‘Real Cameo fans’ witness funk band’s first Pittsburgh visit since mid-1980s

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MONROEVILLE, PA — About 1,000 “Real Cameo” fans showed up to witness the veteran funk & RnB band play their multitude of hit songs ranging from their mid-70s debut to their heydays of the mid-1990s. It was the band’s first visit to Pittsburgh in 30 years.

Amazingly enough, Cameo’s string of solid, well-written, well-arranged good tunes have withstood the test of time, and like a few other self-contained funk bands from their era including Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, The Commodores and Earth, Wind & Fire, the Cameo brand still reigns supreme among their legions of fans, worldwide.

During their recent return to the Steel City, a largely “old school” contingent of original funksters came out to witness the funky sounds uniquely known as CAMEOSIS, the seven-piece legendary group who appeared at the spacious Monroeville Convention Center in suburban east Pittsburgh, Friday, Oct. 30. Group leader Larry Blackmon acknowledged his Pittsburgh fan-base, noting that the 40-year old group hadn’t played Pittsburgh since playing “a theater downtown.”  The crowd quickly jarred his memory by collectively responding that it was the “Stanley Theater” where they performed around 1985. The Stanley has since been renovated and renamed the Benedum Theater.

Unlike EWF’s Maurice White, Cameo founder, Blackmon physically remains at the front-man helm and still appears onstage in his typical announcer’s mode, along with assisting with background vocals and limited lead singing. Blackmon was the original drummer when the band formed in Harlem in 1974, then known as the New York City Players. Much like Don Henley (The Eagles) and Walter Orange (The Commodores), Blackmon originally did his lead vocal work from behind the drums. Years later, he would hire a young New Orleans-bred drummer, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett, who continues to enjoy a 30-year off/on relationship with Cameo. On this night, Pittsburgh was honored by Moffett’s presence – as the 60-year-old, internationally-acclaimed percussionist demonstrated that the funk remains embedded in his soul — especially during his patented drum-intro into the group’s 1984 hit “She’s Strange.”

In its current iteration, unlike too many bands from past eras, Cameo remains a legitimate replica of its former version — primarily, due to the fact that they still feature a large representation of pivotal members from their heyday. In addition to Blackmon, the group features longtime frontman Tomi Jenkins, in addition to bassist Aaron Mills. Gone are dread-locked lead singer Nathanial Leftenant, but longtime, MVP guitarist Charlie Singleton remains in the fold. The surprise of the night was the apearance of Moffett and original guitarist Anthony Lockett. After working the Cameo gig in the early 1980s, Moffett temporarily hired-on with top-tier tours including the J-5 Victory Tour and gigs led by Michael Jackson and Madonna, during their high-powered 1980s touring years. Blackmon was obviously thrilled to have Moffett and Lockett back in the fold. During a backstage interview, Lockett equally offered his sentiment that he’s gracious about returning to his original group. “It’s a good feeling. Like returning home,” he said.

Drummer Jonathan "Sugarfoot" Moffett remains as Cameo's heartbeat. (Photo by Timothy Cox)

Drummer Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett remains as Cameo’s heartbeat. (Photo by Timothy Cox)

Cameo’s 90-minute show moved along swiftly without intermission — though, there was a brief break after a sizzling jazz-fusion opening act performance featuring Pittsburgh area keyboardist Kevin Howard, the Carter Brothers: Winston (guitar) and Chaz (drums/vocals), Al Everson, keys; Eddie Bacccus, sax, with Ronnie Biggs and Kenzy Piersaint on bass guitars. The Carters were formerly known as CHAZ in the late 1980s, and once served as opening act to Keith Sweat during Sweat’s 1989 Pittsburgh debut, ironically at the now defunct Holiday House supper club, also in Monroeville.

A couple notable events occurred onstage during Cameo’s entire 90-minute performance – they played mostly ALL of their hits, including their rousing, rock-flavored opening number, Alliator Woman, followed by Shake Your Pants, Candy, Rigimortis, She’s Strange, Single Life, Attack Me With Your Love, Keep It Hot, Flirt, and the final tune of the night, “Word Up.”  The band now features two keyboardists, and one happened to be the first Caucasian musician ever to grace the Cameo stage.

But during this show, it was the ballads that drew the most reaction — especially from the female patrons. When Blackmon noted to the audience, that he was now identifying “the REAL Cameo fans,” the band segued into the signature bass-line intro of “Sparkle,” a tune that has nothing to do with the classic ’70s film starring Irene Cara and Lonette McKee.  Instead, Cameo’s “Sparkle” has a life of its own, as one of the most sweetly-arranged love songs released in 1979.

The group followed-up this hit with the equally soothing,”Why Have I Lost You,” from 1978. Both slow jams were written by Blackmon, while guitarist Anthony Lockett co-wrote Sparkle with Blackmon. On this night, Lockett, Singleton and Jenkins all combined their lead-singing talents on both ballads. Real Cameo fans still miss the first-tenor/falsetto offerings of original leaders Thomas “TC” Campbell and the late Wayne Cooper. Another missing factor from their ’80s heyday, is when the band once featured a powerful brass section with the Leftenant brothers, Nathan (trumpet) and Arnett (sax) with Jeryl Bright on trombone. The horn-driven “Talkin Out The Side of Your Neck” was omitted from the playlist, perhaps due to their lack of horns. Though they didn’t play an encore, the band finished strong with the funk/rap-flavored “Word Up,” the group’s major cross-over hit from 1994.

Retired club disc jockey, Darryll “Boogie Machine” Dunn also noted the group’s flawless cover of their summer 1984 hit, “Hangin’ Downtown.” Dunn, a music historian, recalls that the song reached popularity during a period when downtown Pittsburgh was a hotbed “hanging spot” for black socialites when nightspots like Heaven, Crazy Quilt, Walt Harpers, the Bank-Library and Reflections were premier social stops.

Show promoter Popa Banks of Pittsburgh, said he was somewhat satisfied with the turnout. “I didn’t hear of any complaints and the both bands put on

quality performances,” he said, adding that he’ll continue to book future shows.

On Oct. 7, Cameo entered a long-term engagement at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort Casino. A Vegas gig of this type is rare for funk bands, and typically reserved for the big bands of Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton, Harry Belafonte and more recently Gladys Knight and Patti Labelle.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Having witnessed Cameo during their heyday both at the Stanley Theater and at the Lakefront Burke Airport Funk Festival in Cleveland (1984), it’s amazing that

the group can still generate a similar energy as in their glowing past. Blackmon still sports a high-top hairdo, and it looks legit, void of any bigene dyes or fake extensions. He also still wears his signature

red protective cup. Blackmon, at age 59, is noticeably a slower showman. His stage physicality antics are a step lower than from years ago, and he spends a significant amount of time off-stage while other band members carry-on audience-participation duties. Though several audience members complained about the lack of final encore song, the show was long enough, and the audience certainly got their money’s worth.)

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