[18 August 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Executive Assistant? Hardly. The buck stopped at Randee Goldman. Between 1974-1978, she was a veritable third arm of Neil Bogart. If you wanted to speak to Neil Bogart, you spoke first to Randee Goldman. “Right before everything happened”, she remembers, “Casablanca was almost bankrupt. Neil’s whole philosophy was, paint the building, give everybody a raise, make everybody think that we’re doing fantastic and worry about it later”, she laughs.
However, Neil Bogart’s optimism worked. Within the 12 months that Casablanca severed ties with Warner Bros. and became an independent company, the neon lights of its logo changed from bright to incandescent. The label earned its first major commercial success when Alive, the fourth release by KISS, reached the Top 10 of the album charts. Fueled by an explosive live version of “Rock and Roll All Nite”, the double-album captured what The KISS Army already knew: KISS was a phenomenal live act.
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The Mothership Lands
Meanwhile, the George Clinton-led Parliament gained traction on R&B stations and in record stores. “After their first album, Up for the Down Stroke (1974), they started to get a buzz”, recalls Cecil Holmes, who knew Clinton years earlier from his days as a staff writer at Motown. “It was an R&B hit. We got a lot of airplay and people started talking about them. When they had the second album, Chocolate City (1975) – boom, it exploded”. What had begun as a funky, freaky reincarnation of Clinton’s group, the Parliaments, became a force all its own when the Mothership descended upon Casablanca.
Cecil Holmes (Partner/Senior Vice President): George Clinton came to Neil and asked Neil if they would advance him the money for a spaceship. Neil right away said, “Okay”. They were so hot. Records were selling so basically it was their money anyway but somebody had to advance that money and take a chance on it. We went ahead. I can’t remember how much it cost but it was quite a bit. Of course, that was a big success – the spaceship coming out of the sky and George coming out in smoke.
Ruben Rodriguez (National Promotion and Marketing Director): For me, going to a Parliament-Funkadelic concert was as exciting as going to see Hendrix. It was on that plane. It was like a religious experience. It was something else. George Clinton had that command of the audience. George could have run for president. He had that kind of magnetism about him.
Ray D’Ariano (Director of East Coast Artist Relations): You’re sitting in Madison Square Garden and this spaceship lands and George Clinton gets out. His bass player, or whoever, is wearing a diaper and it’s this very bizarre, strange-looking band, but if you just close your eyes they are putting out some incredible music. Everything was in there – African music, jazz, James Brown. He took all this stuff and made a brand-new big stew out of it. His music is phenomenal, maybe the funky Zappa. They were something to be dealt with. Just like KISS, it was huge. Cecil Holmes had a lot to do with it.
Artie Wayne: Cecil Holmes was the first person to turn me onto Parliament. He had some masters in his office that they had just recorded. They were checking to see what should be put out. He played me “Tear the Roof Off” and I freaked out. He said, “We’re going to get black music played where black music isn’t ordinarily played” and he did because they were able to go pop with stuff like that and become a big arena act.
Bob Perry (Independent Promotion, Southeast): WQAM out of Miami was one of the first stations on “Tear the Roof Off”. That was the first big one. You get records in the discos that were so big they’d cross over to urban to black and then from black you’d go to Top 40. It’d happen in weeks if it was in the grooves.
Tom Moulton: “We want the funk”, God do I love that song! I must have been black in another life. I like Parliament-Funkadelic only because it’s right-to-the ground soul. You can’t get any funkier and “street-ier” than that. You may not like it but man it’s going to make those bones move. If you walk away from it, you’re going to walk in time. It’s amazing how that music controls your bones and your movement. It does something that you’re not aware of.
Bernie Worrell (Parliament-Funkadelic): I was a bad mother-(laughs). I don’t usually talk about myself, I’m the humble type, but I was the musical director. I was the child prodigy. I was the one that went to college and had all that knowledge so I could tell them when their instruments were flat or when their singing was flat. I did most of the arranging, including using real horns and strings. George and I wrote a bunch of stuff together. All he’d do was sing the melody and I’d put the chord changes to it and arrange it. We’d go into the studio and I’d teach the lines or the licks to whoever was playing that session. I was classically trained so there was order…but I needed help! P-Funk was wild, man. Bootsy Collins was coming from James Brown and James ran a strict show. George is loose. I had to crack the whip, but they’d listen. George needed that because he couldn’t control all the stuff that was going on.
D’Ariano: In a way, George Clinton is like Willie Nelson. In other words, Willie was the straight country singer with the suit and short hair and then he freaked out. He became “outlaw” Willie Nelson, and became huge. The same thing happened with Clinton. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow he got enlightened.
Phyllis Chotin (Vice President, Creative Services): George spoke a different language and he used to come to my office so I could interpret for Neil. Here I was this white chick and George would walk into my office…He was, and probably still is, a brilliant guy but yet he had a real difficulty at that time communicating with all the basically straight white folks at the label (who weren’t so straight, but you know what I mean).
Nellie Prestwood (Publicity): George is one of the most intellectual and brilliant men. The thing about Parliament-Funkadelic is that it’s an intellectual environment as well as a wild environment, which is kind of like two things that you’d never put together. You would never expect in a billion years to find these two things together. They’re so talented, witty, and quick.
Worthy Patterson (Vice President Sales and Promotion): George was George. You never knew what the hell he was going to do! We had a birthday party reception for him and he didn’t even show up. He was only a few blocks away.
Stephen Lumel (Designer): George Clinton was a pretty cool guy. You’re in a photo studio waiting for him and he walks in. You expect him to look like what he looks like on the album or onstage but he walks in a three-piece suit with a briefcase. He looked like a lawyer. He had his own artists that did stuff for them but sometimes they would need me to do some things.
Worrell: People would make a lot of stuff for us, not just for me but for all of P-Funk. I got scarves from all over the world. People would give me hats. I always had a little bit of hair. I always wanted dreadlocks but I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t grow an afro, so I got into hats. When I’d go into my jazz style, people would say I reminded them of Thelonious Monk. He was known for wearing his hats.
Chotin: I did several of their album covers too. The one that we had the most fun on was The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein (1976). It was just a fun day shooting that. I so loved their music
Perry: I used to pick them up at the airport and take them to the show, wherever they were playing. They were wonderful. They’re saying, “Look at this honky, he knows his shit!” so I got along good with them. They were wild guys, Clinton and Bootsy and Bernie Woo!
Worrell: This new product came out called the Minimoog. Keith Emerson had the original. It was huge. I got one and it had knobs on it so I didn’t have to use patch chords. I just loved the sound. God bless Bob Moog. I just started hittin’ it. “Flash Light”, we weren’t about trying to write a hit. We were just doing it because of the blessing of having a studio and being able to play, work. After that was a big hit, I was playing Mini Moog bass on almost everything. “One Nation Under a Groove” (Funkadelic), that’s me playing the bassline. “Aqua Boogie”, that’s me.
Rodriguez: Parliament-Funkadelic is like the equivalent of the Grateful Dead. Parliament-Funkadelic had the deadheads of R&B and funk. To this day, it’s a movement. That’s very powerful. George Clinton was ahead of his time. He was so visual. He had all these characters. It was one thing after the other. When I first met Chuck D. of Public Enemy, who I consider to be brilliant as well, I said, “You know who you remind me of? George Clinton”. I say that not from the standpoint of music. I say that from the standpoint of a marketer. George Clinton was a marketing genius.
D’Ariano: As successful as George is, I don’t know that he gets the credit. Musically, Parliament-Funkadelic is as good as any group that ever recorded: Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, James Brown, whoever you want to put in there. If he didn’t create funk, he brought it to a whole new level. He made funk bust wide open. Clinton brought it to totally new heights. Their music will live on.
Parliament-Funkadelic - “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker” (1976)
Parallel to the spike in popularity of Parliament and KISS was the growing currency of a new style of music that was born from the rhythms of Latin and R&B. It was the soundtrack to gay, black, and Hispanic nightclubs. It created a new DJ art form of slip-cueing records in one uninterrupted sequence. It was called “disco”.
Ironically, the man who was about to stoke the flames of the disco inferno initially had reservations about its commercial viability. Tom Moulton, who originated the 12” mix and would later sign with Casablanca as a producer, first met Neil Bogart at Buddah during the early days of disco. “I was trying to get records to play because I was making tapes at a place called the Sandpiper (Fire Island)”, he explains. “Neil said, ‘That disco crap is never going to happen’. It’s so funny now when I think about it. He was not a believer in it”, Moulton laughs. In less than two years, Neil Bogart was not only converted, he became the genre’s leading proselytizer. While KISS and Parliament set precedents in the concert arena, Munich-based producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte were about to catapult disco from the underground to the mainstream with a former rock band vocalist and stage star of Germany and Austria—Donna Summer.
Leroy Gomez (Santa Esmeralda: I remember in ‘68 was the first time I heard about disco. I was working with Tavares in Boston and I was dating a Jamaican girl that was from a rather wealthy family that was going to school in Switzerland. In those days, the band would play and everybody would dance. Then when the disc jockey would get up, everybody would sit down, and then they would serve drinks. This girl told me that in Europe, there are no bands. The disc jockey plays the records and everybody dances to the records. We all chuckled and said, “Are you kidding me?”
Eddie Drennon: I was playing in clubs in New York with Orquesta Novel. We played in discos really before they were known as discos. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (1972) was sort of the beginning of disco. That’s where I got my background in it. I was trying to an album with TR (Tito Rodriguez) Records but I wanted to do a Latin-jazz album. I brought some tapes up to Phil DeCarlo, who was the president of TR. Phil DeCarlo was Tito Rodriguez’s son in law. Just about that time, it must have been ‘74 or ‘75, he read an article about hustle music in the clubs in New York. People were doing this new dance called the hustle. He said, “You think you could do something addressed to the Latin hustle?” To make it a Latin hustle, I just sort of combined some of the Afro-Cuban beats with the disco beat, which was pretty simple to do because the music fell into a Latin flow anyway. I just added the little extra Latin percussion and the handclapping, but the rest of it was just straight R&B of that time. That’s how “Let’s Do The Latin Hustle” came about. Tom Moulton did a mix and that made the record even bigger because it came out on a 12”, which was new. The grooves were so far apart so you could put more bass on a 12”. You could make it longer. A 45 could only go maybe four minutes and then you were squeezing it and you couldn’t get any bottom.
Holmes: We were still on Sherbourne Drive. Neil had received some records from Giorgio Moroder for distribution. There were three different records. I remember Neil playing the records for me. The only one that really stuck out was Donna Summer.
Worrell: We like to say we raised Donna Summer because she used to come to the shows at the Sugar Shack in Boston. It’s deep, man. Donna, she was a young thing. She’s a Capricorn. I remember people’s signs.
Marc Nathan (National and Regional Promotion): I remember this very vividly. Neil and Buck Reingold (Vice President, Promotion) had the promotion staff on a conference call. They said, “You’re getting three albums from this label called Oasis. Your number one priority is Schloss. Your number two priority is Einzelganger, which was kind of like Kraftwerk but not as good. Then there’s this third record that’s coming out and it’s by a woman named Donna Summer. It’s called ‘Love to Love You Baby’. All we want you to do is take it to the discotheques and get it played because there’s a 17-minute song on one side of the record”.
Holmes: We put out “Love to Love You Baby” and we started to get some response to it. At that time, the gay community was really starting to show their muscle. They were getting into it. The gay clubs were playing it.
Moulton: When I first heard it, I thought, how interesting, they’ve taken the bassline to (The O’Jays’) “For the Love of Money” and created a whole song.
Gomez: “Love to Love You Baby” was 16 minutes, which was unheard of. It brought a whole new aspect to the dance scene. Even my track (with Santa Esmeralda), “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, was 17 or 18 minutes and that was done because of what Giorgio and Donna did.
Holmes: The R&B stations started to play it. In those days, you’d have to go out and do promotion. We’d go to the radio stations and hang out with the guys all around the country. I’ll never forget it. I was in Baltimore at this radio station. This guy’s name was Keith “Chop-Chop” Fisher. He’d say that at night that he had to go to the bathroom. I said, “Hey Keith, when you’re getting ready to go to the bathroom” – because in those days it was only him all night – “why don’t you take one of these long cuts to play? Why don’t you play Donna Summer’s cut?” I would tell that to all the night disc jockeys around the country, about playing it while they go to the bathroom! That’s how they were able to play the extended version. Of course, we had the regular version.
Nathan: I was on the road and I was in Roswell, New Mexico. I was at a radio station called KBCQ and the program director was a guy named Bill St. James. Bill and I were friends on the phone for years and this was my first trip to Roswell. We were going to go out to dinner so it was maybe 4:00 p.m. and I played him some records. I played him this Donna Summer song and he took the record and gave it to the disc jockey who was going on the air at 6:00 p.m. He said, “I want you to put this one while we go out to dinner”. Bill and I went out to dinner and we came back to the station at about 7:30 p.m., quarter to eight. The disc jockey said, “You’re not going to believe this but we’ve gotten 100 phone calls about this song, 96 of them telling us to take it off the air and never play it again”. Bill put it into rotation and played it every three or four hours because, as he explained to me, he’d been working at that radio station for two years and in two years he had never gotten 100 phone calls. Period. In one hour, one record had eclipsed all of the reaction he gotten to any record over the entire time he was at the station. I remember the record went hit-bound to 17 to four to one on his survey. Of course, by the time it was number one, even though it was just Roswell New Mexico, we were able to get the word out and the record started to spread and obviously we had a very big hit record with it, one that was not without that same kind of reaction in a number of markets.
Holmes: Eventually, Frankie Crocker in New York started playing the extended version at prime time. The record was so big he would say, “We’re going to play the Donna Summer record at 6:00 p.m.”. The record just became huge.
Dennis Wheeler (Promotions Manager, Special Projects): The song was Bogart’s love. It was something he had to do. He wanted this to happen and he wanted to be part of this new movement. It was a conscious decision to have someone like a Donna Summer.
Donna Summer: Neil and Joyce (Bogart-Trabulus) came to Europe to meet me at Thanksgiving. That’s when I think I first met them. I was doing a show in Holland at a hotel for some people. I had already signed on for it and I couldn’t get out of it. Roberta Kelly and I were doing that. They came to see me and work with me. I had that show to do and when we got there, the people didn’t have anybody to do the lighting or work on the sound. Joyce and Neil jumped right in. We had a family Thanksgiving dinner in my suite. It was a great moment for me. My daughter Mimi was there. Joyce was running back and forth doing lights. Neil was working on the sound. I got through it and I think they got a chance to see that I was actually able to sing more than they thought! “Love to Love You Baby” was sort of a fluke but I came out of musical theater and I was used to belting. Before that, I was really in a rock and roll band. I didn’t really come so much out of R&B music. They didn’t really know who I was until they met me. Then they were like, “I think this is going to be better than we thought!” They flipped out because they realized that I was actually much more savvy in music than they had thought. They didn’t know what to expect.
Randee Goldman (Executive Assistant): I remember being in the office with Neil and him saying, “Oh my God! She can really sing!” It was like he was shocked.
Summer: I flew into New York to do the press junket that they had put together for me. I went to all the major cities across the United States, which was a rapid thing. I had never done anything like that, which was get on the plane, go to these discotheques, pump up everything, have parties. Then we were on a plane going to the next stop.
Arnie Smith (National Director of Disco Promotion): We called some DJs around the country and had Donna say hello to them and they flipped out. It was a hard song to play because it was not something you’d play at the height of the evening and it was so long. It was just a joy for these DJs to even talk to her. Some men refused to believe it was her.
Summer: Sometimes, there was no time to sleep so we would sleep on the plane. One of my biggest beefs with them was that they had to plan sleep and food and bathroom time into anything they planned. At one point, we were in L.A., they had booked 14 personal interviews in one day. Each one was a half an hour, forty-five minutes, and an hour, different lengths. By the time I got done, I had no voice. I started in the morning and ended over twelve hours later. I was exhausted. That was it. I told them I would never do that again!
Holmes: She came out to Beverly Hills. She had a bungalow. She had a limousine service 24 hours a day. She had a mink coat that they rented for her. We would travel around the country doing promotion. It was my and Susan Munao’s (Director of Publicity who became Summer’s manager) responsibility to be with Donna, to make sure that all the disc jockeys met her. The whole gamut of promotion was done. Neil was the primary owner of the company and that’s what he wanted. One time when we were in New York at this party, and we were going to go out together that night after the show. I didn’t necessarily want to hang out all night but Neil said, “Hey man, you’re going to do this because I want everybody to see us with Donna and let them know that we’re behind her 100%”. Neil did things with Donna that the average record person wouldn’t do. Whatever it took for Donna to be successful, he would do. She was our superstar.
Donna Summer - “Love to Love You Baby” (1976)
In Donna Summer, Casablanca found its first solo success.Love to Love You Baby (1975) went gold, the single reached #2 on the pop charts, and Donna Summer was just about everywhere: Soul Train, The Mike Douglas Show, American Bandstand, even singing a line of her hit single in German on the latter program. Neil Bogart created a larger-than-life persona for Summer, who relocated from Germany to the United States after a lengthy hiatus from her home country. Susan Munao, Joyce Bogart-Trabulus and Cecil Holmes supported Summer on the road and behind the scenes as she adjusted—quickly—to stardom and her new role as “The First Lady of Love”. While not entirely comfortable with the image foisted upon her, Summer nevertheless was the consummate professional and pointedly incorporated more songs into her act that revealed her exceptional range.
The Moroder-Bellotte-Summer triumvirate merged the worlds of pop, R&B, and disco and created an appealing and accessible new sound for the dance floor. Casablanca distributed a handful of albums on Moroder’s Oasis imprint, including Trouble Maker (1976) by Roberta Kelly and Moroder’s own Knights in White Satin(1976), which contained the infectious “I Wanna Funk with You Tonite”. When Summer’s follow-up albums A Love Trilogy (1976) and Four Seasons of Love (1976) were awarded gold albums, Neil Bogart wasted no time in capitalizing on the sound behind Summer’s success. He enlisted a team devoted strictly to promoting records in the clubs. What other label with groups like KISS and Parliament was doing that in 1976?
Nancy Sain (National Pop Promotion: Along with my regular work, I started promoting the clubs. Neil didn’t have anybody doing it but I was out and about. I loved to dance. That’s how I met Marc Paul Simon. I introduced Marc to Neil. Of course there are probably eight people that say the same thing. He was just blown away by Neil and Neil really appreciated how Marc worked hard and really added a lot to the company. I know Marc got hired after I left. I remember him being a contractor along with Michele Hart. They were a phenomenal marketing team.
Michele Hart-Winer (Director of Special Projects): Marc was my best friend. We had grown up together. I started at Provocative Promotions. That was his company. Provocative Promotions was probably—now this is my perspective—it was the first promotion company to do promotion through the clubs that really did it professionally. We worked with the record pools of all the various cities in the country and with the key DJs.
Holmes: Marc ended up being VP of Special Projects and took care of the clubs. Our success in the gay community really came from what Marc did. A lot of it had to do with the relationships Marc set up.
Hart-Winer: My department at Casablanca was called Special Projects because Marc didn’t want to say “Disco Promotions”. We took the artists on the road and we set up the promotions that they did in cities. It wasn’t just getting the music played. We worked the artists too.
Smith: Everything in life is about creating relationships. I always did my best to create a relationship with anybody I had to call. First of all, I was in a power position and it became increasingly moreso because you were somebody that could give them something, so I created my relationships and most of the time I didn’t have to do anything because the music spoke for itself. The calls were always, “So where on your list is this song going to be this week?” I would ask them, “Well what’s above it?” I would have real conversations, cajoling, begging, pleading, threatening—“You need to move it to another position!” That’s what promotion people do. In those days, you could buy your way into anything. With disco DJs it was tougher because they were autonomous but they were dependent in certain ways.
Hart-Winer: It was most rewarding when I would get the numbers that I wanted on the charts for the records that I really thought should be there or getting numbers for records that I personally didn’t like but I had to work and we did it. I had great relationships with the DJs. They didn’t know how to take me at first because I was the first woman doing it.
Wheeler: As people on the road for that company, we weren’t expected to rent cars and drive around and try to find clubs. The focus was get in there, do your job, get it done, get out, get to the next city. So many times we had drivers to take us. We would route our trips and do 18 stops in a night, from record stores all day to clubs all night until four in the morning. We’d be jumping on the six, seven o’clock plane the next day to the next city and this was just to get the records out there. It was pre-street promotion. I would call it what “touch marketing” is today: get them in the hands. I think that era of time really was very in the forefront of what mass-touch marketing is considered today, which is what Starbucks uses. If you can’t taste the coffee, you can’t sell the product. It’s the same thing with Casablanca: if your people aren’t out there in the clubs making this happen, we can’t sell our music. Campaigns were eight to 12 weeks. It was very short-lived. We’d go out with one main record and maybe have a couple of little white labels or an acetate of something that was coming that you would give to a couple of specialpeople, like five or six in the country and let them make everyone else want it. It was a true street campaign.
Summer: In the beginning, when it was contained and everybody was in the main building, it was really like being in a family and everybody was on fire. They were on fire with the love of what they were doing and the hope of success. They were on fire with the knowledge that they were doing something that might last longer than just a few weeks. Everybody just poured themselves into what was going on. They kind of didn’t want to leave each other because they felt like if they left, the magic would go.
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)
The Casbah Goes Hollywood
In 1977, Casablanca released Get Down and Boogie (1977), a two-sided compilation that featured a variety of artists from the label, including the newly formed Chocolate City imprint and the distributed Oasis label. Billed as “38 Minutes and 47 Seconds of Continuous Play”, the album simulated the experience of hearing the songs segued together in a club. The set emphasized the dance-driven side of the roster: Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Roberta Kelly, Blacksmoke (formerly Smoke), Parliament, Jeannie Reynolds, and South African singer, Margaret Singana.
The sleeve holding the record indicated a new development in Casablanca’s business ventures. Scrawled across the top of the album cover, which featured an enlarged version of the company’s desert scene logo, in blazing red lettering: “Casablanca Record & Filmworks”. Neil Bogart brought Casablanca into the Hollywood game. After building a massively successful independent music company from the ground up in a short span of time, Bogart transferred his talent to another industry. “Neil wanted to get into film”, Cecil Holmes explains. “He was friendly with Peter Guber. Peter, at that time, was heading up Columbia Pictures. He had some big job there and then he went independent. Him and Neil put together the deal for Casablanca Record and Filmworks”.
By the spring of 1977, Casablanca Record & Filmworks announced its first project, timed for the then recent phenomenon of the summer blockbuster: The Deep, a thriller starring Nick Nolte, Jacqueline Bisset, and Louis Gossett, Jr. The accompanying soundtrack featured the theme, “Down, Deep Inside” sung by Donna Summer and co-written by Summer with legendary conductor, John Barry. “I went to his house several days and we sat down and came up with a lyric and then we went in and recorded it”, Summer remembers fondly. “John Barry was wonderful to me. He was very mentoring”.
The Deepsoundtrack, which also featured “Disco Calypso” (recorded by Beckett and also released on his own album of the same name) was among the first releases to sport the elaborate new label design. The Casablanca Record and Filmworks logo, replete with a purple horizon, towering Moroccan architecture, film crew, and camels, was arguably the most striking label of the 1970s. Its vibrant colors and fantastical backdrop are just as alluring now as 30 years ago. It remains a colorful memento of a time when thought, care, and creativity were encouraged in label design and artwork, a time sadly rendered obsolete with the advent of the digital music listening experience.
Robert Rodriguez Remembers… Painting the Casablanca Record and Filmworks Logo
Henry Vizcarra worked for Gribbitt, a company that art directed and designed all of Casablanca’s album covers with the exception of KISS. He recalls commissioning Los Angeles-based illustrator Robert Rodriguez to paint the new Filmworks logo. “His use of rich color and light was exactly what I wanted the art to feel like”, he explains. “The idea came from the original letterhead where one only saw the palm trees and the buildings. Then the film company came along and we simply pulled back from the scene a little more, and now you saw the lights, the crew, and everything. Done”. Rodriguez shares his recollections about the process of adding cameras amongst the camels:
I knew Henry Vizcarra personally from just being friends before he called me to do the Casablanca logo. I had just gotten back from a trip to Europe and Morocco. I spent a month and a half in Morocco and I took tons of photographs. I also drove out to a place called Vasquez Rocks. There’s this Moroccan fort where they filmed Gunga Din (1939) with Cary Grant and it’s still there. I went out there and I took pictures of that. I used all of the references. I was real inspired and I wanted to do some stuff because the city (on the label) was kind of plain and I would have to exaggerate stuff and make it more like what I had seen in Morocco. I couldn’t change that very much. I do remember that there was something about keeping the general silhouette of the town. It was one of those things like, “We have to relate to the old logo but let’s jazz it up a little bit”.
Because it was the changeover to Filmworks they wanted to show that they were doing film as well as what they had been doing. (It was like they were filming Casablanca!) There’s no recording in there…but there’s a microphone! The funny thing, though, was there was nothing going on in the scene, which I always thought was kind of strange. There were the people filming but there’s nothing there inside the gate.
I think in the beginning there was talk of putting something inside the gate, but that was taken out of the equation so I wound up with a design that focused you on the archway, with no payoff. That was what bothered me so much about the empty courtyard of the city. I think originally they were going to have a movie crew outside and a band inside. Then decided that they didn’t want it to be identified with any particular act, so they left it out.
It’s painted in acrylics and colored pencils. A lot of it is airbrushed but with acrylic paint. I wanted more texture on it. I didn’t want it to look like a slick airbrushed painting so that’s why the city and the people are mostly acrylics with Prismacolor pencils on top of them. The purple shadows are acrylic.
The way I used to do it is I would paint everything in acrylic and then I’d go on top with the Prismacolor and sort of smooth it out a little bit more because the acrylics tended to be a little rougher. At that time, I would do the drawing on a piece of illustration board. It’s kind of a textured board. I know the sky was airbrushed. I always airbrushed the skies because they were so big. The painting itself was probably about 20x30 because that’s the size board comes in. I might have done that. There was a lot of sky so with an airbrush it can cover all that area quickly. I’d spray in the colors and spray in the sand. For the sand, I probably took a sponge and did sort of a sand-texture and then smoothed it out with paint on top of that. Knowing how long things used to take in those days, it was probably a total of about three weeks.
I’d call my style back then “stylized realism”. Basically it was realistic but there was always some style to the way it was done. It wasn’t photographic realism. I used to get a lot of work, probably still do, because people would say, “The client wants to use photography but we really don’t want to do that so your stuff is realistic enough yet there’s some style to it”.
I like that I was part of such an important record company!