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The Knights of Chocolate City

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The Knights of Chocolate City

The success of Donna Summer, coupled with the addition of Moroder’s acts on the Oasis label, fulfilled Neil Bogart’s desire to have a record company specializing in a number of styles. In 1976, one could find just about anything at Casablanca: hard rock (Angel), comedy (Lenny Bruce), blues-folk (Long John Baldry), jazz (Hugh Masekela), and pop (Larry Santos). Marc Nathan remembers, “We had a Buddy Miles record called ‘Rockin’ and Rollin’ on the Streets of Hollywood’. We had a group called The Group with No Name. The single was ‘Baby Love’. One of my favorite singles on Casablanca back in that era was a song called ‘The Phone’s Been Jumping All Day’ by Jeannie Reynolds. It was never attached to an album. She was a tremendous, singer”.

Reynolds, who tragically committed suicide in 1980, was among the label’s numerous R&B acts. With the success of Parliament, Neil Bogart had a proposition for Cecil Holmes. “Neil came to me”, Holmes recalls, “and he said, ‘Cecil, why don’t we start a label under your name, and we can distribute it. You’ll be responsible for that label but you still got to work the Casablanca stuff. A lot of the R&B stuff would be on the label’. At that time, Parliament’s Chocolate City album was very popular, so we got the name from that”. Holmes’ Chocolate City Records debuted with three acts: Smoke, Brenda & the Tabulations, and a group from New York City called Cameo.

Founded by Larry Blackmon, Cameo arrived at Casablanca in 1975 via “Find My Way”, a rollicking disco tune written by Broadway tunesmith Johnny Melfi. Cameo originally recorded the song when audiences on the east coast knew the band as “The New York City Players”. Attorney Sandy Smith brought the song to Neil Bogart, who instantly fell in love with tune’s gliding harmonies and galloping rhythms. “Find My Way” eventually appeared on three albums, including the Thank God It’s Friday (1978) soundtrack, but not before it was selected as the single to introduce the Chocolate City label.

Gregory Johnson (Cameo): “Find My Way” was supposed to be this big disco hit. Neil Bogart just loved this song. It was okay. The song was a little corny. It was our way of getting in the door with the record deal. 

Larry Blackmon (Cameo): After that song bombed, some time later – maybe a year later, maybe less – I called Casablanca and asked to speak to Cecil Holmes. I asked if he would listen to some of our original material that we wrote because, obviously, we wanted to have a relationship with the record company. We took no further songs from Johnny Melfi but we asked Cecil to come into New York and we rented a rehearsal space at S.I.R. on 52nd St. Cecil came to the rehearsal studio and we played the original material: “Rigor Mortis”, “Funk Funk”, “Post Mortem”, songs that were on the first album. Cecil listened and then at the end I asked him, “So what do you think Cecil? Do you think we could do something?” He said, “Absolutely”.

Holmes: I can remember meeting Larry at the hotel in New York, because I used to stay at the Park Lane, and he came up to meet me one time and he said, “I’m glad you guys are giving me a shot. I got so many great ideas”. When Chocolate City started, we brought them out to California and bingo!

Blackmon: We came self-contained. I guess their philosophy was if it wasn’t broke, there’s no need to fix it.

Rodriguez: I account the success of Cameo and Larry Blackmon to artist development. That was a true artist development story. Every year they only got better to the point that they were just amazing. They had a great agent at the time. This guy didn’t have a lot of acts, he had very few, but what he had, he worked them like there was no tomorrow. Urban radio really broke them. It took time. This did not happen overnight. It took them a couple of albums. By their second album, We All Know Who We Are (1977), is when they really started blowing up. You have to give credit to the people who got the music to the people, which is radio and retail. At the same time, you have to give credit to the people who signed them, Cecil Holmes, for really sticking with the group.

Johnson: Ruben Rodriguez, Jheryl Busby, Sheila Eldridge—they booked the interviews, we had to be there. You got to remember we didn’t know nothing about nothing. Cecil was very down to earth. He was very laid back. Cecil was cool. He did everything that he could. He put promotion on the single. I remember seeing Cameo on the back of the buses in New York City. He did all of the right things. He supported us on the tours, got us equipment, costumes. It was his baby.

Tomi Jenkins Cameo: Cecil was also a music guy. He was like our father back then. He was so cool just letting us go and do what we do. It was blessing to have that kind of support from the label.

Blackmon: Cecil was a sweetheart. He was always a mild-mannered guy. Cecil always took the path of least resistance. He wasn’t as much of a chance-taker as Neil was but Neil ran the company and Cecil was fortunate to have been a part of the evolution of it. They had nothing to do with anything in the way of selection of the material or anything like that. They would give their opinions on singles, of course, and would persuade us but we had a pretty decent working relationship. What made Cameo unique was, at the time, we pretty much thought we knew what people wanted or we felt the advent of a certain style would come about.

Jenkins: We were able to go in and do whatever we wanted. I remember it was so free because we all came up with different ideas. What was good about the time then was that there was less control by record labels to try to make an artist do a certain song. We were new. We didn’t even have a sound. We were formulating our own thing. It was new and exciting to experience music that went beyond the three-minute format. It took you on a journey. The whole advent of FM and the clubs becoming a viable source to discover and promote new music made it possible for bands to record six-minute, seven-minute songs and to know that the record label would be able to support it. We had another song in Thank God It’s Friday (1978), “It’s Serious”, which was more “Cameo-sounding” disco. That was a record you could dance to. It was long and it was great. It was just a part of the eclectic mix of songs that we had.

Cameo - “Shake Your Pants” (1980)

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 

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