blackmon heard the first one, "Rigor Mortis," on the radio at the tailor shop where he was still working, he put down the chalk with which he had just marked the cuffs of a customer's jacket for alteration, and walked out, never to return.
With disco in full flower in the late 1970s, Cameo still managed to swim against the tide, mixing ballads with uptempo numbers. They scored several more R&B top-ten hits, including "Sparkle" (1979), from the album Secret Omen. Two decades later Alex Henderson of the All Music Guide praised the album's "sweaty, gutsy, horn-powered funk" and opined that the album was "among Cameo's most essential releases." Cameo albums such as Knights of the Sound Table (1981) remained moderate hitmakers ("Freaky Dancing" and "Flirt" were urban dance-club staples of the early 1980s), but Blackmon was ready for a change. He found it by relocating Cameo from New York to Atlanta in 1982. Blackmon was ahead of the curve not only musically but also socially—a large migration of African Americans southward accelerated over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. "[W]e made the bold move, and subsequently made [Atlanta] a capital of black music," he explained to the Washington Post. "[I] find the North and South have switched roles. If I walk into an elevator in a northern city with people of a different color, they jump back three feet; I don't find that so much down here. If you spend a lot of days on the road like we do, you want to be able to relax when you get home."
Masters of Fun
Cameo set up its own label, Atlanta Artists, and landed a distribution deal with the large Polygram conglomerate. With Cameo's sound revamped to take advantage of 1980s synthesizer technology but not losing sight of its funkier roots, Blackmon entered a creative songwriting period. It did not take long for the Atlanta move to begin to pay off. "She's Strange," the title track of a 1984 album, was one of the first singles from outside the rap sphere to feature rapped passages; the song topped R&B charts and cracked the pop top 50. The title track of 1985's Single Life album drew on the style of Minneapolis-based funk-rock fusion star Prince, and Blackmon took to describing Cameo's style as "Black Rock." Single Life reached the number two spot on the Billboard R&B chart, and Cameo's popularity built steadily.
Cameo finally hit the big time in 1986 with "Word Up!," again the title track of the album on which it appeared. Blackmon, using an exaggerated version of his usual nasal singing voice, collected a sequence of stock dance-floor song phrases ("with your hands in the air like you just don't care") and deployed them over a ferocious funk beat in such a way that they landed on the then-new slang phrase of the song's title (it meant "that's right"). The song topped R&B charts, reached high levels on pop charts, and remained a staple of party and wedding DJ dance mixes two decades later. For a year or so, Blackmon was a major star, and newspapers reported on attention-getting antics like an episode in which he allegedly had the roof of his limousine raised to accommodate his growing Afro. The Word Up! album spawned another major hit, "Candy."
Cameo never quite matched that album's level of success again, although the albums Machismo (1988), Real Men Wear Black (1990), and Emotional Violence (1992) continued to spawn moderate urban hits. Blackmon thought about making the usual career move behind the scenes in the music industry, and he did production work for jazz trumpeter Miles Davis on some of the recordings the jazzman released near the end of his life. From 1992 to 1994, Blackmon worked as a vice president for artists and repertoire at the Warner Brothers label.
For the Record …
Formed in 1974 as New York City Players in New York, NY; changed name to Cameo; signed to Chocolate City label, 1976; released debut LP, Cardiac Arrest, 1977; moved to Atlanta, GA, 1982; formed and recorded for Atlanta Artists label; leader Larry Blackmon became artists-and-repertoire executive at Warner Brothers label, 1992–94; group signed to Reprise subsidiary, 1992; recorded for Intersound and other labels, continued to tour, 1990s–2000s.
Addresses: Booking—Universal Attractions, 145 West 57th St., 15th Fl., New York, NY 10019. Record company—Polygram Records, c/o Universal Music Group, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.
His heart remained in performing, however. Davis pointed to the group's strengths as a live act when he wrote in his autobiography (as quoted in the Post) that "I'm still learning every day. I learn things from Prince and Cameo. For example, I like the way Cameo does their live shows. The live performances start slow, but you have to watch the middle of their concerts because that's where their [stuff] starts picking up unbelievable speed and just flies on out from there."
With nearly 20 years of high-quality music-making behind them, Cameo had amassed several generations of fans, and they garnered new ones when hip-hop artists began sampling their recordings extensively. Cameo returned to the road in the mid-1990s, releasing new albums every few years, and as of mid-2000 they were still a major concert draw; a spate of compilations of their ever-infectious singles appeared in the early 2000s. Tributes ranged beyond hip-hop as the heavy-rock group Korn recorded a cover version of "Word Up." "Korn? Who would have thought?" Black-mon mused to Jordan Zivitz of the Montreal Gazette. "But to go and do our song says that they're either very inspired, or—well, were looking for things to do. Either way, the greatest form of flattery is imitation, and we get that all the time."
Cardiac Arrest, Chocolate City, 1977.
We All Know Who We Are, Chocolate City, 1978.
Secret Omen, Chocolate City, 1979.
Ugly Ego, Chocolate City, 1979.
Cameosis, Chocolate City, 1980.
Feel Me, Chocolate City, 1980.
Knights of the Sound Table, Chocolate City, 1981.
Alligator Woman, Atlanta Artists, 1982.
Style, Atlanta Artists, 1983.
She's Strange, Atlanta Artists, 1984.
Single Life, Atlanta Artists, 1985.
Word Up!, Atlanta Artists, 1986.
Machismo, Atlanta Artists, 1988.
Real Men Wear Black, Atlanta Artists, 1990.
Emotional Violence, Reprise, 1992.
Money, Warner Bros., 1992.
In the Face of Funk, Way 2 Funky, 1994.
Nasty, Intersound, 1996.
Ballads Collection, Polygram, 1998.
Sexy Sweet Thing, Universal, 2000.
20th Century Masters—The Millennium Collection: The Best of Cameo, Mercury, 2001.
Anthology, Mercury, 2002.
Best of Cameo, Collectables, 2004.
Gold, Mercury, 2005.
The Definitive Collection, Mercury, 2006.
George-Warren, Holly, and Patricia Romanowski, eds., The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, 3rd ed., Fireside, 2001.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, editor emeritus, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Schirmer, 2001.
Billboard, March 7, 1992, p. 12.
Detroit News, August 21, 2002.
Gazette (Montreal, Canada), September 16, 2004, p. D1.
Herald (Sydney, Australia), July 9, 1987.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 17, 2000, p. 20E.
New York Times, May 17, 1987, p. 65.
People, May 28, 1984, p. 31; October 31, 1988, p. 26; July 16, 1990, p. 15.
Washington Post, March 10, 1995, p. N13; November 29, 1996, p. N15.
"Cameo," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 8, 2006).
"Freaky Forever," Montreal Mirror, http://www.montrealmirror.com/2004/091604/music1.html (November 8, 2006).
"Word Up: Cameo Is Still Kicking," Ottawa Sun, http://jam.canoe.ca/Music/Artists/C/Cameo/2005/01/12/896053.html (November 8, 2006).
Cameo, one of the most adventurous funk bands of the 1980s, formed in 1974, in N.Y. membership:Larry Blackmon, drm. (b. N.Y.C., May 24, 1956); Greg Johnson, kybd.; Nathan Leftenant, horns, voc; Tomi Jenkins, voc.
Taking a cue from the Ohio Players, Larry Blackmon originally called his band the New York City Players. While maintaining his day job as a tailor, he attended classes at the Julliard School of Music. The group’s membership ranged from six to twelve players, earning a good reputation that eventually got them signed to Casablanca Records’ Chocolate City subsidiary (home of Parliament). They changed their name to the less–derivative Cameo after the African silhouette jewelry popular at the time. Their debut, Cardiac Arrest, produced the modest R&B hit “Rigor Mortis” The day Blackmon heard it on the radio while waiting on a customer at work, he put down his chalk, walked out, and never came back.
Between 1979–82, the band had a series of Top Ten R&B singles, and the albums Secret Omen, Cameosis, (#25 pop), Feel Me, Knights of the Sound Table, and Alligator Woman (#23 pop) all went gold, despite a lack of crossover success. Dissatisfied with this situation, as well as with conditions in the North—and recognizing Atlanta as a major hub for their touring schedule—Blackmon stripped the band down to himself, Leftenant, and Jenkins and moved there in 1980. There, he started his own Atlanta Artists label.
With the retooled business and band came a retooled sound. No longer horn– oriented, the band instead played a slinky synthesizer funk that Blackmon pre–sciently referred to as black rock. The title track to the gold Single Life was a #1 hit in England. The title track to the gold follow–up, She’s Strange, topped the R&B charts and hit #47 pop.
The next album, 1986’s Word Up, finally crossed the band over to the pop charts. The title track topped the R&B charts and was a #6 pop hit. “Candy” also topped the R&B charts, hitting #21 pop. “Back and Forth” got as high as #50 pop, #3 R&B. The album peaked at #8. Suddenly, Blackmon was doing Coke commercials. He also became an in–demand producer, working on Bobby Brown’s debut and even working with Miles Davis.
Yet the band’s popularity was short–lived. Cameo’s 1988 release Machismo was the band’s last gold record. In the early 1990s, Blackmon spent several years working in the Warner Bros. A&R department. The 1996 album Nasty was released without major label distribution. By 1998, Blackmon was hosting a radio show on Saturday nights out of Miami.
Cardiac Arrest (1977); We All Know Who We Are (1977); Secret Omen (1979); Cameosis (1980); Knights of the Sound Table (1981); Feel Me (1981); Alligator Woman (1982); She’s Strange (1984); Word Up (1986); Machismo (1988); Real Men...Wear Black (1990); Emotional Violence (1992); The Best of Cameo (1993); In the Face of Funk (1994); The Best of Cameo: Vol. 2 (1996); Nasty (1996); The Ballads Collection (1998); Greatest Hits (1998); The 12” Collection and More (1999).
A cameo is a kind of jewelry produced by artisans, or craftsmen, who engrave a bas-relief, or raised, image on a range of single-colored or multicolored materials. In the eighteenth century cameos were made of onyx, sardonyx, ivory, agate, coral, seashell, lava, and glass. If the substance was multicolored, one color was uncovered and became a background for the image engraved on the second color. During the eighteenth century, cameos came in all sizes and shapes; occasionally they were made of separate materials that were glued together. Cameos often were worn on a velvet ribbon or incorporated into an ornate design as a pendant or a pin.
The images on cameos were far-ranging. There were idealized portraits of women's heads and shoulders, posed in profile. The women pictured had classical features, and their hair was shown in great detail. Occasionally, carvers were commissioned to create cameos of specific women. Popular images on cameos also were flowers, groups of people, mythological gods and goddesses, and mythological scenes.
Shell was an especially popular material for cameos because it was inexpensive, readily obtainable, and easily carved. Shell cameos were worn informally during the day, while those made from rarer and more expensive gems were donned with formal evening wear.
Starting in the eighteenth century, with the dawn of the industrial age, cameos were mass-produced. Historical figures from Russian empress Catherine the Great (1729–1796), to Britain's Queen Victoria (1819–1901), were known to collect cameos.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Miller, Anna M. Cameos Old and New. 3rd ed. Woodstock, VT: GemStone Press, 2002.
[See also Volume 1, Ancient Greece: Cameo and Intaglio ]
cam·e·o / ˈkamēˌō/ • n. (pl. -os) 1. a piece of jewelry, typically oval in shape, consisting of a portrait in profile carved in relief on a background of a different color. 2. a short descriptive literary sketch that neatly encapsulates someone or something: cameos of street life. ∎ a small character part in a play or movie, played by a distinguished actor or a celebrity: [as adj.] he played numerous cameo roles.