Today for Black History Month I’m gonna salute my favorite funk band from my adolescence, the mighty, mighty Cameo.
For the newbies, Cameo is best known for their smash single “Word Up“. But for dedicated fans like myself, we’ve been pledging allegiance to these fantastic funkateers for their entire recording careers.
They were both amazingly prolific and maddeningly inconsistent.
Over nearly 40 years (and counting) of recording they released some of the tightest singles and complete albums in the R&B/Funk genre, but they were also a sure bet to release a dud every third effort or so.
But their misses can be attributed to their willingness – fearless and foolish on the surface level to the consumer – to switch-up and try something new often years before their peers would.
Fronted and founded by Larry Blackmon,
the group has undergone numerous lineup changes over their arc starting off in 1974 as a 10 man outfit, swelling to as large as 14 members and dwindling to as few as 3. Initially known as The New York City Players, a funk jam band whose contemporaries (and competition) were groups like Kool & The Gang, ConFunkShun, EWF and The Bar-Kays, they signed to Chocolate City Records and changed their name to avoid confusion & conflict with The Ohio Players.
They had some marginal success with their first release Cardiac Arrest.
The singles were “Funk, Funk” & “Rigor Mortis”, but these joints seemed to be (pale) imitations of Parliament: they were searching for their identity. Obviously.
But their follow up, We All Know Who We Are foreshadowed the funkiness to come.
The joint, “It’s Serious” was an instrumental with a groove deeper than the blackest abyss and left you in desperate need for oxygen after working out on the dance floor, practically drowning in the funk.
We All Know …also revealed that they possessed a critical element for any R&B group of the time trying to join the ranks of the upper echelon: along with joints you could get down to you had to be able to make a serious slow jam.
“Why Have I Lost You” fits the description like your favorite pair of kicks. The song married a majestic arrangement, pseudo-poetic lyrics and a soaring falsetto (courtesy of the late Wayne Cooper). No basement party was complete without it.
The follow up, Ugly Ego, would offer only one song that found its way into regular radio rotation, “Insane”. With this album, their 3rd, Cameo would establish their confounding pattern of serving up a dud as they were trying to establish a formula.
But if you listen closely to “Insane” and the entire album you can hear them establishing what would prove to be their sound: upfront in your face bass and right in the pocket drums that formed the funky foundation, buoyant synth chords and keyboards, clean and slick rhythm and lead guitar lines wrapped up in tight harmonies like a cherry on top of the tasty cake of Blackmon’s thick lead vocals.
Secret Omen, their fourth album, kicked in the door.Yeah, the discofied “Find My Way” was included in the Donna Summer starring celluloid camp classic, Thank God It’s Friday soundtrack, a real good look for the crew.
But the single “I Just Want To Be” is a MOOG synth crafted funkafied wet dream with a wailing falsetto, a perfectly sweet tenor, rapped baritone vocals and signature horns to form a song most bands would cut in front of Robert Johnson to deal with the Devil. Their first certified uptempo hit. “Pleasure is my thing, I want to tell you. I’ll do what you want me to or I’ll do nothing at all. I just want to be what you want me to be, wind me up and see what you want me to be. I’ll be your freaky deek if you want me to be …”Classic.
“I Just Want To Be”
They also crafted their second slow song staple, “Sparkle”, which occupies a permanent spot in Quiet Storm playlists.
From here on it was a wrap.
For the next decade Cameo would steamroll their competition with only P-Funk as their true rivals for funk supremacy, with a streamlined, leaner style that crafted shorter Black radio staples. Secret Omen started a Gold and Platinum roll that lasted from ’79-’88, with only Style failing to achieve precious metal selling status during this 10 year run.
Cameosis (#1 album on the R&B charts; #20 on the pop charts) gave us one of the strongest cuts in their catalog, “Shake Your Pants” (cut in the same mold as “I Just Want To Be).
It also included “We’re Going Out Tonight” & an updated version of “Why Have I Lost You”
“Shake Your Pants”
Feel Me, album #6 and #6 on the R&B charts was one of their best (and is a personal favorite), even though “Keep It Hot” is the only certified hit off the lp.
“Throw It Down”, “Your Love Takes Me Out”, “Is This The Way” and “Better Days” made for a ridiculous album. The title cut became their third certified smoking slow dance staple.
“Your Love Takes Me Out”
“Throw It Down”
Knights of The Sound Table was lp #7 (#2 on the R&B Billboard charts). It was just a Crazy. Album. The sound was Southern chick thick: the horns were bananas throughout the project – stacatto and jazzy – and the trademark bass laden and drum rich heavy funk groves, tight harmonies were all in effect here: they were just showin’ off.
“Freaky Dancin'” is one of their top funk workouts ever. “Kinights By Nights”, “The Sound Table” (an Afro-Jazz instrumental), “I Like It” “I Never Knew” and “I’ll Always Stay” made up for one of their best efforts. Period. I will always think if “Freaky Dancin'” ever had a video they would’ve got their first crossover smash a lot earlier in their career.
“The Sound Table”
Their 8th album, Alligator Woman (#6 on the R&B charts) marks another outstanding effort for the collective.
The Alligator Woman on the cover is none other than Denise Matthews, aka Vanity, Prince’s protege/girlfriend at the time.
It features the funk classic “Flirt”.
The cuts “Be Yourself”, “Soul Army” and the title song which portended their upcoming venture into a more New Wave-ish, techno sound. The B-side’s closing suite of “Secrets of TIme”, the mid-tempo bass funk work out “I Owe It All To You” and the ballad “For You” show a range and musicality players would sacrifice first borns for.
The title cut features their funk/new wave mash-up smash talkin’ about a woman wit a major attitude, but her, um, assets blinded the boys, noting, “Your big behind/It makes me blind …”. Been a victim myself a time or two.
Style, their 9th album pretty much caught a brick despite reaching #14 on the Black Album Charts. No single off the album cracked regular radio rotation, despite the frontal lobe searing funk of “This Life Is Not For Me”. The lack of succes is pretty easily explained: they abandoned traditional instruments in favor of a complete techno/New Wave sound. Maybe they were ahead of their time. But the next album put them right back in familiar footing: at the top.
She’s Strange (album #10, #1 single on Black Single) saw them get their groove back, this time meshing the old and the new to establish a formula that would work till the till was dry.
Another classic Cameo album with a full clip of standout cuts – the jazzy, swinging “Love You Anyway”, the political game checkin’ “Talkin’ Out The Side of Your Neck”,”Groove With You” and yet another indisputable ballad, “Hangin'” Downtown”.
“Talkin’ Out The Side of Your Neck”
That Vanity’s back on the lp cover didn’t hurt, either.
Single Life, album #11 would be another effort that was on the lite side as far as hits and quality. Besides the title track “Attack Me With Your Love” was the only other single of note. Not quite a dud, but not what you’d expect after their solid previous release.
“Attack Me With Your Love”
Word Up (their 12th lp, #1 on the both the Hot 100 and R&B album charts) is the crowning achievement of their career. Boasting the swaggering, career defining title cut, it’s a magical melange of boom-bap, call and response and Blackmon’s trademark half-rapped, half-sung vocal stylings set off from his first utterance (who said “Aaaoowww” first, Blackmon or Sugafoot of The Ohio Players?).
It’s also the first time we’d see him sport the red codpiece that became his & the band’s trademark. LaVar Burton’s bug-eyed trench coated ceazr cop in the cinematic video helped cement the song’s legendary status.
The single had everybody and their grandmama spittin’ the slanguage of the moment – “Word Up! It’s the code word/when you hear me say it you know you will be heard!” – and gave them their first true mammoth crossover hit, but they weren’t through. The album had more in store. “Candy” with it’s upfront rock quitar, sweet harmonies and obvious odes to women of all persuasions was a big follow up hit.
“Back & Forth” sealed the deal as the third hit song off the groundbreaking album, a ditty that denoted the pendulum swings of relationships. Simple, sweet and funky it was the cherry on top of their pop-funk masterpiece.
“Back & Forth”
And then, it was over.
After Word Up, they would release one more gold-selling album, Machismo, which featured an appearance by Miles Davis (“In The Night”) and the single, “Skin I’m In”.
But for all intents and purposes their days as a hit making machine were done. They released a few more albums between majors and their own independently owned label, but they never recaptured the success and the lustre of the previous decade.
They still tour – albeit on the Old School circuit – and are favorites of the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. But to discount them and not give them their due would be not only a disservice, but an unforgivable slight. Cameo was a groundbreaking outfit across sever disciplines and genres, fusing funk, soul, r&b, rock, new wave and jazz as few had before them and have since. They’ve been sampled by rap royalty and had their songs included in a gang of movie and video game soundtracks. Between the high-top fade, dreads, fashion and that red codpiece, they were one of the inventors of swagger, opening up the definition of cool beyond what our narrow African American norms and stereotypes allowed.
They’re Black Music royalty; true Knights of The Very Funky Sound Table.
Bonus Clip #1: “Alligator Woman”, Live
Bonus Clip #2: “Le Ve Toi”
Check the dizzying horns on “Le Ve Toi!”, the album’s closer. Stupid.