AN INTERVIEW WITH GREGORY JOHNSON OF CAMEO
Where do you start with Cameo? From Rigor Mortis , I Just Want To Be , Your Love Takes Me Out , Shake Your Pants , Freaky Dancin’ and Keep It Hot - to Flirt , Be Yourself , Alligator Woman , She’s Strange , Candy , Back & Forth, Attack me With Your Love , Soul Army & Single Life. Throw in a couple of classic ballads like Feel Me, Sparkle and Why Have I Lost You , and Cameo - on the strength of their recorded output may just be the most consistent funk band ever. Only Parliament, The Gap Band & The Ohio Players come close as far as im concerned. Throughout the years Cameo underwent several personnel changes, and has been as large as 10 members and as small as 3. As a kid in the late 70’s I always noticed the guy with the glasses and top hat on Cameo’s album covers .On the picture above I am11 years old , holding a copy of the Cameosis lp. I am honored almost 30 years later to talk with Cameo co founder and keyboardist Gregory Johnson.
JQ: First it’s an honor. I grew up on Cameo, and have always been a fan….Where are you from , and who were your influences growing up?
GJ: No problem man. Cameo is from New York. Our stomping grounds were Harlem. My influences were James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire, The Meters and The Isley Brothers. That was the hippest music at the time.
JQ: Was the piano the first instrument that you played.
GJ: Yes it was. My mother had me taking piano lessons to keep me out of the streets. I started taking lessons from the choir teacher at church. My instructor would play a song, and I would come back and play the whole thing back to him. He thought that I was reading music from the paper, but I was actually playing by ear. I learned to do that first.
JQ: Take me from that point to getting into your first band.
GJ: Well I was playing classical music, and that was cool until I heard The In Crowd by Ramsey Lewis on the radio. I knew right then that I wanted to play that kind of music. I brought that back to my piano teacher, and he said that it wasn’t really music. I now realize that he didn’t know anything about Jazz or that type of flavor. That was a turn off, so I started to learn stuff on my own from the radio. Me & some guys in the neighborhood started a little band, and we had a community center there in the housing projects, where we had contests. My band was at the same event as Larry Blackmon’s band. After hearing his band, my band really sucked. He asked me to be in his band and come downtown for a few rehearsals. It wasn’t even Cameo at this point. We were just a small band. We began playing behind some people like Willie Feaster who played back up for the Moments. Larry & I were the only 2 really seriously pursuing a career in music.
A lot of cats were falling out of the band. We started playing back up with the Duponts & Howard Kenny. We had the idea to just play for ourselves, because we always got jerked around when it was time to get paid. We saw groups like Sly & The Family Stone, and we said that we could be a self -contained band and write & play our own songs. We put together a group called the Mighty G’s, which evolved into the New York City Players. Larry & I were still the root of that. From there we got a record deal in “73, before Find My Way came out. Neil Bogart who was the head of Casablanca records really believed in that song, along with Cecil Holmes who had his own label called Chocolate City Records. Find My Way didn’t take off, and we wrote Rigor Mortis, and that was really the start of it all. Larry Blackmon, myself, Tomi Jenkins, Nathan Leftenant and his brother Arnett, Eric Durham & Gary Dow on the bass. In fact Gary came on the 2nd album. On the first album there was a guy named William Reevis on bass.
JQ: I read somewhere that the Ohio Players had a problem with you calling yourselves the New York City Players.
GJ: Oh yeah, absolutely! We were about to come out with Find My Way. The attorneys said that we could change the name or fight it in court. To fight it in court would mean delaying the records release. We were up in Canada, where they have they cigarettes called Cameo’s. We happened to be around a pack, and I said let’s just call ourselves Cameo! We just let the pendant be our logo.
JQ: According to the charts how did Rigor Mortis do?
GJ: It did well, especially down South. It was successful. I don’t know how many it sold, but we had a tight stage show. Even when we didn’t have a record deal we were on the road for 10 months out of the year. So we knew that if we sold 25,000 this time out, as long as the show was on point we are going to sell at least 50,000 next time!!
JQ: So the nucleus of this whole thing was you and Larry Blackmon?
GJ: Well we were together the longest. The nucleus would be myself, Larry Blackmon, Tomi Jenkins , Arnett & his brother Nathan Leftenant. That was the nucleus of the group for a long time.
JQ: looking at the Cardiac Arrest lp, it says it was arranged by you. Did you have a big hand in putting things together in Cameo.
GJ: Yeah, that was always my thing – but it was very hard to fight for credits. Arranging everything was my responsibility, and I did it – but I had to ask to be credited.
JQ: Wayne Cooper added a nice dimension with his falsetto. Did he join the group with the release of the We All Know Who We Are lp?
GJ: Yes. We were looking for falsetto singers, which was a popular thing at the time. Tomi (Jenkins) couldn’t sing that high, so we held auditions at a rehearsal place called the Daily Planet. Wayne was the best out of the whole group that we auditioned.
JQ: On Funk Funk y’all said “this ain’t the P Funk, this is the C Funk”. Did you guys have a rivalry going on at the time, or was it just all in fun?
GJ: Everybody knew that George (Clinton) was the funk. We actually used to open for them. It was just establishing who we were,it wasn’t a rivalry.
JQ: Did We All Know Who We Are further keep the momentum of the first lp as far as sales?
GJ: We had a live show that was received well by the ladies, and Why Have I Lost You alone kept the momentum going.
JQ: Cameo is not recognized for those classic ballads. Feel Me, Sparkle , Why Have I Lost You. Polygram records has a greatest hits of just your ballads alone….
GJ: Yeah, that’s been our struggle as time went on. That’s just how it is sometimes, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You just make the best music that you possibly can. I don’t even know how we were comin’ up with that stuff. We didn’t even know that Cameo music would be appreciated this long, we were just doin’ our thing!
JQ: On the Secret Omen lp, I Just Want To Be was one of my favorites. Looking at the credits, you had a lot to do with that song.
GJ: Larry Blackmon and I wrote that together.
JQ: Would you say that I Just Want To Be cemented you guys as a force to be reckoned with?
GJ: Yes, and that was our first gold record. That put us on the map – you are exactly right.
JQ: On Secret Omen I see that you guys put Find My Way on this lp as well. Was the label tryin’ to bring that one back since you guys were a little bigger?
GJ: Probably so. The only difference in that one is that it was the 9 minute disco version.
JQ: What was the process as far as creating songs? Did most of the ideas come about in the studio?
GJ: Like I said earlier, just being on the road. Just grooving, and different people came up with different things. Like with I Just Want To Be, I came up with the bassline and the music and Blackmon (Larry) said hold on – and he came up with some lyrics. It was always spontaneous. The music would just come out.
JQ: I know you were big into the Moog keyboard, what did you think of other Moog cats like Bernie Worrell from Funkadelic?
GJ: Bernie Worrell was definitely someone I listened to. I also listened to Chick Corea , Herbie Hancock and George Duke. You have to remember that at the time it was a new instrument, so it wasn’t something that I was at all used to. I remember when we first got it – I was all over the place with sounds. Someone suggested to get one sound and stick to it! Those guys that I just mentioned had really mastered it.
JQ: Looking at your record covers, you seemed to be the one with what they would call swagger these days. On just about every album you are either in an animated pose or dressed with a big hat or glasses….
GJ: Yes. I always felt that the covers needed to have some sort of flare and some interaction. That was part of my personality. I tried to create a focal point, if not you just have a bunch of guys standing up!
JQ: Before conducting this interview, I went back and looked at all your videos just to refresh myself. I was very impressed with the video for Were Goin’ Out Tonight. Once again you were very animated and the video was very good for the time. It almost had a script – which was very rare – the few videos in existence at the time were just performance clips….
GJ: It was a script. We had actual directors that scripted it…..have you ever seen a Cameo show?
JQ: Yes, I was 10 so it must have been 1980…
GJ: Cameo was based on theatre. We would go to check out performances, and that’s where the theatrics came in. We learned how to actually use the stage, and we considered how the person all the way in the top row would see us, so we had to really exaggerate things.
JQ: Was Cameosis a pretty big record for the group?
GJ: Yes it was, and it was a move in a different direction. It was a lot more contemporary. Me & Larry always listened to groups like Chicago, and we wanted that horn driven – big band sound. Actually we like to use the word group. Duke Ellington had a band , we were a group.
JQ: Can you explain that a little more?
GJ: Well with a band you have different instruments. There are more instrumentalists. With Cameo it was a selective group of people who were multitalented. Every member of Cameo played multiple instruments. Sometimes I sang, or played my sax , then jumped back on the keyboards. We were very much like a theatre group.
JQ: I noticed that on the Shake Your Pants video Larry Blackmon was playing drums as well as doing vocals.
GJ: That’s where he started out. He was never up front. Larry was a drummer! One of the best pocket drummers! As far as funk - Larry wrote the book on the drums. Once you set the tempo with a metronome, set up the tune – leave the room and Larry would still be playing the same tempo 5 minutes later. That’s how accurate his lock was.
JQ: I have interviewed a lot of the rap groups that used to open for you guys from 1980 through 1982 or so - the Grandmaster Flash &The Furious 5 , Sugar hill Gang , Kurtis Blow & Soul Sonic Force era of groups. They all speak of how they were disrespected by the R&B groups of the day who didn’t respect or understand Hip Hop. Cameo is a common name that comes up in terms of the group who would sabotage their set, cut their power and wreck their equipment. Is there any truth at all to that claim? And also when you first heard rap did you respect it artistically?
GJ: No I didn’t respect it artistically, because I didn’t see it as an art form. You didn’t have to go to school, you didn’t have to study, it was just turntables and scratching records. And also remember that at the time, they were taking music and not crediting people. That has changed to some extent now. No one knew that rap would go as far as it did.
As far as people unplugging their power, I don’t really know much about that. I do know that when we were an opening act we had it done to us because we either went over our time or they needed us to get off to set up the stage for the next act. I don’t know if that was done intentionally or what, but the stage manager is gonna do what he has to do to keep the show moving. Over time is very costly in those venues, and they will cut your power if you go over your time. Again that may have been the case, but I know it happened to us because we didn’t know any better! If they say 20 minutes , its not a minute more - not a minute less. So if we are up there for 25 minutes the power got cut! And im sure it’s still like that today!
JQ: A lot of your songs - particularly I Just Want To Be, Your Love Takes Me Out and Flirt have these noises like a stomach growling. It seems that it became a signature sound in your early stuff. What instrument makes that sound?
GJ: Yeah that’s the Cuica drum that makes that sound. I contributed a lot to that on the mini Moog as well. It was just a feel man, that what we felt - and how we wanted to express ourselves and that was just what it was.
JQ: Between the Cameosis and Feel Me albums I noticed the absence of Wayne Cooper. Did he pass between those records?
GJ: No he hadn’t passed yet, I think they got rid of him. There was a lot of stuff goin’ on internally with Cameo man. Like I said earlier I had to really fight for credits, and a lot of people were contributing and not being credited. It bred dissension in the group over time. That’s why Cameo is like 2 people now. People weren’t getting credit for writing songs – that whole thing. But Wayne Cooper has passed away, and it was a great loss.
JQ: Ok you were with Cameo from the first lp (Cardiac Arrest) until Alligator Woman. Of the lps that you contributed to which is your favorite?
GJ: It’s hard to say. I like the song Your Love Takes Me Out (from the Feel Me lp). That was the peak of the spontaneity in the group. I also like Cameosis. It started going into another direction soon after that. Alligator Woman was the last album that I was involved in, and it was almost rock. I wasn’t pleased with the arrangement, and I didn’t have a lot to do with that album. People in the group weren’t happy – then the drugs and alcohol, the road and touring 11 months out of the year , then the studio for a month. I looked up and said “whoa I won’t be doing this for another ten years- ill be dead!” I made up my mind in October of 1982 that Cameo was successful. We achieved what we set out to do and it was time to move on. That was my personal feeling.
JQ: You stepped out on a good album. Of course you are on a different side of it than your fans, but I have emotional connections to these records. I remember in the 5th grade they let us bring records to school if our class did well, and I brought the Feel Me lp to play on the little school record player. I also remember the summer of 1982, and even though the radio never played Soul Army – we wore it out im my neighborhood. Be Yourself, Flirt , Soul Army and Alligator Woman. That lp was a summer anthem in ‘82!
GJ: Those were good songs. And you mentioned that those records were the soundtrack to your life, they of course were the soundtrack to ours as well. It’s just that after that album, it started going in another direction…..
JQ: Flirt was funky man. I still listen to it often. Were you involved in that one?
GJ: Sure, I was involved in Flirt. I was involved in the songs, just not the arrangement, where previously I was heavily involved with arranging. For the Alligator Woman lp, I came in the studio and played my part and left. That was it.
JQ: Well I have had this interview in my head since I was a kid, as many of my interviews have been. But I am especially glad to be able to tell this time period of the Cameo story to the world, because I talk to a lot of music fans in the U.K. As you know they are very dedicated to Black music – and when we talk Cameo most of them aren’t familiar with anything before Word Up! I find this ironic because even though it brought Cameo into the mainstream, and was the most commercially successful Cameo song – it is the least favorite amongst many diehard Cameo fans. …
GJ: I didn’t care for it at all. But hey the people spoke….
JQ: In all honesty Style was a good album, Single Life was huge and a great album as well, then Word Up! was a smash and had at least three classics (Word Up! , Back & Forth and Candy). Did you ever regret your decision to leave, or feel that you had made a mistake?
GJ: No, not at all. Looking back on it now and even then- the way that the organization was being run , and the things that people were doing. I knew it wouldn’t last ! It’s no way that you can make $100,000 and spend $125,000. There is no way that you’re gonna survive! Also Cameo was funk – hard and heavy. With the Alligator Woman lp Blackmon wanted to change the sound, and that’s ok I guess – it was a decent album , but the quality of the music had changed. They were cutting people, people were leaving and they didn’t want to use the horns anymore. I’m not knockin’ it but its not how I feel that music should be. For it to be real it should be an expression of everything.
JQ: I see that you are still doing music, and you currently have a Jazz flavored release out. I grew up on Jazz, and much of your release has a Bob James feel to it to me…what have you been up to since leaving the group , and what made you pursue a Jazz flavor as opposed to continuing with the funk?
GJ: I still wanted to pursue my music, and I needed a way to do that – so after Cameo I got my Bachelors degree in composition in 1986. I needed a band, and I needed to know how to write out all of the musical parts and tell everybody what to play. That’s what I was doing in Cameo, but nothing was written down. It was all verbal or word of mouth. So I said I would go to school and learn it all. In 1995 I got my Masters in Piano performance, and that was Jazz. Jazz is the same vocabulary as Funk and Classical with the same elements. It’s just how it’s used. I’m currently working on some funk, that is more like what I did with Cameo. I dropped out of High school to pursue my dreams with Cameo, and I always promised my mother that I would finish my education. I just kept goin’ with the education , I felt like if not now when?
JQ: Given the circumstances in which you left the group, was there any bad blood? Are you guys cool today?
GJ: Oh, I talk to all of the guys. I’ve even talked to Blackmon recently. There is no bad blood. Everybody is pursuing their own thing. I have no regrets. I have 5 Gold albums, and one Platinum that I got with Boyz II Men when they used some of I Just Want To Be.
JQ: I am of the opinion that because of technology there is an opportunity that exists for people who should really be in the stands watching, to participate in music. I feel further that a generation or 2 will not know how live music sounds, and what sounds different instruments even make. What’s your opinion on my theory and what do you see as the future of music…. Particularly Black music?
GJ: Well the essence of a group is not there anymore. The energy that is created when people play together, and one person can bounce his energy off of another is missing, because as you say – you can press a button and have a drum track , then pres another and have what sounds like a guitar. The essence of what makes a group is gone. Now one person can do it all, but you really have to study!
JQ: Yes. Prince is one of the few who has mastered that, along with Stevie Wonder….
GJ: Yes, it’s like one in a million who can do it….like a Ray Charles , but now everybody & their sister thinks they can be a musician. There is no identity any more either. At one time you could listen to music and say “oh that’s the Gap Band” or who ever. Now it all sounds the same. I think eventually we will get back to that, because there has been a dumbing down for quite some time. We went from cd’s to mp3s, and before that there was the cassette. The cd was a good form of quality, but they went down quality wise with mp3s. They aren’t even listening to the same quality. That is a sign of the times that we can’t do anything about.
JQ: When you were touring with the likes of Zapp and The Gap Band , who did you admire or listen to that you actually toured with.
GJ: We really didn’t listen to our contemporaries. We were listening to like you said Bob James , Grover Washington Jr. and Stanley Turrentine. We were taking those elements and putting them into our songs.
JQ: What do you listen to today?
GJ: I still listen to Herbie Hancock , Anthony Hamilton , Mary Mary . I listen to the Black Eyed Peas and Kanye West just to see what everybody is into, but its not my thing. It’s just not my kind of music.
JQ: Did you ever like any Hip Hop, like the Message….
GJ: Oh yeah…The Message. It ain’t been another one like it since. That song was so strong….that was the one. That message is still strong today.
JQ: Thanks for your time. It’s been an honor!