Philadelphia’s relatively short-lived (1956-1967) Cameo-Parkway label never got the attention of contemporaneous labels like Motown, Chess, Stax, Scepter/Wand or Excello. But, like Motown and Stax, it had a major impact beyond its own homegrown “sound” and dance hits by Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp, Bobby Rydell, the Dovels and the Orlons. Although most of the company’s hitmakers were African-American, whites of many ethnicities were also involved in creating the records as songwriters, producers, arrangers, and session musicians, and many Cameo staffers, including Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, would go on to greater fame after getting their start here. Richie Unterberger spoke with Joe Renzetti, a longtime Cameo-Parkway studio musician, about the label and the era.
For most listeners, The Sound of Philadelphia is the sound of Philly soul from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. That’s when groups like the O’Jays, Spinners, Stylistics, Delfonics, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes cut dozens of lushly produced hits in the city. Yet long before MFSB topped the charts with their 1974 instrumental “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” the Sound of Philadelphia was being pioneered by several local labels specializing in pop-soul with rich vocal harmonies and infectious dance tunes.
No company was more important in helping to establish a Philadelphia sound than Cameo-Parkway. Landing scattered hits in the late 1950s with rockabilly singer Charlie Gracie and doo wop group the Rays, the company really hit its stride in the early ‘60s with dance craze smashes by Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp, the Dovells, and the Orlons. The label is still best known for Checker’s string of hits (especially “The Twist”), Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time,” the Dovells’ “Bristol Stomp,” and the Orlons’ “The Wah-Watusi.”
“Take it over to Dick (Clark). Have him play it, let’s see what the reaction is.’ That was Friday’s show, okay? Monday morning, there were 125,000 orders. One play. That was the power of Cameo. I don’t even know if Motown could move that fast.”
All the while, however, it was also recording more soulful sides by the Tymes (“So Much in Love”), peppy girl group hits by the Orlons (“Don’t Hang Up,” “Crossfire,” “South Street”), and teen idol rock by Bobby Rydell. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the songwriting/production team responsible for more classic Philadelphia soul hits than any other, worked on some of their earliest recordings for the label. Cameo-Parkway producer-arranger-guitarist Dave Appell mentored Joe Tarsia, founder of Sigma Sound, where the most celebrated Sound of Philadelphia classics would be cut. Appell also mentored Joe Renzetti, a guitarist in the company’s house band during its prime.
By his estimate, Renzetti has done close to 300 sessions, though he’d make his greatest mark on the music business after the 1960s as a film composer. Before hooking up with Cameo-Parkway, he played on records overseen by jazzman Leroy Lovett, co-author of Al Hibbler’s 1956 Top Ten hit “After the Lights Go Down Low.”
“He was out of the big band era, and he started doing rock & roll,” Renzetti explains. “He started to make records with some friends of mine. Every Sunday he would have a session, $20 a day. He’d [record] maybe three or four acts, then go home. That was great, because it was fun and decent money. Non-union.”
Renzetti’s route to Cameo-Parkway says a lot about how much more informal the record business was sixty years ago than it is now. Even if you never shopped there, Krass Brothers Men’s Clothing Store was famous in Philly for its ridiculous local TV commercials. After a crazed guy screamed what terrible fate awaited if you didn’t shop there, a huge weight would drop on him, a boxing glove would knock him out, and so on. Maybe unbeknownst to the owners, it nonetheless made a quite serious contribution to the Philly soul-rock scene.
As Renzetti remembers, “We used to go to quite a famous place, Benny Krass on South Street in Philadelphia…because that’s where you can get a $20 tuxedo. In fact, Benny Krass liked the record business. He would invest every once in a while. He pretty much invested in Huff and Gamble’s first couple recordings. He was one of those kind of people who was on the rim of the business, but not really in it. Quite a character. I befriended one of the salesmen. He wanted to make a record, and I knew how to do that. I knew how to put sessions together and write out basic charts. So I did a few sessions.”
“Dave Appell shopped [at Krass Brothers]. Cameo just had ‘The Twist’ by Chubby Checker. He was engineering, writing, playing guitar, mixing, producing arranging. He was just doing too much. So he had to start bringing in some people. Just coincidentally, he asked the salesman, ‘Do you know any guitar players?’ He said, ‘Joe Renzetti.’ So he called me, and I went and played the session.”
You didn’t get to play on Cameo-Parkway sessions if you didn’t have the goods. “I was perfect for the time,” Renzetti continues, “because I could play what was in style – the Motown guitar kind of sound — get a groove going, and I could read chord charts….It was great, because I was living at home, and in those days, union sessions paid $45 a session, which was pretty good money. I was in heaven. I just kept going.”
Cameo-Parkway’s never gotten the critical respect and attention other powerhouse labels thriving around the same time, like Motown, Chess, or even less iconic companies such as New York’s Scepter/Wand or Nashville’s Excello. Their reliance on dance-craze hits is seen by some as crass, or at least not as durable as records by the likes of Smokey Robinson and James Brown as soul music was getting off the ground. There’s also some feeling Cameo-Parkway had an advantage through one particular Philadelphia connection that Renzetti acknowledges.
Asked what made the Cameo-Parkway sound distinctive, Joe responds, “It was a combination of good basic rock & roll of the day mixed in with a good serving of broadcast power. Because it’s no secret that Dick Clark was, in those days – it wasn’t illegal, it might have been a little improper, but it would happen with anybody, [including] Motown – if they took a record in to Dick [Clark], and he liked it, or thought it had some possibilities, he would put it in the air. But he would make sure that it was pressed at his pressing plant, that he got a little taste here and there.”
Until early 1964, Clark’s American Bandstand TV show was produced in Philadelphia. “Now [Cameo co-founder/owner] Bernie Lowe and Cameo, they were right there,” Renzetti continues. “They were first and probably Dick’s favorite. So that gave them an edge commercially.” Although, as Joe emphasizes, “The music had to be there. I would say it was sort of a mix of Motown, maybe with a little bit more European influence. Because Dave [Appell] and all, with strings and horns, that type of thing, was leaning that way a bit.”
Other Philly labels had an inside track to American Bandstand by virtue of their location, like Swan Records, home of Freddy Cannon. In fact, Renzetti played on Cannon’s “Palisades Park,” which “wasn’t Cameo, but it was the same group of [session] people,” he said. “Swan was sort of in the same camp, as well as Chancellor.” Chancellor had had a series of teen idol hits by Frankie Avalon and Fabian. As Renzetti puts it, “Dick Clark wasn’t a monopolist. He would work with Swan. He would work with anybody who would bring a decent record in. And if it was good, they were willing to make a little deal. But I think his favorite was Cameo.”
Of course, much of American Bandstand was devoted to shots of kids dancing to records. That format didn’t make many Cameo-Parkway hits natural for the show, but it did generate ideas for dance-themed songs likely to make a splash on Bandstand and, thus, the whole country. “We were so dance-centric,” says Renzetti. “Joe Wissert was one of the kids dancing on Bandstand. He would be in Bristol [about 20 miles outside Philadelphia] at a hop, for example, and he’d see these bands. He’d come back and say to Bernie or Dave, ‘Hey, there’s this dance in Bristol. It’s sort of like the Mashed Potatoes, but it’s a little different. They call it the Bristol Stomp.’ So Bernie would jump on that.”
The power of Bandstand was such that when “we recorded ‘South Street’—I remember that really feeling great, with good rhythm— they called Joe Wissert. They said ‘Joe, here’s an acetate. Take it over to Dick. Have him play it, let’s see what the reaction is.’ That was Friday’s show, okay? Monday morning, there were 125,000 orders. One play. That was the power of Cameo. I don’t even know if Motown could move that fast.” And as Renzetti adds, “As far as the actual mechanism of Motown—marketing—they were monsters.”
There were also similarities in the way Cameo-Parkway and Motown produced sessions, especially in the cultivation of a house band. Motown’s Funk Brothers are well known by now, though back in the Motor City’s heyday, very few listeners knew their names. Cameo-Parkway’s team never got a catchy name, but Joe still thinks “of Cameo as its own little fourth-city Wrecking Crew. It’s the musicians, the studios, the arrangers, the producers, that gave a record its ‘sound.’ We had a little group, and that added to the sound.
“In Philly, Dave would pick funky drummers, piano players, and guitar players. Dave would cast it like a lot of arranger/producers. You cast the musicians like they were actors, to the music. If he was doing something that was slick and progressive, he might call [fellow guitarist] Joe Sgro to play that. He would play cleaner; he was a little bit more legitimate. Where if it was like a funk groove, he would call me or somebody else.
“The bass player was Joe Macho. Joe Macho probably was more technically proficient than [Motown bassist James] Jamerson, but he wasn’t as funky. But he could play on an electric bass, which was kind of a revolution at that point, ‘cause everybody was playing upright before that. Electric bass was like a disruptor.”
Although Cameo-Parkway hits had a pretty full sound, in one instance they found less to be more. “Billy Jackson, one of the producers, and Roy Straigis, one of the piano players, came up with a group they found on a street corner called the Tymes,” Renzetti recalls by way of illustration. “They had this great song [co-written by Jackson and Straigis with lead singer George Williams] called ‘So Much in Love.’ They recorded it at least one time before their hit, if not two times.
“The casting was wrong when they had drums and vibes and tambourines and guitars. It just didn’t work. But then they eliminated stuff, and finally– I think it was finger snaps, lots of echo, and maybe there’s a bass [light drumming can also be heard]. That was it. I played on a few of the sessions [for the song], but not on the hit.”
Chubby Checker, the Orlons, Dee Dee Sharp, and Bobby Rydell are the names people associate with Cameo-Parkway, but some of its most interesting records were one-shots, one of which gave Cameo a cameo by a future guitar legend. “Dave would bring in the occasional different type of player,” Renzetti says. “He said, ‘I’m bringing this kid in from New Orleans or somewhere in the South. ‘Cause he plays this really funky electric, crazy stuff. And we want to do a record with that.’ I said, ‘Great.’
“[Drummer] Bobby Gregg, one Sunday, had a session. I was on it, Joe Macho was on it, and this young blond guy comes in, very quiet. His name is Roy, and he was gonna play some lead solo stuff. I’m watching him out of the corner of my eye. He’s wiring up, and he takes a brown paper bag out of his guitar case, a grocery bag. He puts the wire from his guitar into the bag, and it’s in the bag doing something. He then takes the wire out from his amp into the bag, and he hides the bag. He starts playing, and it was what we now call a fuzz tone. Distorted.
“I was saying, ‘This guy’s nuts.’ I finally said to him, ‘What’s in the bag?’ He said,’ I can’t tell you.’ It was Roy Buchanan. [Gregg] said, ‘Here Roy, just play this riff.’ Then he played a riff, and it became ‘The Jam.’ Of course, Dick Clark had a lot to do with that too. He played it, and it was a big hit.”
Billed to “Bobby Gregg and His Friends,” “The Jam Part 1” became a Top Thirty single in 1962. It’s an opportunity to hear the Cameo players strut their stuff on an instrumental, albeit with a boost from Buchanan’s furious stuttering blues-rock licks, though he wouldn’t get his own solo career into gear for nearly ten years.
Another semi-forgotten modest hit not only supplied Cameo-Parkway with one of its greatest discs, but also pointed the way to the future of Philadelphia soul. Although it peaked at a modest #51 after entering the charts in late 1964, Candy & the Kisses’ “The 81” is a solid contender for the best Motown soundalike. Very much in the mold of Martha & the Vandellas’ classics like “Heat Wave” and “In My Lonely Room” with its incessant handclaps, honking sax, and sparkly intro, it was derivative as all get-out. And also infectiously great, even if the actual dance it was based around, the 81, never took off like the Twist, Pony, or Mashed Potato.
“If they took a record in to Dick [Clark], and he liked it, or thought it had some possibilities, he would put it in the air. But he would make sure that it was pressed at his pressing plant, that he got a little taste here and there”
It was co-written by a young Kenny Gamble, marking one of the first successes by a giant of Philadelphia soul. “What you’re hearing – they were going for that Motown sound,” observes Renzetti. “Which in a lot of ways is more room sound. Cameo was tighter. Cameo was more close-mike; everything was close-mike and quiet and buffeted. Whereas Motown, even though it was a small room, they went for a more open sound through use of echo. It was always big. That’s why it has a non-Cameo sound, if you will.
“That’s what they were doing at the new Cameo studios. That’s where they recorded ‘The 81.’ I think I played rhythm. Cameo’s getting very successful in the early ‘60s, so Bernie decides, ‘we’re gonna get out of the Locust Street’ [studio]—which was a little box—‘and buy this building,’ or rent; I think it was a rental first. It was a humongous. They brought in all kinds of experts. They built this big studio. You literally could put the Philadelphia orchestra in it. Not mentioning any names, it was terrible.”
Not “The 81” itself, though. “All the Cameo stuff, up till then, was pretty much white-influenced. It was through the filters of white musicians. Where now, along come Huff [who played piano on ‘The 81’] and Gamble. Everything’s filtered through black [influences]. Kenny was more Motown-gospel-oriented, as was Huff. Gospel, rather than whatever the hell we were doing. And Gladys Knight and the Pips; you’re hearing that influence.”
Although dance craze songs were on the way out, “The 81” is very much a product of Cameo-Parkway’s on-the-ground research into what the kids were doing on the dance floor.
“We used to take all of our artists out to hops in church halls or schools,” explained Jerry Ross, who produced the single, in Rob Finnis’s liner notes to Ace’s Land of 1000 Dances Vol. 2 compilation. “Anywhere the hip teenagers used to hang out. It was a great way of finding out what type of records the kids liked and what the latest dances were. Dancing was huge in Philadelphia, thanks to Bandstand. Kenny Gamble and I went to this record hop run by Hy Lit, one of the most popular DJs in town. The kids in the audience were doing this great new dance called ‘The 81’ to ‘In My Lonely Room’ by Martha & the Vandellas. So Kenny and I went right back to my office and wrote a song called ‘The 81’ especially for the kids to dance to.”
Gamble was on his way, but he still had to pay some heavy dues before music was his full-time gig. “Kenny lived in West Philly,” says Renzetti. “I lived in West Philly, and I had a car. He didn’t. So I would pick him up on the way into Center City, to go to the Schubert Building, where Jerry and everybody had their offices, right across from Cameo Records.
“One day, we’ve got to stop at Jefferson Hospital. I said, ‘Why? You alright?’ He said, ‘oh yeah, I feed the rats there.’ ‘What?’ ‘I have this job feeding the rats. But I want to do music. So I have the substitute cover for me, but he can’t make it today. So I have to go in.’ That’s how well I know the beginning of that scene. And yes, everybody knew, including myself, these guys – they had their fingers on some good stuff.”
But Gamble and Huff wouldn’t blossom at Cameo-Parkway, which for all its success was starting to wind down by the time of “The 81.” “The owner, Bernie Lowe, got sick,” Joe says. “Some people say he got sick because he sold Cameo. It went public.” Before it went out of business in 1967, it was sold to Allen Klein, whose ABKCO label now administers the label’s catalog.
That could have meant big trouble for musicians who relied on Cameo-Parkway for plenty of sessions. But some of them landed on their feet in New York City, where the company had done some recording for years. “They weren’t restricted to just their little studio,” points out Renzetti. “For example, I think when they cut Bobby Rydell’s [big band-like version of] ‘Volare,’ they went to New York, and had the New York gang do that record. ‘Cause that was pretty hard to pull off in Philadelphia in those days. We didn’t have rooms that big. We didn’t have string sections and horn sections [as] competent as New York had at the time. I would say 90% was done in Philly, and 10-20% was done in New York City, or other places. I know they went to New York quite often.
“Because Cameo was so hot, and we all had so much experience, when Cameo closed down, all the guys, including myself, started migrating to New York. People like myself, Bobby Gregg, Joe Scherr.” And for all Cameo-Parkway’s unhip reputation, a couple of them ended up playing on a couple of the most critically esteemed rock LPs of all time.
“I wanted to come in as an arranger,” Renzetti continues. “To me, guitar playing was limited. I had different interests. I would use the Philly guys, ‘cause I knew them, mixed in with a lot of New York guys and gals. In those days, sessions were very formal. If you had a ten o’clock session, musicians showed up at ten of ten, and some of ‘em with ties, that kind of thing.”
At session “it’s ten o’clock, and they start coming in five minutes late. I say, ‘Guys, what’s going on?’ I mean, no big deal; I always ran a very mellow shop. ‘We were over at Columbia. There’s this kid, he would give us chord sheets. No parts, just “here’s the sheets, play what you think feels right.”’ He would count it off, they would record. No rehearsals. He would take the first take, second take, and then move on. They said, ‘It was so weird.’ “I said, ‘What is his name?’ ‘His name’s Bob Dylan.’
“I knew who Bob Dylan was at the time, because he was down at the Village making a lot of noise. But they weren’t into it.” Bobby Gregg was into it enough, however, to play drums on all the electric tracks on Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan’s first albums to feature all-out rock. Another Cameo-Parkway veteran, Joe Macho, played bass on some of Bringing It All Back Home.
Macho is also on the Renzetti-arranged hit that helped establish his post-Cameo-Parkway credentials, Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny.” “The take you hear was the first take,” he reveals. “That was the rhythm track, and the dummy vocals. We did that in New York, in Bell Sound. We were entering the fifth hour of a session. They said ‘alright, we’ll give you one take.’ So we did one take. The bass player, Joe Macho, never used to make a mistake. There’s one little flub. If you really pay attention, you can hear it. It was the B-side, by the way. Some jockey in Detroit flipped it over and said, ‘You guys are nuts. This is a hit.’ And he called it. In two weeks, it was blazing the charts.”
Renzetti wasn’t done working with Kenny Gamble, however, arranging some recordings by the Intruders, one of the first groups to have Gamble-Huff-produced hits. “Kenny would just sing like, well, I want some horns to go ba-da-da-da-da, ba-da-ba-da,” is how Joe tells it. “You give that to an orchestrator or arranger, you can come up with three or four ways that can be used. I was thinking big band, ‘cause I was a jazzhead. Like what would [Stan] Kenton do. Kenny’s genius is coming up with parts and harmonies – I think he’s great with vocals – he would hear parts. But I brought that to the table. That’s a Western jazz, European-English jazz influence.
“Also some of the string writing. They’d say, ‘You know how Motown has those violins?’ Motown would use violins, but they would use ‘em in unison. When they approached me, I would start to open it up more orchestrally, where the strings would be lusher. Everybody picked up on that, I’m gonna say, and blow my own horn. But that’s how it breaks.”
Another influence on the Philly soul sound, Renzetti feels, was Pete De Angelis, producer/arranger of Eddie Holman’s huge 1970 soul ballad “Hey There Lonely Girl.”
“He studied in Europe, and [Frankie Avalon’s] ‘Venus,’ was his big claim to fame. I think he might have awakened their sensibility. You listen to Thommy Bell”—the other big name in ‘70s Philly soul as a producer/arranger/songwriter, especially with the Spinners and Stylistics—“Thommy Bell’s influences are more ‘legitimate,’ more orchestral. Thommy was very precise. Everything was written, and very clean and purposeful. Whereas Huff and Gamble was more like, ‘Hey man, just jam, and that’s good, use that, do that, do that again.’ Thommy Bell was a little bit more European-ish approach in the orchestrations.”
The most important early lessons Gamble and Huff might have learned from Cameo-Parkway weren’t always musical. “I would tell Huff and Gamble to their face,” states Renzetti. “If anybody makes a great record, if you don’t have a team— you don’t have promotion, marketing, airplay people—you have nothing. I think Kenny learned that from the Bernie Lowes and the Jerry Rosses. Jerry Ross was a promotion man, that’s how he started out. Bernie Lowe got into the business of music. He understood records and kids dancing. He was a pretty decent musician, but he didn’t want to do that. He was more interested in business.
“Right after ‘The 81’ session, Kenny is talking and bragging about how he just got some guy in Detroit, a disc jockey, ‘in the team’ —wink wink —of all the promotion guys, all the black jocks. That was very important. ‘Cause when Huff and Gamble put out a record, if you had ten major R&B jocks around the country pushing it, hello, that’s a little power. Kenny learned that, and they capitalized on it.
“In fact, Jimmy Bishop, who was one of the big R&B jocks out of Philly, became like on staff. Again, wink wink. He became the publishing expert. It’s all different now, but the fundamentals are the same. I’m sure it still goes on—that is, payola—in different forms.”
By the late ‘70s, Renzetti was moving into film scores, arranging the music for The Buddy Holly Story. “That was easy for me, it was basic rock and roll. It’s a good thing it wasn’t the Alban Berg story,” he jokes. But he’d get into the kind of atonal music Berg created soon enough, scoring numerous horror movies over the next few decades. “Besides being a jazzhead, I got into classical and very far-out music, in the sense of Ligati, Berg, Stravinsky, or Charles Ives. I love crazy, atonal polytonal, polyrhythmic…that’s my jam. So horror was right up my alley.”
Now living near Philadelphia, he has “a music library of about three-four hundred cues, all instrumental. I’m working on selling that, and also putting it up on other music libraries. I have a full set of samplers, I love computers; all my websites, I do. I love the new stuff, all the new synths and crazy EDM. I’m into it all.”
It’s a long way from Cameo-Parkway, but he agrees the label was responsible for the same kind of oft-overlooked contribution other companies with a house sound—like Motown and Stax—made that went way beyond the music. Although most of the company’s hitmakers were African-American, plenty of whites of different ethnicities, and African-Americans like Gamble, were heavily involved in creating the records as songwriters, producers, arrangers, and session musicians. As at Stax and Motown, blacks and whites were working closely together at a time when racial tensions and segregation were far worse than they are today. Along those lines, Cameo-Parkway made an impact that was social as well as musical.
“It’s a blend that grows together over time,” he speculates. “Philadelphia was lots of Italian-Americans, particularly in the string section. The horns kind of more English-y, WASP-y kind of guys who were jazzheads. You had the rhythm guys, mostly black, not all. You have a white Italian engineer. You have Linda Creed, one of the great lyricists – a white Jewish girl. When people say America’s great because of the mixture, they’re not just politicians with empty words. That’s what makes it interesting. You go to one country and stick with their classical music, it’s pretty boring.”