by Rahmana Finney
The passage of time has seen Cameo maintain an outstanding presence through the years with their signature style and unique sound, even as the music business has continually changed. They have been sampled and covered by multiple artists over the years, and Tomi is co-writer of some of Cameo’s hugest hits including Single Life, Back and Forth, Talking Out the Side of Your Neck, She’s Strange, Candy, and monster world-wide hit (also nominated for a Grammy) Word Up.
Word Up is played on the radio to this day, and is a quintessential cultural shout-out on the now widely used phrase ‘word up’, which is still a part of New York Hip-Hop culture’s vernacular expressions. Cameo has truly been part of the backbone of Black music history in America, and Tomi graciously shared with us the groups’ origins and his own amazing experiences with Cameo, and in the music business.
WWF: So I know you are a NY man — how do you like it in the Bay Area?
Tomi: Well, New Jersey, actually. I like it out here. I lived in Atlanta for 15 years, that’s the first place I moved to after I left New Jersey. I drove down there in ’81 because Cameo relocated from NY to start the company Atlanta Artists, and I stayed, well with various stops; I came out to LA briefly for the first time, and went down to Miami and stayed there for about 3 years.
WWF: So you grew up in New Jersey?
Tomi: Yeah, a really cool small town, Rahway. It’s like 10 or 15 miles from the city. New York.
WWF: So how did you get started—what led you to your love of music?
Tomi: I always sang, and even as a kid, I loved music. I loved writing. I sang in the church that my mom and family went to, in the choir. My boys and I did our thing on the corners and at parties as teenagers, we had a group called The Emancipations. My mom was a great singer, that's where I get my voice from. She told me she was approached to record a record, but being a dedicated Christian, my grandmother wasn't having that. So she happily sang in the choir at Second Baptist Church!
WWF: I only sing for the Lord!
Tomi: Exactly! I grew up in a household full of music. Of course jazz, you know, Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis, and then when I got older I got interested in the Motown Sound, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Stevie, The Four Tops, of course The Temps. Eventually I started getting into Santana, a lot of the Rock groups, and of course Sly and the Funk. Who didn't listen to James Brown? That’s when I
really started exploring all types of music, which has served me well.
WWF: Were there any local musicians or bands in the NY area that were a significant influence on you? I mean cause you guys grew up in a time where the number of Soul and Funk bands was outstanding.
Tomi: Well, I don’t know if it was necessarily NY, but you know New Birth and groups like that were very influential for me. Tom Brown, Funkin' For Jamaica was killing it.
WWF: It’s interesting cause we’ve spoken to a few musicians who were from the NY area and it seems like there is this phenomenon where you all were sort of unaware of each other until you became successful.
Tomi: Right, right, because of course you had Luther and Chic. Back then it was Disco, club music. So I was familiar with Nile and Bernard and the ladies of Chic, and we all kinda hung out in NY. It was great, just a lot of producers and great singers like Fonzi Thornton, people like that. Cameo would be in one studio and they would be next door, doing their thing. So yeah, it was the dance scene back then, and in the mid-70s disco was fading and Funk was arriving.
WWF: So tell me about how all those 14 people came together to form the New York City Players.
Tomi: Well, I met Larry when I was 18, and he had just finished with
a group called East Coast, with keyboard player Gregory Johnson and Gwen Guthrie was also a part, may she rest in peace, she was a wonderful, wonderful singer! Oh my gosh.
WWF: Yes indeed.
Tomi: So when Larry disbanded East Coast, they were looking to start something else, and I was at this club in Queens, my girlfriend was a singer in this other band, and I happened to meet this guy who was Larry’s manager at the time. So we got to talking and I told him what I did, and he said he knew a band that was looking for a singer, and I’ll never forget it, it was around Memorial Day.
That’s when I met Larry. We started out with about 6 or 7 pieces, called ourselves the New York City Players. While we were doing shows in Toronto we picked up the Leftenant brothers, Nathan on
trumpet and Arnett, who played sax, when they were doing gigs with people like Sam and Dave. We would play Rochester, Buffalo, you know take our cars and a van, we did it like that! We would go out to Michigan and a lot of these places and just be the house band, spend about 3 or 4 weeks at one spot.
It was a great way to perfect our stage show, to develop our professionalism on stage and how to interact with the crowd. A lot of these places were small clubs and the audience was right in your face, practically on the stage! You had to have a good sense of talking to people and relating to them, that back and forth between artist and audience, so it was really a great training ground.
WWF: Oh wow!
Tomi: Yeah! How about that? Right about that time we were approached to do a song by a NY songwriter who wrote for Broadway shows named Johnny Melfi. He had this Disco song called Find My Way. Fast forward and the song was heard by Neil Bogart, president of Casablanca Records, who loved it and signed us. At that point, we became Cameo. We wanted to call ourselves The Players, but The Ohio Players had something to say about that so …
WWF: Right! So how did you all come up with Cameo?
Tomi: We were in Toronto driving down the street, and there was a cigarette called Cameo that we saw up on this billboard ad. We had been trying to find a name because we really needed one at that
point, and Gregory Johnson said, man we should call ourselves Cameo. He happened to smoke that brand at the time. It was one word, had multiple meanings, like Cameo appearance, and a Cameo is a finely crafted jewel or piece of jewelry, that’s how we interpreted it and that’s how we built the story around that name, so Cameo was birthed at that point. Everybody said let’s do it!
WWF: And what year was that?
Tomi: That was around '75, ’76.
WWF: Oh wow, I thought you would have said somewhere in the 80’s, you guys got started early!
Tomi: Oh yeah, our first album Cardiac Arrest was in ’77 on Cecil Holme's Chocolate City Records, one of the Casablanca labels. I was twenty-three years old. The cover of Cardiac Arrest features female breasts, it still take people a minute to figure out what it is! We were really crazy back then, the cover is a little freaky but that was the funk in us.
On the back there’s, I think 8 or 9 of us, and we just started growing from there. We would pick up guys, guys would come in and out. At one point we had 14 or 15 band members! We really wanted the ‘band’ experience. EW&F was a big influence on us. I patterned my singing style after Maurice White. That’s who we listened to on the bus, and Santana, the Police, a lot of Rock.
We got a really good education, but with EW&F, we really liked where they were coming from in terms of their spirituality, and what they talked about and sang about, and also the musicianship and how you had a big band with horns, keyboards, singers, the stage
show. So, we built our group based on that. We were like that for a while, I mean, nobody got paid! But that’s how we did it.
WWF: For some reason I really thought you would say P-Funk was a really big influence on you.
Oh yeah they definitely, definitely were! And actually our very first tour as Cameo was with George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. It was the tour with the Mothership and the whole deal, and I mean it was a year long extravaganza, but that was our first tour! We opened up for them. And it was phenomenal! Yes I was more a Funkadelic guy, I just like that freaky nature of Funkadelic.
When we toured, everybody was just so cool; the Parlettes and the Brides of Funkenstein, Dawn and Sheila and Jenette and all those girls man, they were just fantastic. One of the guitar players and singer, Gary Shider, who passed some years ago, and I were great friends.
It was a transendant experience, and our album Cardiac Arrest was partly influenced by George and Parliament and then we kind of, you know like most artists when they first emerge, you are what you hear until you develop your own style, your own thing, which is what we did.
WWF: You really did. I would have to say that more than any other group, you guys developed a really unique sound. And one of the things that I noticed, you actually gave equal attention to the guitars AND the horn section. You guys incorporated all of those elements into the songs, and then on top of having the really catchy lyrics, honestly I was sitting here wondering, wow, I wonder if Cameo was really the last breath of
that big band sound as Hip-Hop started to take over, you know?
Tomi: You might be right about that. And because we were so influenced by Rock acts which really featured guitar, we incorporated that into the Funk, and that’s where we get our Parliament-Funkadelic edge. And then of course EW&F with the horns, you expressed that very accurately.
WWF: Who was on guitar?
Tomi: Oh we had several guitar players back then. Eric Durham was one of first cats in the early Cameo days, Charlie Singleton came in the ’80’s, he was very influential, we had some cats that came in just to record in the studio, and oh gosh, Pat Buchanan, he played on the Word Up solo, he played on a lot of different songs, Back and Forth.
Anthony Lockett, great guitar player, vocalist and songwriter. He’s from Georgia, so he’s more soul and blues, excellent. We had several guitar players that came through and expressed themselves very well and fit right in with what we were doing.
WWF: We always love to get the names of the instrumentalists because we feel they don’t get their due, and most of this amazing music in our culture is because of the instrumentalists, and we always want to give them a shout out you know?
Tomi: Exactly. And I think that’s important, especially now-a-days where you have downloads instead of album covers. Cause you know we used to turn the album cover over and look at who played on what, who sang what, who wrote what, you know who produced it. I mean now you don’t even know, you don’t have any idea. And
that’s one of the tragic things with the way things have been going, the last 10, 15 years or so.
WWF: So was it a creative decision to trim Cameo down to 3 people?
Tomi: Well, no, I don’t think that had as much to do with it as guys wanting to do some other things. And then we took that opportunity to introduce more of a Rock edge into the Cameo repertoire. That’s when you got Alligator Woman, you started getting a little more Rock at that point, which is cool.
Once you bring it down, and you’re not focused as much on horns, you know Rock is not as horn-oriented as R&B or Funk, so we took that opportunity to switch up some things and delve into a little bit of what we knew as individuals coming into it, collectively deciding, you know, let’s go this route for a minute, and we did, and it was cool.
WWF: We’re enjoying doing this series and interviewing all these amazing artists cause we love to hear you all’s thoughts on the music business itself, and what happened in terms of the process of this huge change, this huge transformation, you know?
Tomi: Yeah, I believe it’s a multi-pronged phenomenon, partly due to the narrowness of radio programming, as well as the actual record executives who knew music, dying off or leaving. They got replaced by younger fellows who didn’t really have that experience. Guys like Jimmy and Terry, cats who were musicians and who knew music, came from music, they had a sense of I know what it’s like to BE this. This is not about dollars and cents as much as it’s about