Cameo’s Albums In Review: We All Know Who We Are

Cameo Blog Photo

Cameo is a constant conversational reference point between Henrique and myself. And with Prince gone now,those conversations have more resonance then ever. The band came together in the late 70’s during the height of P-Funk. And were inspired by it. As the 80’s progressed they survived by paring down their lineup,eventually to it’s three core members. But they did survive. Most importantly,they got hardcore funk back on the pop charts with 1986’s “Word Up”. They are still touring to this day in fact. And are even preparing a new album for release as of this writing.

With seventeen albums in their 39 year history,I’ve actually only heard eight. But they are thoroughly enjoyable records that I took the time to review on There are a many Cameo jams rife for reviewing on the Anatomy of THE Groove segment. But also it’s important to point out how,even if they didn’t always have huge conceptual unity on them,that Cameo were always capable of chocking their full albums full of quality material -from funk,disco and ballads and later to rock/hip-hop hybrids. So today I’ll start band founder Larry Blackmon’s birthday celebration by giving props to Cameo as album artists.

‘Cardiac Arrest’-1977

I don’t think it can be stated enough that for fans of the mid 1980’s Word Up! period are in for a huge shock with ‘Cardiac Arrest’,the band’s debut presenting a 13 member lineup (including a horn section) that play hardcore 70’s funk.The emphasis in this period of Cameo’s career is on the rhythm section with electronics pushed to the wayside as is typical of most funk bands in the mid 70’s. And there’s plenty of that here with “Still Feels Good”,”Good Times” and the stomping “Post Mortem”.
There are two indisputable funk classics here-the hit “Rigor Mortis” (which we all pretty much know) and “Funk Funk”-the undeniable Star Trek parody which,because of it’s rapped lyrics and crazy rhythm bought up the P-Funk comparisons. And this album also contains two great ballads in “Smile” and “Stay By My Side”,especially since Cameo were obviously not trying for ballads.This was the sound that Cameo would progress and evolve from in the next decade.A more individual style would later develop but Cameo already stood out even from the beginning.

Early Cameo was something I was very hesitant on because of (apparently) misguided literature describing them as a singles act. And further that there were “no shortage of bad Cameo records out there prior to 1980”. This was the album that proved to me that it was untrue. Originally had it on vinyl. And only had the chance to play it once before loaning it to a friend who never returned it. Recently picked it up on a twofer CD? I decided to review the two albums separately. So I could say more and show the progression of the music.

“I’ll Be With You” is heavy stomping percussion,slap bass,slippery horns,drawling lead/harmony vocals and uncut funkiness all the way. “Anything You Wanna Do” brings the same instrumental approach to a somewhat faster groove while “Insane”,one of the most descriptive songs in terms of funk has the Moog and slap bass both riding each other along with the high on the neck rhythm guitar in the passenger seat. “I Want You” adds a rocking blues guitar to an extremely thick,stomping groove. The title song is a sleeker,danceable groove in the mood of James Brown’s “Rapp Payback” in terms of the percussive rhythm.

With the orchestral soul ballads of the racially themed “Give Love A Chance”,”Friend To Me” and the more swinging jazz-pop styled mid-tempo slow jam of “Two Of Us” rounding out the album? This shows off how talented Cameo were with grooves,melodies and both instrumental and vocal harmonics. They had strong enough singers and powerful arrangements enough for the slow numbers. But the majority of this album is funk. And it’s dense,hard funk too. In fact? This album is home to some of the hardest,greasiest funk of 1978 from what I’ve heard from that year so far in my life. It showcases how musically talented and full on funky Cameo really were in their late 70’s beginnings. And I very highly recommended to all jam fans!

Cannot tell you how many times I turned down this CD in the budget bins of the record haunts I used to go to. In the area I lived in? There seemed to be a peculiar mixture of the funk revivalism through hip-hop and rap sampling and the worn out anti disco attitude. It was a contradictory impulse in many ways. But somehow there was a fear of social punishment involved with me always having second thoughts about this. With that gone now? And my understanding of the late 70’s dance music scene broader than it was? It’s wonderful to come back to this 1979 album with a fresher and stronger perspective.

“Energy” opens the album with a very Barry White/Michael Jackson/EWF friendly upbeat dance/horn funk groove that declares “ain’t nothin’ wrong with disco/it goes along with funk/if you do not like it/don’t get mad at us”. “I Just Want To Be” has a stern opening bass line with slippery synthesizer squiggles to go along with the falsetto/bass vocals and horns. The 9 minute “Find My Way” is a straight up mixture of orchestral,big band jazz with the bands vocal yelps to the 4/4 disco beat-at one point the strings referencing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”. “Macho” brings in a thicker and more percussive funk stomp while “The Rock” just throws the heavy percussive horn based stomp right back in it.

“Sparkle” is a sleekly produced EWF style horn based funk/soul slow jam per excellence while “New York” takes the Afro-Latin based funk/disco to new heights with it’s tribute to the bands home city. This album is an excellent example of how musically expert Cameo were as they were actually only getting started. The album actually hit the era with some extremely heavy funk. The usual slow stomp they had was augmented by faster tempos here. Not to mention the somewhat sleeker arrangements. But the straight up hard funk hadn’t gone anywhere. And their nods to disco took the form of big band style jazzy arrangements of a type often heard out of the NYC club scene at the time. A wonderful and highly underrated way for Cameo to close out the 1970’s!

Cameo had been making heavy funk in the late 70’s very well and kept the large horn funk band style going on this 1980 release.The sound is crisp,well produced and GROOVES LIKE CRAZY!It’s a mixture of funk somewhere between EWF and George Clinton and Chicago/Philly style ballads.The first two songs are grooves-the title cut throws funky power and the heavy horns right in your face and,well as most know “Shake Your Pants” takes that same style to the point where you must obey-it’s the most P-Funk-ish piece on the album.”On The One” takes the feel of the title track-direct funk right on the money.
“Please You” is a more subtle,romantic groove but great slow grinding funk.All the ballads are great too.
But if I had to pick a favorite it would be the closing track “Why Have I Lost You,correctly implying the loneliness can play tricks with your mind if you not in touch with yourself and does so with great Impressions/Teddy Pendergrass vocalizing and arrangements.’Cameosis’ is the epitome of what a great classic funk album should be-great jams,great grooves,great smooth groove ballads and above all great TUNES.This is classic Cameo-the sound that made them.And while I enjoy their electronic ‘Word Up’ era too I feel about it as I do with Kool & The Gang-both bands had a funky and poppier period but both produced some crackerjack music however the music hits you.I am truly thankful this impressive album is still in print on CD.I think every true funk and R&B fan should hear it.
Well there’s little argument on two factors:Cameo are not only one of the GREATEST classic funk bands but they kept the groove (and the spirit) alive during a time when the whole 70’s concept of funk was being besieged. Well there is no heavy handedness here-it was 1982,their was still a music industry recession but to hear the enthusiastic groove of Cameo you’d never knowing. This album is brimming with energy from every direction.And it’s amazing how many musical ideas pass in and out of this music as the band jams away.
The first half of the album is a SERIOUS funk party. Having paired Cameo down to a quartet Larry Blackmon,the bands front man suddenly gives Charles Singleton,master guitarist and unheralded force in the band a chance to really stretch out not only on his axe but on keyboards as well. The new-wave/electro funk influence of later Cameo masterpieces such as Word Up! really begins here,even as the influence of 70’s funk (and quite a bit of rock) still prevail. “Be Yourself” really starts out the affair encompassing all of this-baaad beat,serious bass lines and an empowering lyric celebrating funky existentialism in all it’s glory.
“Soul Army” has the same “funky soldier” mentality of Funkadelic’s Uncle Jam Wants You,only the groove is more upfront and it is FIRMLY on the one-another in a series of neglected funk masterpieces.Many of us have heard “Flirt” before-now THIS tune just KILLS!Just stripped down drums,bass-somewhat hip-hop in it’s execution but totally forward thinking for Cameo.Not only is it pretty far from the the glorious if somewhat older school horn funk of Cameosis two years earlier but with it’s short,heavily pitch adjusted synthesizers punctuating the beat it’s part of the “new wave” funk vanguard led by the likes of Prince and Rick James at the same time.
Now none of this is to say Cameo have no pop savvy;the positive thinking catchiness of “Enjoy Your Life” is also out the box funky as well-one of the reasons why funk AND pop listeners like this band so much in the first place. The title track is where things really get interested;it’s presented here,in all it’s B-52’s-like funk/new wave hybrid glory with the totally gospel soul ballad of “Secrets Of Time”,showing not only that Cameo can put off such a lyrical AND musical transition from song to song perfectly-a quality often more noted in progressive rock bands. Of course the music of the song is also very much in the art rock vein too.
“I Owe It All To You” is actually,for this time frame,very retro 60’s/Motown/Chicago Vee Jay styled R&B-very short,very doo woppy but with Cameo’s funk over it-it may well be the best funk/doo-wop hybrid since Graham Central Station’s 70’s work in that somewhat unexplored genre.”For You”,the only ballad “slow jam” on the album does have a period adult contemporary sound about it but,even if it’s not high in the mix,the bass line is just KILLER all the same.The best part is:ALL OF OF THIS IN JUST 30 SECONDS OVER HALF AN HOUR!!!!!!This is not only proof that being on the one doesn’t necessarily mean one has to be long winded,but that Cameo had (and still has) a lot more to offer a lot more musically then just a great groove. Their musicality and yes-great sense of melody and humor is something I hope will resonate into musics future because BOY this still sounds great!
Cameo are a band that get’s a lot of props from me-always have and always will. At the same time while I have a high opinion of them,after hearing this album I just upgraded my opinion! Despite being constantly written off (very wrongly)as a novelty by too many critics and books Cameo set a standard in their time for musical excellence that not only showcased funk resilience in the musical world but gave them a great reputation as a band. In every respect this album brings all of that to the forefront as Cameo,again put it all out with their terrific melodies and musicianship on seven cuts that all jam and jam hard while all also being excellent songs in and of themselves.
During this time the band was still relatively large and was still basing a lot of their sound in horns and that all important bass line. They never abandoned the latter one bit but in many ways this is still very much a mid 80’s variation of their 70’s sound;the heavy techno funk strains of the Word Up! era is still a little ways off but they are acknowledging that sound. The title song is one of the best examples as rap is an influence as are synthesizers but it’s all totally in the spirit of Cameo’s classic sound. Even though the hits on this album are top notch and great to hear on their compilations there’s no question Cameo are also a great album act and “Love You Anyway” is a great example.
It starts off in the vein of a melodic funky pop tune and by the end shows this great jazz sensibility with Charlie Singleton’s guitar and the vocal scat all getting off on this George Benson kind of thing. “Talkin’ Out The Side Of Your Neck” goes for this punching funk/rock kind of hybrid with Larry Blackmon rapping hard about the sociopolitical economics of the period with t
his strong sense of defiant wit that is wonderfully refreshing:a message song from the mid 80’s that isn’t the LEAST bit corny-in fact very much the exact opposite.
“Tribute To Bob Marley” flexes the band well earned musical diversity on a synth-reggae jam about……reggae jamming as well as throwing in the idea that Marley’s music was not quite as appreciated before than it was after his early passing. “Groove With You” gives the horns a bit of a workout on a great melodic funk number that proves once and for all that Cameo were no mere jamming one hit wonder,if there is any possible doubt. “Hangin’ Downtown” is a MONSTER!!!;slow grooving funk that not only gives the one a major workout but again showcases a jazz influence especially in the sax solos.
“Le’ Ve Toi!” is a great concept:French naked funk where not only does every groove to the very end up the words are actually in French too. If your interested in finding a Cameo album that showcases all their best qualities as well as one that has a few songs you might know this would be a great place to go. It embodies everything great about this band and never ever falls off in quality for a nano second!
Truth be told? This album probably represented the very first funk by a contemporary artist I ever heard. Keep in mind it was when it came out. And at the time I had no idea what a musical genre (let alone funk) even was. The music of Cameo has always had a strong attraction to me ever since-likely due to that core musical memory. Historically for Cameo,this was an interesting time.

Starting with 1984’s She’s Strange,Cameo pared down to a trio of three members in bandleader/founder Larry Blackmon on lead vocals and bass with Nathan Leftenant and Tomi Jenkins as vocalists. Charlie Singleton left the band functionally to start a solo career. Yet the deepest thing about that was that Charlie,along with other members of the band,didn’t leave completely. He,along with session musicians such as the Brecker brothers remained behind on this album which,as it were wound up being their iconic breakthrough album commercially-at least as far as pop char success was concerned.

The title song and “Candy” are of course the signature mid 80’s Cameo sound-stripped down funk sound,slap bass the texture of thick liquid. Another element that makes them stand out is the strong percussion breaks and Michael Brecker’s sax solo on “Candy”-making for one of the strongest rhythmic patterns of mid 80’s hard funk. “Back And Forth” is a straighter dance/funk groove that’s highly catchy and melodic.

It seems like a naked funk number,but the arrangement is filled with layers of dreamy synthesizers as well: a full sound creeping up from behind rather than immediately out front. “She’s Mind” is the one slow jam here-really more mid tempo boogie with an appropriately jazzy pop sense of song craft showcasing what terrific songwriters Cameo were.

“She’s Mine”,a drum beat oriented hip-hop/funk hybrid as well as the furious live band oriented funk of “Fast,Fierce & Funny” and “You Can Have The World” are all brightly composed and heavily rhythmic grooves-all focusing on the theme of materialistically demanding women that was a mainstay for Cameo throughout the years.

Many “jam fans” who have an intense dislike for the music of the first half of the 1980’s refer to the period in which this album came out as a rebirth of the funk. As soon as James Brown hit the airwaves with “Living In America”,music that was strongly linked with classic funk began to be innovated on.

That also found itself spreading into the next generation of hip-hop as well-especially as the functional original funk bands who didn’t have the commercial success of Cameo abandoned the idea of radio play and musical commerce. So the “nu funk” as it were,and the generation of hip-hop that both inspired it and was inspired by it was all part of the culture from which this album came.
It would seem looking back that no one was particularly self conscious about this burst of funk creativity. It seemed to be a degree of life breathed into the “number one funk” aestetic of the 60’s and 70’s-where music that celebrated advanced rhythmic ideas and lyrical wit in a contemporary context could flourish. This album is one of the many that really captures that spirit. And reminds any cynic who thinks that funk is dead that,when it seems to be gone,it can survive and (in cases such as this) be enormously successful as well.
From the moment I first heard about this album,it was always described as Cameo as only being the purveyors of some huge musical business unto themselves. This has very often be described as being an album that was made to “cash in” on the success of their previous album Word Up which,if I remember was still strongly in the public consciousness by the time this follow up arrived in 1988. Of course funk itself was not about capitalism ,communism,escapism or any “ism” in particular. It reflected on them,commented on them and to paraphrase the late Gil Scott-Heron” put you in the drivers seat”.

It used clever witty humor to make its points too. This was all part of Cameo’s musical sensibilities from the very outset. They were from an era of bands who started out playing funk-not necessarily developing at least recording music together that had a strong jazz/Latin/blues/psychedelic back round from which the first generation of funk bands had started. Yet as the times changed,Cameo just changed the way they played funk. But never,ever became un-funky. By the time this album was released,there were noises being made by musicians/artists about a funk revival-at least music heavily inspired by it. And being in the commercial position Cameo were in at this point,they had something creatively potent to add to this new grooving brew starting to emerge.

The album opens up with “You Make Me Work”,featuring a strong re-harmonizes the title songs refrain from the previous album with a heavier rock guitar element and some light electric organ touches in the back round-giving it a little more of a blues favor melodically in a fantastic hard funk number. The strong,uptempo dance-funk of “I Like The World” is a potent message song about empowering oneself in terms of protecting..well a world you really like and want to make better for yours and future generations. Its delivered with assertive power lyrically and vocally.

Same goes for the more intensely bass/guitar driven “Skin I’m In”-with re-appropriates the racially assertive attitude (given such a boost up by the conscious hip-hop of the day such as Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions) that brings out the cultural double standards people put in place that make human differences seem like weaknesses rather than strengths. “Promiscuous” has a thick,horn packed funk ethic to it whereas “Pretty Girls and “Honey” both bring back the bass oriented hard funk rhythmic intensity (and in the case of the latter the melodic structure) of “Candy” from the previous album. “In The Night” brings in Miles Davis for a song in which the band very accurately replicates the reggae oriented opening bass/guitar line and the jazzy keyboard chords of “Fat Time” era Miles-done up in the rhythmically thick style of Cameo of course.

“Soul Tightened”,with its JB informed groove (one of my favorites on this album) as well as the reggae of the closing “DKWIG” further emphasize the important closing point I am about to make about this album. Although this is very contemporary for the late 1980’s this album finds Cameo,while still firmly in it’s trio format,making something of a return to a well produced live band oriented funk sound as opposed to the naked and somewhat more electronic tinged direction they began in the middle of that decade. By bringing in the late musical icon Miles Davis into this session makes an everlasting point about Cameo’s musicality.

It can be even better defined by…well the reason some people see this album as a retread of the previous album. One of the qualities that may have allowed Cameo to continue playing hard funk while many of their contemporaries developed more pop oriented sounds to stay afloat was one ethic they kept to from James Brown himself. They often liked to take songs that had been successful with and re-arrange them into others in infinite combinations,or in some cases out and out re-visitations. And by linking that further into jazz-funk here,with sociopolitically charged message songs that have a strong racially aware consciousness,Cameo have made their cultural influences outside of funk abundantly clear. That is why I’d personally contend that this is one of Cameo’s most importantly under-appreciated albums.
It’s amazing, looking back at these album reviews, just how many musically related ideas that discussing Cameo’s contributions to funk have engendered. Though they hailed out of New York City, the originally 13 member band came to prominence during the same time as most of the new funk bands of the day came out of the mid-west. So it’s only fitting that they did as an musically integrated band,they were having a strong level of popular success at the same time as Prince was on his own with a backing band. And that represents the recorded musical legacy of Cameo.




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Filed under 1970's, 1980's, Cameo, Charlie Singleton, Funk, funk albums, Larry Blackmon, Nathan Leftenant, Tomi Jenkins, Word Up

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