Cameo cofounder Tomi Jenkins and engineer Henry Falco talk about Word Up! on the thirtieth anniversary
By the mid-’80s, Larry Blackmon, Tomi Jenkins, and Nathan Leftenant—collectively known as Cameo—had demonstrated their musical versatility and acumen on a multitude of recordings since the beginning of their careers in the late ’70s. After being discovered by the founder of Casablanca Records, Neil Bogart, the then fourteen man ensemble signed their first recording contract in 1976. A year later, Chocolate City Records, a subsidiary of Casablanca Records, released the collective’s debut album, Cardiac Arrest, and they achieved their first hit record, “Rigor Mortis.” While achieving moderate success throughout the rest of the decade with their next three albums: We All Know Who We Are (1977), Ugly Ego (1978), and Secret Omen (1979), they ushered in the ’80s with a funk-laden ferocity that carried them to unparalleled heights. By 1981, the group downsized from ten members to five members and relocated to Atlanta, Georgia. Two years later, they began to control their own affairs when the group’s co-founder, Larry Blackmon, formed the record label Atlanta Artists, a subsidiary of Mercury Records. During this juncture, they were experimenting and tinkering with their overall sound, reduced their group by two more members, and released a series of albums: Cameosis (1980), Feel Me (1980), Knights of the Sound Table (1981), Alligator Woman (1982), Style (1983), She’s Strange (1984), and Single Life (1985). This string of consecutive successful albums, laid the foundation for the group to deliver an album for the ages. On September 9, 1986, Word Up! was released by Atlanta Artists and it became their first multiplatinum-selling smash. The album spawned three memorable singles, including their second number one hit: “Word Up!,” “Candy,” and “Back and Forth.” For the album’s thirtieth anniversary, we spoke with cofounding member Tomi Jenkins and engineer Henry Falco about crafting this classic album.
What is the story behind the forming of the group?
Tomi Jenkins: Larry [Blackmon] disbanded his group East Coast in New York. I grew up in New Jersey and Larry grew up in Harlem. I met him a year after I graduated from high school and that was in 1973. I was a dating girl who was singing in a group, and I happened to be in Queens, NY at a club where they were performing at. The band had a manager, and we were talking one night. He asked me what I did, and I told him that I was a singer and a writer. He said, “Okay. I know a guy who is looking to start another group. His group just ended their relationship. Would you mind if I introduce you to him?” I replied, “No, of course not.” I was about eighteen years old at the time. Shortly after that meeting, and I remember it was Memorial Day weekend, Larry came to the club and we met. We started talking and that was it. The New York City Players were formed at that point. He retained Gregory Johnson on keyboards from the other group and some other members. We started doing our club dates up and down the East Coast and in the Midwest. We were driving in cars and vans doing the whole circuit. They don’t do that anymore. It is a thing of the past for groups.
We had an opportunity to record a song for a Broadway songwriter who had a disco song back then called “Find My Way.” Through Harold, our manager, we were able to record the song. After we recorded it, Neil Bogart from Casablanca Records heard it and loved it. On the strength of that song, he signed us to a record deal. I think that song was in Thank God It’s Friday along with “Rigor Mortis,” which was another song we recorded on our first album. We weren’t a disco band, but we played in a lot of clubs back in the day in New York. We played in a lot of gay clubs. One gay club, in particular, called Better Days is a place where we played very well. We played cover songs and stuff like that, so we always had a great live show. This is how we were signed by Casablanca Records, then we went to Cecil Holmes who formed another record label within Casablanca Records called Chocolate City Records. Cecil signed us as his first act for the label. This is when we started doing all the funky stuff. We started becoming a funk band. This is how the group was formed. From the first album, Cardiac Arrest, on to the last, it was history.
When did the group decide to change your name from New York City Players to Cameo?
Tomi Jenkins: When we were signing our record deal, we wanted to change our name. We wanted to call ourselves the Players instead of the New York City Players, but the Ohio Players were burning up the charts at that time, so that was the conflict. We couldn’t use that name anymore. So we were in Toronto one day doing a show at a club, and we were rolling down the street and saw a billboard for Cameo cigarettes. We were like, “Cameo, well that’s nice.” Then we started thinking about using Cameo Appearance because everyone in the group would have a cameo appearance. We’d have guys in the group who would be strong individually. We also thought about using Cameo Brooch like the jewelry because a brooch is finely crafted, and we thought of ourselves as a group of finely crafted men and musicians. So we had a couple of metaphors and taglines to Cameo. We settled on Cameo because it was one word and it was easy to say.
During the early years of your group, can you describe the process of finding your signature sound?
Tomi Jenkins: Well, the guys in the group came from different musical backgrounds. I was a singer and a writer. My heroes were Marvin Gaye; Stevie Wonder; Earth, Wind & Fire; Maurice White; Sting and the Police. They were my influences. My mother and dad always played Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, and all the jazz greats. My mother was a great singer, too. This is how I developed my style by listening to these greats. Later on, I would also listen to Steely Dan. We had a wide variety of musical influences. Larry was a great drummer, so he had his own style. Many of the other guys in the group did as well. I was from New Jersey, but everyone else in the group was from New York, so we would rehearse in New York. This was after we were signed. After we got signed, we went on a worldwide tour with Parliament Funkadelic and The Bar-Kays. This was when the Mothership Connection came out for them. It was amazing. We were opening for them every night. Imagine being on the road with the kings of funk at that time. During that year, we became so good that we wound up switching places with The Bar-Kays. [laughs] When we would come in from the road, our bus would pull right up to the rehearsal home on 34th Street. We’d go right into the studio. We did a lot of our writing on the road on our tour bus. It was a very cool process because we were all together. This was before there were studios in a bus. We would have our mini tape players, and we would mouth beats into it or bass lines. This is how I came up with the bass lines for “Word Up!,” “Single Life,” “Flirt,” and “Candy.” How I came up with the ideas for those songs was, I would be mouthing the bass lines into a mini cassette recorder. Then, I’d take them to Larry, and we’d work out the rest of the song. We’d put down the guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums, then we’d play it live in the studio.
How did you become involved on this project?
Henry Falco: Well, at the time, Cameo was working on their album, Single Life, at Quad City Recording Studios. I did a couple of sessions with them on that album. They had another assistant engineer at the time. There were about four or five popular engineers there. I was working with my people, and they had another guy named Tommy. All the artists were very particular about their assistant engineers because the assistant engineer was always there in the studio. So they had this guy named Tommy that they loved, but Tommy wanted to produce another project and it was conflicting with Word Up! I’d done one session with them before. One of the engineers there named Matt Kasha was someone I worked with a ton. So I replaced Tommy, and I ended up doing many things and all of us became close.
Coming off the group’s previous successful album, Single Life, what was the group’s mindset in crafting this album?
Tomi Jenkins: We definitely wanted to take it to the next level. “Single Life” was a great song, and I think “Word Up!” was a great extension of that song. Songs like “Attack Me with Your Love” were defining the Cameo sound at that point. Everything after Word Up! were derivatives. I don’t think they were our best work at all. I think we may have reached our peak at Word Up! We had a couple of great songs like “Emotional Violence,” but we had a few missteps when we were trying to recreate that “Word Up!” and “Candy” magic. We were really at our creative peak during this time. We were striving for the same goals. It was a very exciting time. When we were creating these songs, we didn’t know how effective they would be on the radio or in the marketplace. As a matter of fact, after we recorded the album, we wanted “Word Up!” to be the first single. The record label didn’t agree with us; they wanted to release a different single which is not uncommon. There was an English gentleman from Polydor Records in the U.K. that told the record executives in the States, “If you don’t release ‘Word Up!’ you’re stupid.” [laughs] Apparently, the English gentleman was right. It turned out to be the biggest song we had. It has influenced many other records. What’s interesting about Word Up! is, we recorded our first album in 1977 and ten years later, “Word Up!” came. Our influences ranged from Santana, Grand Funk Railroad, and Earth, Wind & Fire was a big deal for us, not only musically but spiritually. We always had that rock edge to our stuff anyways. There were always guitars, keyboards, horns and brass instruments were very important to our sound.
So we were not unlike many of the groups at that time. Over the course of time, we were able to develop our own sound based on what we collectively imagined. Our sound developed to become the Cameo sound. We couldn’t help but to absorb the sounds and vibrations we came in contact with over the years. Sooner or later, our creative consciousness expanded, and we were doing our music and standing on our own. We were always quirky. Word Up! was a call to party. I thought “Word Up!” was an unlikely hit and “Candy” even more so because the bass line was so quirky and different that I didn’t know if people would get it. The combination of the vocal styling, the arrangement, and what the song was talking about turned it into a phenomenon. “Word Up!” and “Candy” solidified our place in music history.
During the making of this album, what was the group’s collaborative approach when you were inside and outside the studio creating music for these seven songs?
Tomi Jenkins: It was fantastic because we had a singer named Willie Morris who had that gritty, Southern voice, which was a great counterpoint to Larry, Charlie [Singleton], and my voice in the studio. We were excited to be doing what we loved to do. We had the backing of the record label. We didn’t have to worry about any money. We were able to have a great time. The only thing we had to concentrate on was making music. Several years ago, I found the original yellow pad that I wrote the lyrics on for “Candy.” All those years just floated away, and I was right back in the mood when I was writing the lyrics for that track. I wrote the song from a bass line that I mouthed into a mini tape recorder. When I took it to Larry, he said, “Man, that is the shit right there! We gotta do something with that.” The same thing happened with “Word Up!” Larry was playing the drums when I came up with the bass line for “Word Up!” He was right on it. Mike Burnett was playing the bass then, too. It was just amazing. We had a tight group of guys. We were in sync. When a band is in sync and rolling, people can tell. I think the reason why everything flowed so well was that everyone was happy and in a good place mentally. We felt great. How we came up with the title for Word Up! is a funny story. Back in the day in New York, people used to say “word” to each other. One day, we were in London doing an interview at the BBC. We were rolling through the gates at the BBC and the fans were all out there by the gates. They were yelling at us, “Cameo! Word Up!” We didn’t know they knew the expression “word” and then we said, “That’s it! Word Up!” Larry and I looked at each other and said, “That’s it.” We were in the studio writing the song at that time. We were wondering what to call that record. We knew we wanted to make it contemporary and current. At that time, we wanted to say word and something else. When we were in London and heard this one guy say, “Word up!,” that’s all we needed to hear. We continued to write the song. We had the beat, the groove, and everything else. It was really amazing. Cameo has always been on the edge of rock and funk.
Henry Falco: There are a number of positive stories from this record. We worked on “Word Up!” during our first week in the studio together, then we never worked on it again until the end. The clap sound in the song is something we spent days and days and days making. We were putting microphones on different floors, and we were clapping five floors down. We had a thousand different sounds until that one particular thing came together. It was amazing. This record was a really big deal. At Quad, we worked on a lot of big records. This one was a big deal. Single Life did well on the charts, so they had a lot of people coming by, and I was constantly getting people off the floor because there were too many people in there. They worked their asses off, though. To this day, when people tell me they want to be successful, I use Cameo as an example. They really wanted success, and they didn’t sleep ever. As engineers, we worked a lot, but these guys didn’t go home. [laughs] It was unbelievable. They worked really hard. Larry [Blackmon] was very particular about everything. On the day I did vocals, we punched one word for like three hours. It was the word the. [laughs] One of my friends heard it in the hallway for hours. This experience taught me how to do vocals. This is how we did the drums, bass, and everything. I learned a lot from them. It was good times. This record was particularly fun. Every day they booked the studio from twelve o’clock to eight o’clock. It was perfect. They were really nice guys and everyone got along. When you make a record, you get close to people, so it was really cool.
The song “Word Up!” wasn’t even called “Word Up!” yet. It was called “What’s the Word” forever. That was name of it on the track sheets. Like I said before, we only worked on it during that first week in the studio, then we worked on everything else. The other hits: “Candy” and “Back and Forth” were songs we did during our last two weeks in the studio. Most of the album was recorded, and all of a sudden, they came in with three more songs and two of them were “Candy” and “Back and Forth.” We did them so fast. The song “Don’t Be Lonely” is a song where they asked me to program the drums on it. This was some of the first MAC based drum stuff. It was completely computerized. We were hooking up cables everywhere. I learned so much about MIDI and MIDI was new at that time. Sammy [Merendino] had the first MAC and he had samples on it. We would sit there for hours making snare and kick sounds. It was never-ending. We had a Mitsubishi thirty-two-track digital recorder with a reel tape that was an hour long. The whole album was on it, and we couldn’t make backups because there wasn’t another Mitsubishi. By the end of the album, I was kind of petrified that we might lose something. With analog reel there is only twelve to fifteen minutes of recording, so you could be changing tapes all day. By using the Mitsubishi, we could go from song to song without changing reels. It was amazing. It was a really good machine. It weighed 6,000 tons but it was awesome.
By the time they began recording Single Life, it was only Tomi [Jenkins], Nathan [Leftenant], and Larry in the group. They had a former group member, Charlie Singleton, to come in and play guitar. They had the Brecker brothers, Michael and Randy, to come in and play sax. That was the only session I missed during the recording of the album. To this day, I regret it. I was on a vacation at the time. They played on three or four songs, and they played such amazing stuff. Tomi was such a nice guy. He was always smiling, and he worked his fucking ass off. Larry was intense and a really great guy. When the engineer, Larry, and I would be in the room working, it was such a blast. Larry worked his ass off, too. Up until that point, I hadn’t worked with anyone that deserved the fame they got. These guys worked so hard for it. I really respected those guys.
Who led the charge in coming up with the melodies, harmonies, and arrangements for the songs on this album?
Tomi Jenkins: Larry was very influential in doing the arranging of the songs. All of us contributed vocal arrangements and melodies. A lot changed when we went into the studio to work on “Word Up!” When I brought the song to the fellas, we started dissecting it and working on it and building it up and tearing it away. This was our process. Larry was trying to figure out what to do with it. He pretty much wrote the song. The one good thing about our group at that time was that we were involved in most aspects. Nathan and Arnett [Leftenant] were great arrangers for the horn section. Larry contributed in the horn arrangements as well. We were a good group of guys that spread the talent around. When a group has talented cats, you have to let them do their thing. This is what we did.
Henry Falco: Larry was king. He was very meticulous. Larry was one of the first people that I truly believed knew how he wanted to translate the music from his head into actual sounds. He really had something in his head that he was trying to get to. It was fun to watch. He was dedicated. A lot of the material was worked out before they came into the studio. The drum programming and drum and bass sounds are what took forever to complete. Tomi sang a lot in the studio. If you listen to the record, there is not much on it. It’s pretty sparse. Larry was pretty much in charge of people playing. Nathan would have keyboard ideas, but they worked a lot of their stuff out before they came into the studio. By the time they got into the studio, it was getting more of their stuff down.
What was the group’s set studio routine?
Tomi Jenkins: We would arrive at the studio at twelve o’clock in the afternoon and try to leave by eight or nine o’clock in the evening. We would work for at least eight or nine hours in the studio every day. This routine gave us a chance to sleep and rest. Sometimes, we would come in at four or five o’clock in the evening and go until one or two o’clock in the morning. It varied. We wanted to have that continuity. Some guys would come in earlier to work on different parts, but it would give us time. First, we would work on the music. While members of the group would work on music, Larry and I would be somewhere else working on lyrics, and Nathan, Arnett, and Jeryl Bright would be working on the horn section and horn parts for a record. Everything was organized because time was money. We didn’t want to waste any time in the studio. Even though it was the record label’s money, we still didn’t want to waste any time.
What were some of the instruments you used in coming up with the sounds for the songs?
Tomi Jenkins: Back then, we were just starting to experiment with electronic drums and different sounds. There were the classic sounds in the Neve board. We had the standard twenty-four and forty-eight tracks. Larry was a big advocate for creating and changing sound which is why our production was in your face. It wasn’t necessarily the equipment that we used, but what we did with the equipment that was available to us. “Word Up!” was a unique song because of the sound from the snare drum. It received attention from a lot of people. We were doing a Radio One interview, and a well-known singer called in and asked us, “How did y’all come up with that snare sound?” We answered, “Well, it’s not really a snare sound. It’s not even a snare. It’s some hand claps and other elements in there that we piled on top of each other.” That sound became ubiquitous on commercials and TV shows. When you heard that “Word Up!” snare drum sound, you knew where it came from because nothing was like it prior to it. Larry was the architect of our sound, and we loved it.
What was it like recording the album in Quad City Recording Studios?
Henry Falco: Quad City Recording Studios wasn’t famous for being the most beautiful studio in the world, but it sounded unbelievable and that was the only thing they cared about. It was pretty chill. Quad built itself up from being an eight-track recording studio to one of the biggest in the world. The owner of the studio was a computer nerd, and he could build anything and make the studio work. We recorded the album in Studio A which was on the eighth floor. This is where we tracked and mixed some of it. It had an SSL 4000 console and it had forty-eight channels. It had the latest reverbs. Studio A was the biggest room at Quad. It was thirty feet by thirty feet. The control room was really nice. It was the best sounding room at Quad. While they were there, they built two more studios. Cameo helped Quad to become famous. Larry got a really good deal from Quad. I couldn’t believe the deal he got at Quad. That’s why they really moved in. There was more than one session where they didn’t show up, but it was usually because they passed out. They’d go to the studio then to dance class at night then they would go schmooze all night long then they would wake up in the morning at six o’clock to do yoga. Literally, I would just shake my head when they’d come into the studio because they would sleep for like an hour. This happened for months. I was amazed by that.
In the credits for the album, I noticed that a young Bernard Wright received credit for playing keyboards. How was he brought on to contribute to this album?
Tomi Jenkins: What can I say about Nard, man? I love that brother. He’s one of the most eccentric cats you want to know. I don’t like tossing the word genius around, but he is a genius. He is a beautiful cat. Not too many can come into the Cameo thing and hang with us. Not too many people can do that but Bernard Wright did it. We’ve had a few guys that came into our situation who didn’t come up with us that got it. We left him alone. When I heard “Funkin’ for Jamaica,” I said, “Okay. That’s the dude right there.” [laughs]
Can you talk about the making of “Back and Forth” from this album?
Tomi Jenkins: “Back and Forth” was a song that came to us from Kevin Kendrick. Kevin was a keyboard player, and he was with the Dazz Band earlier in his career. He was from Indianapolis, and he grew up with Babyface and all those cats. Kevin was a genius. He was one of those guys that can play anything: jazz, classical, and anything. His feel was amazing. All of us contributed to the lyrics for this song. We’d get in a room to do the music, then we’d sit down and bounce lyrics off one another. Once we had the theme together, we would decide where things went within the song structure. We would add and subtract. On this song, we wanted to talk about the complications of being in a relationship. The groove was a keyboard bass. There was no bass guitar on there. It was keyboard based.
Were there any interesting behind-the-scenes stories during the making of the album?
Henry Falco: I remember Levar Burton coming by the studio. I was setting up for one of the sessions, and he told Larry that there was going to be a new Star Trek show and he was going to be on it. I was a Star Trek freak, so I thought to myself that this is why I got into the music business for that type of information. I felt like I was the luckiest guy on earth because I was getting top line information from the people I was working with. We recorded everything at Quad City Recording Studios. We mixed the record in other studios, but the majority of the recording was done at Quad. All the information from the record was a on a floppy disk. The SSL console had a floppy disk drive. On that floppy disk, I had everything on it such as where the song started, the cues, notes, and everything. I said, “Larry, you’re going to another studio. I’m not going to another studio. I don’t know that studio.” He replied, “Hank, you’re going. Okay.” He was the only person who has ever called me Hank. But I knew where everything was at Quad. So the first studio we went to mix “Word Up!” at, I handed the floppy disk to the assistant engineer, and he was nervous because I was coming as Cameo’s assistant engineer. I told him to relax and to make a copy of the floppy disk. I gave it to him and he erased everything on the floppy disk. The engineer walked in the room ten seconds later. I said, “Dave, if you need anything on this tape, ask me. Don’t ask Larry. Don’t even mention anything about the SSL.” Larry would’ve flipped out if he found out. Technically, I wrote down a lot of things on track sheets and other stuff, so it took me days of retyping everything, but I got most of it back so I didn’t have to mention it. One day, when we were all hanging out, I told them about it way after I fixed everything. I told them about it to make them laugh and it worked. [laughs] No harm was done in the end, but I was a total wreck during that recording session. It was a nightmare losing those time codes and cues.
As you look back thirty years later on the significance of this recording, how do you feel about the impact the record has made on popular culture?
Tomi Jenkins: Thirty years later when we play “Candy” or “Word Up!” the place goes crazy, so it shows how much of an impact we’ve made with these songs. We didn’t want to be in the business to do one record. We wanted to make it our career and to make money. The first day with this band I made $100. When we were the New York City Players, I was making $25 per day, but I was doing what I loved to do. It was amazing. I didn’t know how long it would last. There was a point during the early days where I had to stop. This was right before “Rigor Mortis” came out. The record was done and the album was finished. We went back to our jobs. [laughs] Larry worked as a tailor in a clothing store. I was working in pharmaceuticals. One day I was driving down the street, and I heard “Rigor Mortis” on the radio. Frankie Crocker played it as a World Premiere. He had his radio show, and when you heard World Premiere, it was something that no one had heard before. So I was driving in my car and I heard him say “World Premiere.” I heard this first couple of lines in our song, and I said, “Oh no!” I pulled my car over on the side of the road, and I started laughing. The first time you hear your song on the radio is a memory you’ll never forget. At that point, everything became crystal clear to me. This is what I was meant to do.
What we all had in common was the music. We had respect for each other’s talent and creativity. Larry and I were great songwriters together. We vibed well in creating the songs we did together. If the song wasn’t good enough, we wouldn’t do it. Each member had mutual respect for each other and that transcended anything else. It’s always been about the music. When I reflect on the history of our group and this album, specifically, it can’t be taken lightly. I’m standing here still taking the stage with essentially the same cats I’ve been doing this with for the past thirty-five to forty years. That’s pretty amazing and a real blessing.
Henry Falco: I was honored to work them on it. I loved working with the group. I had some of my best times at Quad with them. The fact the album became famous and a classic was the icing on the cake. It was such an honor. It was a great record.