Around this time every year, Cameo frontman Larry Blackmon gets calls from people he hardly knows saying, “Larry I love you! Happy birthday, man!” But they never know when his birthday is — it's listed as May 24 by some sources and May 29 by others. Few beyond close friends and family know the actual date. And he has no intention to clear the confusion. "It’s fun with the ambiguity,” he says, "It teaches you a lot of things about your career. This industry is just so impersonal sometimes. But these gestures of love—that’s what matters."
To Blackmon, it’s not the dates but the thought that count. "Sincerity turns me on. That’s what takes me over the top.” Social media reminders make well-wishes so mindless. But when someone really reaches out, Blackmon can detect true authenticity. "You can feel it, when people are sincere. It shows a side of them you rarely get to see."
This reverence for sincerity both counters and complements much of Larry’s childhood and musical career. He has often straddled the line between dreams and reality, performance and authenticity.
The Harlem-born artist was raised just blocks from the Apollo Theater, which he’d rush to after every Sunday Mass. "You can’t name one urban black performer who performed at the Apollo that I didn’t get to see,” he says. No doubt he loved Jesus. But he was blown away by James Brown.
As a teen, despite a well-defined goal to make it big in the music industry, Blackmon hedged his bet with Juilliard. If his dreams didn’t manifest, he was prepared to play as a pit musician on Broadway. One day, working part time as a salesclerk at a clothing store near Wall Street, Blackmon heard his first single, “Rigor Mortis,” premier on WBLS. He asked a colleague to cover the customer he was helping. “I went to my locker got my things and never looked back.” He adds, “And of course I dropped to my knees and got teary-eyed."
Once they made it big, Cameo adopted a few signature styles. Blackmon is often credited with popularizing the hi-top fade, a style he suggests “has never not been cool.” His distinct, nasally singing voice and sensual “Oh!" are Cameo stamps, noted on the sampled works that emerged in their wake. They were also well-known for rocking codpieces.
Each of these signatures was the sum of sincere commitment to circumstance.
Blackmon wanted a hair style that was “less labor intensive, without the chemicals.” Friend and actress Tracy Johns suggested they hit up an Italian barber in SoHo, where Blackmon described his basic vision and, boom, one of the most iconic hi-tops was born.
The codpieces came about via collaboration with costume designer Bernard Johnson. Johnson fitted Cameo members with junk shields in the past, but just before the filming of "Word Up,” Blackmon says, “I opened the [outfit] box and saw this big red thing. I went to the group and said, 'Look what they want me to wear!' They said, 'Go for it! Balls out!' So what was I gonna do—say no? The clock was ticking. And it was history.”
Meanwhile both Blackmon’s singing voice and Cameo’s general vibe were the result of what they call “method writing.” That is, they approach a song from a character's perspective, from an attitude, like a method actor does. They encompass and convey that mood through lyrics and performance. Thus, Blackmon says, “We own everything we do. We own our expressions.” But he admits, “I very rarely sound like myself."
In owning their expressions, Blackmon means the band assumes each aspect and makes them their own. He doesn’t mean they stand behind a literal interpretation of what they've said. Famous lines like “All you sucker DJs who think you’re fly…” seem to have been wildly misinterpreted. The line wasn’t meant to confront anyone in particular. “Who has time to direct lyrics towards someone? That’s not what we do,” Blackmon says.
Taking the diss at face value would be like accusing Daniel Day Lewis of devouring your milkshake.
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As for the many samples and remixes of his work, Blackmon considers them no less authentic than the originals. “Miles Davis told me once, Music belongs to no one. People will use what inspires them for their purposes."
Nearly 40-years since he left Juilliard for a dream-turned-reality, Blackmon is back in the studio with his group. "We’re recording another CD for release in January. It’ll experiment with a contemporary style of writing,” he says. And he assures us it’ll be fresh but nonetheless rooted in the groove.
“It’s gonna be as funky as funky can be. We’ll go where it leads us, but I can’t remember one Cameo release that didn’t have that swing to it, that funk rhythm." Still, he says, they aren’t strictly bound to anything. "We write stuff to accommodate what we do. That’s what makes it fun. Not cookie cutter. We’ll take this turn here, around this curve, and see what happens."
Cameo with Morris Day and The Time. 6 p.m. Friday, May 29, at Pompano Beach Amphitheatre. Tickets cost $30 to $78 plus fees.