September 20, 2012
By Joy Childs
LAWT Contributing Writer
If you were asked which artist popularized that well-known expression of funk surprise — “ow” — you could quickly narrow it down to two.
One would be Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner, guitarist/vocalist of the Ohio Players (think “Love Rollercoaster”).
The other: Larry Blackmon of Cameo. As first annual Balboa Music Festival attendees know, the funksters were one of that events’ few saving graces. (See this week’s Los Angeles Sentinel for a complete festival review).
From the group’s earliest days as the New York City Players to the current days when original members (founder/drummer/multi-instrumentalist Blackmon along with Tomi Jenkins, Anthony Lockett, Aaron Mills and Charlie Singleton) mix it up with newer band mates, these boys came to par-tay in the Valley. And par-tay they did, performing nearly every funk anthem in their repertoire. Word!
The last time Cameo was in L.A. was at Funk-A-Palooza at the Gibson Amphitheatre, the event coming off as a kind of pantheon of funk-meisters: Parliament Funkadelic, Zapp, Con Funk Shun, et. al. Blackmon and the guys have been doin’ it steadily for nearly 30 years, the Harlem-born and –bred Blackmon (who now lives in the Atlanta area) forming the predecessor group — the New York City Players — in the early 1970s. Their first project, Cardiac Arrest, featured the equally morbidly titled Rigor Mortis. No doubt the titles didn’t matter, because that first album spelled gold.
The pre-Cameo years
Asked whether either his parents or his sisters or brothers led him down the path to Cameosis, Blackmon responds: “Not at all!” What does seem to account for his earliest musical memories, however, is that he grew up not far from the Apollo Theater.
LB: … so ever since I was 5 years old, I think I’ve seen just about every Black performer that ever existed — from as far back as Sam Cooke.
LAWT: What act(s) do you remember being impressed with to the point that you said, ‘Hmmm this is what I wanna do?’
LB: All of them — Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke — you cannot name one Black act that I have not seen at the Apollo, including Bill Cosby and Flip Wilson.
LAWT: Wow! But was there a particular singer that really struck a nerve with you … Like, I’m sure, James Brown.
LB: He made quite an impression ’cause coming to the Apollo for him was like coming home … but I cannot name one because I was impressed by all of them for different reasons … and the older I got, I went on Sundays … My parents would send us to church and I would take my sister, and then I would take her across the street to my cousin’s and I would go see a matinee [at the Apollo] and then I would come back and get her and go home!
LAWT: Were you influenced by music in the church at all?
LB: Not at all!
LAWT: So it was the cumulative effect of going to all those Apollo events, right?
LB: Yeah … I started out as a drummer. I played drums in the drum-and-bugle corps. Then I went to high school, where I started playing drums in the orchestra there and in the second year I played baritone bass clef horn, and then beyond that, I went back to drums. And I think I put my first band together at 14. It had drums and all acoustical instruments: baritone horn, trombone and trumpet, and the first song we played was Funky Broadway
LAWT: By Dyke and the Blazers?
LB: By Dyke and the Blazers!
LAWT: Somewhere I read that you attended The Julliard School?
LB: Yes. After high school I took a year to apply to Julliard extension. That way, my parents didn’t have to come up with the tuition, so that allowed me to go to Julliard at night.
His purpose for going, he adds, was to have the benefit of getting a certificate on his resume, but in the middle of his second year, the group, by then transitioning from the New York City Players to Cameo, had its first release, Find My Way.
LB: It didn’t do that well on the charts but it gave us the opportunity to have Cecil Holmes [co-founder of Casablanca Records and a founder of Chocolate City Records] come in and listen because we had a single deal at the time. And after he came in, he OKd us to do an album (Cardiac Arrest) and Rigor Mortis was the first single from that …
And I was working at a clothing store at the time on Wall Street owned by Arabs, and they would pray the whole Holy Qur’an in the morning before we’d start, and one day the radio was on and they were playing WBLS. Frankie Crocker (popular New York radio DJ) had a special program and they had one called the world premiere and during these blocks you know that he’d be playing the song for at least eight times a day! And whatever song played on the world premiere became a hit. Didn’t matter what it was … Frankie picked the songs that he thought would go someplace and once I heard it [Rigor Mortis] on the radio, I immediately gave the customer to another associate and went to the locker room and cleared my locker and walked out! Simple as that! … I didn’t know things would take off, but I was determined to stick to it until something happened.
That red thing
LAWT: Speaking of ‘sticking to it,’ let’s talk codpiece: Who’s responsible for the codpiece?
LB: When we first started out, we wanted to have some unique outfits, and Bernard Johnson was a pretty well-known costume designer/wardrobe designer. And when we first started we all had codpieces and they were rhinestone and that was Bernard Johnson’s creation so after several years of that, when we did Word Up [another person] was hired as a wardrobe consultant, and I didn’t see that (red) codpiece until the day we shot the Word Up video. Everyone was standing on line, and I was on line to get my outfit and the [costumer] had this box on top of a black spandex body suit … and I opened it, then closed it real fast and the guys said, “That’s great, Blackmon … balls out!, Go for it …
LAWT: So that very first time you walked out in it? What was the reaction? Where were you?
LB: I sort of made myself numb to any reaction … Aside from performing (in the Word Up video), I was directing it as well so I was trying to keep my focus as to what shots were next and whatever else, so I really wasn’t as focused on what was going on around me as much as what I was trying to get done. But that’s interesting that you asked that question because I’ve never been asked that before, first of all, and then secondly, I guess in my peripheral view I did notice people staring but I didn’t think about it at the time, you know what I mean?
LAWT: No, I don’t know what you mean … Sorry, I don’t!
LB: That’s just the way it was, ya know?
LAWT: Then let me ask you this question: What was the first time you became aware there was a reaction to it then?
LB: Oh, man, I guess that same night! I mean, you know, once again, it’s kinda hard to explain how when you’re doing what you do and you’re wearing different hats at different times throughout a particular event how your focus just switches to different things. The last thing you’re thinking about is what the reaction of the people you’re working with is …
Blackmon went on to tell the tale of one of the more, shall we say, interesting reactors to the codpiece. It happened in merry olde England at a Chinese restaurant called the Great Earth in Covent Garden (a district in London) in the late 1990s:
LB: As a matter of fact, [1980s R&B duo] Rene and Angela were there also. We were all having dinner … and one of the royal family members were there — who’s Charles’ brother?
LAWT: Prince Andrew?
LB: Yes, it was Andrew … and he came over and said he liked the codpiece!
LAWT: You weren’t wearing it at the restaurant, were you?!
LB: Oh no! Not at all! But the next day one of the British rags reported that the prince had mentioned he liked the codpiece!
Beyond Word Up!
When you’ve been havin’ fun doin’ funk for nearly 30 years, it would seem easy to put together what is essentially a greatest hits package. Not so, says Blackmon — especially since he and the group have been working on a DVD of the performances of their major hits as well as more than a dozen new songs for the better part of the last five years.
Just a few more months, says Blackmon — at the top of 2013 — and we Cameosuperfans will get to see performances of hits like Back and Forth, Candy, I Just Want to Be, Keep It Hot, Shake Your Pants, She’s Strange, Single Life and Sparkle —and hear their funky offspring.
It’ll be like manna from funk heaven!
(Photo by Joy Childs)