Larry Blackmon became a feature interview by way of a lucky accident. Lucky for us. I had a call from Sheila Eldridge at Orchid Public Relations & Publicity in Los Angeles about Larry. In the course of conversation I found out that Sheila was closely related to one of my favorite trumpet players, jazz great Roy Eldridge. On that basis I agreed to listen to Cameo’s music and then agreed to interview Larry Blackmon.
Larry’s not just a drummer. He’s also a bandleader, a choreographer and a record producer. Larry’s band, Cameo, has a new album out called Alligator Woman on Chocolate City/Polygram records. The Los Angeles Times said the album “… may be the best Cameo LP yet. Larry Blackmon…is one of current soul music’s brightest rising stars.” Alligator Woman is the result of changes that Larry speaks candidly about in this interview.
LB: My career started in New York City. I played a lot in the now famous, legendary rehearsal studios like the Daily Planet and Baggies downtown on Grant Street. Billy Cobham and Stevie Wonder used to rehearse there in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I started out playing drums behind singing groups. East Coast was my first professional group with GFS Records. My experience playing behind the vocalists and singing groups gave me a sense of choreography in expressing the tunes and the feelings. Musically my interests grew and East Coast was more of a band situation than anything else.
I moved on to a group called New York City Players. We did a demo and Casablanca Records was interested. We had to change the name to Cameo because there was some conflict with The Ohio Players. I used New York City Players as my production company. I wanted to form a group that had the versatility of a singing act, and the “bad” individual instrumentation, and structure it so no one person dictated the economical or financial status of the group. I’d been through enough of that. I wanted to form a group centered around myself as conceptual leader, but that showcased individual members that were very, very good.
Since then we’ve recorded seven albums, four of which are gold. Our fourth album, Secret Omen, was our first gold. Since then we’ve been up in the 800- to 900-thousand mark on all the albums.
This is the first time I’ve been off the road for this length of time in about three years. Cameo has always done 180-plus days a year. If the band wasn’t on the road playing then we were rehearsing. To pay the bills and keep everybody in New York City in hotels got to be very expensive and very taxing. So we relocated the group in Atlanta, formed another production company named Atlanta Artists, and I just made a label deal with MCA. The name of the company is Atlanta Artists Records. On that label we have a group named L.A. Connections, a group named Seventh Wonder, and a group called Knights of the Sound Table. That group consists of the people who I rearranged from Cameo. I’m executive producing that. What I’m trying to do is build our own autonomy and keep the musicians working! When a musician has devoted a certain length of time to something—you just don’t let people go. Now we can all have the same musical relationship we had, and they can stretch out. But, since I’m executive producer I can be sure that whatever is coming out on them will be able to sustain a living for them.
SF: I know from experience that each additional person in a band creates a new challenge. What went through your mind when you decided you were going to put together an 11-piece band?
LB: First of all there has to be an agreement. You have to be dealing with people who are reasonable, and who are not into that phase of the business to satisfy whatever personal problems they might have. It’s hard when you’re dealing with a group of people as large as Cameo. People come from all different type of backgrounds. If everybody follows one concept for putting a band together—you can’t go wrong. First, you have to understand that everybody is a particular component in an overall machine. One person might be a battery, the next might be a fan belt, the next might be a spark plug. As long as they’re working at their optimum in their agreement on which part to play, then it can all work properly. It’s when the backbiting and second guessing starts that there are problems. From the beginning—if you sit down and talk to each other and say, “Okay, I feel I’m most qualified to do this in the group”—some might see a person as a leader and others might not. Whatever decision is made then everybody else will have to give their word that they’ll give their faith and belief even in times of doubt. You can’t give a person support if you’re constantly second-guessing and backbiting. It’s understanding from the beginning—an agreement that as a gentleman you will hold to that agreement.
SF: Are you the “last word” in Cameo?
LB: I was the only word! Democracy in a group like that really doesn’t work. Democracy as a whole doesn’t work. I’m not saying socialism does, but, if you’re genuinely dedicated to the overall well-being of everyone there, including yourself, the people should go along with that. Everybody gets involved in things because of what’s in it for them. In the beginning, if you talk about your goals, like, “What did you get into this business for in the beginning?”—then once everybody understands everybody else’s goals, then you see if you can form the group in a way that’s going to take everybody where they wanted to go. At the same time you can branch off and do other things and still keep the group together. Look at Fleetwood Mac, and Earth, Wind & Fire.
As long as the person with the last or only word has a plan for everybody getting there—and it’s all agreed upon—then everybody else should rest assured that this person is going to get them there. They’ll be able to see by results. But, you have to give the belief until you see some results.
SF: Did you find that most of the musicians knew what their goals were?
LB: Some did. I’ve always considered myself a person that recognized talent and possibilities of talent in the idiom we’re in. They told me what they wanted out of the business and I told them what I thought they could get and the way to get it by what I say. In most cases it matched.
SF: How long was it before you were able to make money with Cameo?
LB: It was really on the first album. Cameo has been known to be a touring group. We work and work some more! We had the help of the record company and other people to get us work but it was hard. No way was it easy. I see a lot of groups trying to get something going and—first of all—you have to look at things from a serious side. You have to be at peace with yourself first! A question everybody’s got to ask themselves is, “What am I happy with? What am I unhappy with? How can that affect what I’m about to do with this group of guys? Should I spare them of what I am unsure about?” First be honest with yourself. If you’re not—then you can’t be honest with anyone else.
SF: It’s rare to find a musician talking about goal-setting and being at peace with himself. Were you raised with those values?
LB: No. These are things that I discovered along the path. I owe a lot to things like meditation and Eastern religion. I owe a lot of what’s going on to that because I gained peace within myself and I was able to see what had to be done. I was good to myself in spite of myself! You have to deal with yourself as well as you deal with everybody else. You have to know what’s fair. You have to have humanity’s interest in mind, and your fellow man’s interest in mind first—at the same time making sure that you’re making the right business decisions for yourself.
SF: Was your business background the School of Hard Knocks?
LB: Yes. And other people’s hard knocks! I was always into why certain things worked and others didn’t. There’s no way one can be as seasoned in business as they are in their particular craft. It’s impossible. The main thing is to have an attorney and your business thing together from the very beginning. In most cases money is the problem. You have to find that money or go out and make it and hold it together until your business thing gets together. The longer you wait, the more people change. Sometimes paranoia sets in.
LB: Yes. I brought Cameo to this point and along the way you have personal things that people have to satisfy as far as other things they want to do besides Cameo. That’s all well and good but it wasn’t part of the particular agreement for that person. Before you know it you have disharmony. There is nothing in the world that is going to survive with disharmony! I asked myself, “Do I let everything else go down the drain?” Then I came up with the idea of forming the other group. I’d al ready made up my mind that I would take the steps necessary for Cameo to continue, but I cared about the people who weren’t happy in spite of themselves.
Do what’s right by God and not by what’s right by everybody else. You know what’s right or wrong. Look out for others. Don’t look out for what you’re going to get immediately so much. It’s the way of the world that you’re going to get back what you put out. You can’t plant potato seeds and grow apples!
SF: The Law of Compensation.
LB: There it is. It works. Right now there are five guys in Cameo. I’m going to keep it at that. Everybody will be able to hear what they’ve been listening to before, and more. Now I can do a little more than I did before.
Imagine what it was to be a leader and a drummer? You’ve got a little less respect automatically. You have to get your goals straight up front and make sure everybody’s head is in the right place. It was a hard job. I can say I did it because we always moved in an ascending direction and my work will speak for itself.
For Cameo’s music to sound good, you have to connect with it—being a drummer—from a special way. All that an instrumentalist is supposed to do is translate feeling. When you’re in a group you’re only supposed to put the medicine to it. You don’t have to prove anything to anybody. You needn’t prove things to your self. That’s where most groups have conflicts. It’s with guys overplaying.
SF: What’s the concept of Cameo? Would you consider it first a dance band?
LB: Up to this point I directed Cameo for the people. A person who buys an album—they don’t go in to buy ego. I tried to connect with what I saw out there. People want to feel that this group is actually doing this for them. That’s the bottom line. Let’s go back to the Law of Compensation. That’s where it’s at, man. How can you expect to be successful and hold success and be happy without giving to God’s people free of yourself? Being selfless. In creating, I tried to get feelings that were euphoric and feelings that felt good. We were genuinely playing it that way. Our objective was to please. In return, it got Cameo what it has.
With the new album you’ll see that the lyrics are more inspirational, too. People need some direction. It’s not all about Watergate and somebody ripping somebody else off! We’ve gotten to the point now where people are looking for money before the job is finished. That’s not normal and everybody’s thinking that it is. It’s about the Law of Compensation. I don’t want to categorize the band, but everybody says it’s r&b based. So I guess it is. But, as far as changing to go pop—I don’t believe in that. I believe that things will come around if you’re growing.
SF: What’s your background on drums? Do you play other instruments?
LB: I write mainly with the bass guitar. I play guitar also. I understand that Jaco Pastorius plays drums as well as bass. He’s my idol as far as the bass is concerned. He’s so expressive! I’m not well versed in the technical aspect so much that I would be able to talk about some of the super technical things. I operate off of feeling. I got into some very bad head space early in the game when my reading and technical ability weren’t up to par. My concept was self-contained and I knew what felt good, and I wanted to play something different. So, I got my chops together and I played.
SF: How old were you when you started playing drums?
LB: When I seriously started banging on drums I was about fourteen. I was influenced a great deal by James Brown. Since then it’s been Billy Cobham because of what he said when he played. Those two were my main influences as far as drums. I used to play Ludwig drums and they used to sound dynamite back then. But, I use Tama now. I have been for the last two years.
SF: Did you have any formal training?
LB: I went through the rudiments early. But, for where I wanted to go I was either going to be a fantastic soloist or I was going to do what I wanted to do: make music. I’m one of the best drummers in my field. But that wasn’t my objective. It was to be clean, effective, straight to the point and simple. Simplicity is the secret. If you can play well, simple, and put the medicine where it needs to be you’re much more effective than sounding like rocks rolling down a hill all the time! That’s been my impression of a lot of drummers. Generally, I can pick out a drummer’s personality if they’re overplaying. They’re not playing music.
SF: Perhaps there’s a tendency among listeners that simple drummers have said, “Well, I’ll learn two or three beats and go for it.”
LB: It’s not so.
SF: Do you listen to many different kinds of music?
LB: Oh yes. Being a producer, which is my forte, is a wonderful world. You get to do so many things. You have to listen to everything that comes out. Weather Report is one of my favorite acts. Al Jarreau. The higher side of things. Maurice White. He’s a drummer first. As far as personal wisdom, he’s where I want to be; where his head has gotten through research. He’s a hell of an individual. I was attracted to that in the very beginning with Cameo a little bit. I saw that E,W, &F had an autonomy and the group was built for the group’s sake. I admired that, especially in black musicians; to be able to get their business together so it would take care of everybody.
SF: I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many of the great black jazz drummers that came out of the ’40s and ’50s. Many ofthem feel that the younger generation of black kids have kind of ignored them and their music. How do you feel about that and the contributions that those players have made?
LB: It’s hard sometimes for people to recognize contributions, unless they follow the path of that person. We are here to give what we give. That’s hard to say. Philly Joe and those cats—everybody appreciates what they did. We all feel sometimes that we’re not appreciated. But, they don’t know about the guy that’s sitting in Pontiac, Michigan in his basement with his three drums listening to Philly Joe. I was about twenty-four before I heard a lot of the music I’d missed beforehand. What about the young people who aren’t aware of Miles Davis and what he contributed to the whole business? To music in general? It’s impossible unless you’re feeling those same feelings from those times. But, I feel people receive what they give.
I was born and raised in New York. The musician scene is too cliquish and a lot of the language they talk isn’t the same as everybody across the country and how they look at it. I think the reader should read between that or at least wonder what’s the vibe among musicians who’re doing the most work, and what’s the vibe among the cats who are not that lucky. They’re two different languages.
SF: I’d say that the bottom line of an out of- work musician is his attitude.
LB: That’s true. Which goes back to finding peace within yourself. You’ll find that some people will never be pleased.
SF: What’s the musical roots of the music you’re playing now?
LB: James Brown, Sly Stone, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. As far as vocal concepts it would be some of the earlier producers from Motown. Hendrix’ Band of Gypsies. I wore out the grooves in that record! Chicago influenced me. As far as composition and arrangement I’ve got to include the Beatles. If anybody listens to the Beatles for what they did and rated them as songwriters, and listened to all their material, they’ve got to say, “Damn! Those guys were really imaginative.” And ask them where they got their roots from.
SF: We’re discussing the Law of Compensation and Eastern philosophies. I’m sure some readers are going to wonder if there’s any source material available that would help them in understanding.
LB: There’s a book called Law of Success by Napoleon Hill. That’s a fantastic book and very metaphysically oriented. A good background on what our purpose on earth is or to trigger the mind to ask questions like, “What if…?” Another good book is The Ultimate Frontier.
SF: How did you find out about Law of Success?
LB: Through a friend of mine. I was looking for answers to questions. Also, I practiced TM for nine years. That was the beginning of being able to see things from a different perspective. Relaxation techniques. I would suggest those things because as musicians we vibrate at a higher frequency than other people. We are transistors and we transmit the vibrations from the ether into whatever we’re doing. In order to receive those vibrations properly you have to be pretty centered. Some people can receive those vibrations and be all over the place! Some can’t. Chances are by being centered, you can.
SF: What’s the difference in Larry Blackmon before and after Law of Success?
LB: Most of my misunderstandings came from a general misunderstanding of how the whole scheme of things went. I didn’t understand the order of what was to be and how considerate you had to be for the next person. I wasn’t inconsiderate—but I didn’t respond properly. I was confused most of the time because I was fighting between what I felt was right and what I thought was right. The duality was tearing me apart, as was the inability to make an immediate decision. I went through a lot of mental anguish. I was looking for a way to rest assured that I was going the right way.
You have to feel good about what you do, within yourself, even if it’s not to someone else’s way of thinking. And you have to know you’re right by the way the overall scheme of things is supposed to work on this planet in this lifetime. You have to find out what those things are, and once you get a pretty good idea you can go for it. I’ve been going for it.
SF: What about the musician’s attitude that in order to be a true artist you’ve got to be broke or into drugs or drink?
LB: That’s a crappy way to think. How can you receive the proper vibrations if you’re not centered? By getting into all those other things it just keeps you more and more away from whatever your goal is. Anyone that’s successful and happy— very successful and happy—is healthy in a good state of mind. They have to get there in various ways. That doesn’t mean that the road is rough getting there. That just means that that’s the ultimate trip. If what they want is really that important to them then they’ll eliminate those other things in their lives that will hold them back. Talent determines how far you will go but it’s mentally oriented. Everything is. You feel and then you make the logical decisions. It seems so simple.
SF: Do you dream a lot about where you’re going to be in the future?
LB: I visualize what I want to happen and I make that happen. There’s something inside each of us that we were born with— and I really feel strongly about this—that if you visualize something that you really want, exactly the way you want it; just close your eyes and think about it everyday for five minutes—as long as it’s not hurting anybody or imposing on another human being, then there’s something inside you that will trigger something that will get you there. It will give you the thoughts to take you there. That’s true. If we all felt and thought that way, the whole place would be a better place to exist.
SF: Someone told me that God wouldn’t give you a vision if he wasn’t going to also give you the means to get there.
LB: Exactly. If you can see it—you can get it. First you have to see it.
SF: I think a lot of people are frustrated because they’re not aware of that. They have a vision and they have no idea how they’re going to attain it. What price did you pay to finally get Cameo off the ground?
LB: It wasn’t that hard because everybody saw we had something. I started out with Gregory Johnson and myself. Everybody really wanted to do it bad. I told them what the plan was, what we could pay immediately if anything, and where it was going. And people believed. The five people who came together in the beginning are the same five people who are with the band now.
SF: As a drummer/leader, what qualities did you have to acquire?
LB: Wisdom had to be number one. Selflessness. You have to be selfless. You have to have self-discipline. There’s a lot of self discipline and lip biting. You have to be prepared for it. If I’d had another outlet for all the other energy it would’ve been a lot easier.
Also, you have to make it a point, as a drummer/leader, to get into what everybody else is doing and try to feel a little bit of what their instrument is about. That’s essential for the leader in any group in order to understand a person’s feelings. I don’t think any person should play just drums and not have an awareness of other things that are going on. If they do—they should be just a drummer, and just a musician, and make up their minds that that’s what they want to be and do. In order to be a leader you have to lead. You have to make decisions and devote all your time. When everybody else goes home and gets on the phone or watches television— you’re the one that has to go home and think about what happened at rehearsal, and what’s going to happen at the next day’s rehearsal.
SF: Do you watch television?
LB: No, man. I watch it when they have something on that’s worthwhile watching. I’m not into that idiot box. I think it’s poison. But to each his own. You can’t feed an animal if he’s not hungry. Or a person.
SF: What do you do to keep yourself motivated?
LB: Belief. Development. Being able to see that I’m moving in a certain direction. You look back and see some of the things that you’ve done. I’m a person who would think of some of the things that I haven’t done first. But, every once in a while you need to treat yourself and smell the roses that you’ve grown.
SF: After you became aware of success principles and started to apply them, did you find that your circle of friends changed?
LB: Not necessarily. I knew how to put everybody in their proper perspective. Before I read Law of Success I expected too much out of people, because I looked at things the way I saw them. I didn’t give respect to that person and their path in life. I always expected a person to come back with a certain kind of thought. I set myself up for a big letdown because I kept thinking, “Well, they’re going to feel this way and that way.” When in actuality it wasn’t that way. I kept setting myself up for disappointment.
After I read that book I was more at peace with myself and I worried less about certain things. I applied the principles and it was easy to go from day to day. You have to find out how to deal with that much pressure. This is the most amount of pressure I’ve ever experienced in my life because of the size of the organization, the different facets, people, their lives and my own personal life. That’s a big conglomerate in itself. You have to find some outlets in order to deal with that success. If you don’t, it can send you off the deep end. I intend to succeed.
SF: How would you define success?
LB: Success is the achievement of goals that you set out for yourself. When you hit a goal you go for another one. I’m sure we’re not all one place in mind. Musicians always expect other musicians to have the same interests. That’s not so. We don’t have to live up to each other’s expectations. We have to live up to our own.
SF: So you see no conflict between drumming, producing and choreography?
LB: None whatsoever. I do all of it where it needs to be applied. I try to keep those talents limited to maybe three that I will actively do. I keep them honed sharply so that when I do them I can apply them as well as anyone else. If it’s vocals—then I’m going to do it as well as someone who does only vocals. If it’s drums—I’m going to play drums as if I was just a drummer. It takes a lot of time to do that.
SF: Are you still practicing drums?
LB: Everyday. Rudiments and dexterity. Keeping myself so that I can play anything I feel like playing when I have to.
SF: How would you advise someone who wanted to prepare for the road you’ve traveled?
LB: Once they decide that they want to be in this business they should look inside themselves. Feel good. Prepare yourself for what needs to be done. Sit down and plan it out! Get information from professionals, attorneys, and other people. All it takes is a telephone call to ask a question. It doesn’t cost anything. Get as much information as possible from those who are doing it! Compile all of that and then make a decision. If you decide to get into the business—plan it out. Be true to yourself.
SF: So it’s important to set goals?
LB: Right! If you don’t it’s like someone saying, “Hey, come on.” And you say, “Where am I going?” Once you decide to get in the music business, once it’s in your blood and you set out a plan and know it’s right, then at a certain point you have to play it by ear. Opportunity can pass you up by you being too rigid in your dates. It’s the law of doing more than what you’re paid for. You’re going to have to pay dues.
SF: What level of commitment did you give the music business?
LB: Full commitment. That’s very important. If you decide to give it a shot, then do it upon a logical decision. Nothing is guaranteed. Nobody owes us anything. There’s no such thing as job security. Period. You have to look at the probability and the percentage. But, even if you worked for IT&T it would be the same thing. Job security? Look at the people we’re turning out here. We’ve got the concept all backwards. It should be that way. Think for a minute! That other person’s job security is your job security. Not just you and your job security. Everybody suffers by inflation and un employment. These things are everybody’s problem. Nothing happens on this earth without everybody being affected by it. I don’t care what it is, you’re going to feel the ripple. It’s a big job to clean up the garbage, but where do we start?
SF: Where do you see yourself in the next few years?
LB: I see myself being head of an organization, part of an organization that employs a great deal of people, that’s making changes, and that’s influencing other people’s lives. As far as dollar figures are concerned, I think that we’ll be well taken care of. What those dollar figures will be I don’t know. I’m not insecure. I have no problems that way. I know what I have to offer if the plan doesn’t work. As long as I have that, and as long as I have what God has been giving me, it’s alright.