Oldies gold: Philadelphia milestone Cameo-Parkway finally gets boxed

By Mark Guarino

Oldies never seem to get the respect they deserve, especially from anyone who wasn’t born before the first generation of punk.

Yet there are valuable things to learn by looking back to rock’s formidable years. Like any anthropological dig, oldies provide clues to the puzzle illustrating rock’s evolution from a singles-driven format for the teen market to music for adult tastes that left its rough edges intact.

The most recent Rosetta Stone of oldies reissues is “Cameo-Parkway: 1957-1967” (Abko), a 115-song, four-CD box set documenting the most complete collection of the Philadelphia label that bridged the heyday of Elvis with the later British Invasion. Cameo Parkway made a major impact on the pop charts (134 singles in the Billboard Top 100, more than Motown during the same time period), but its proven legacy is how it helped transform the times while later, as the linear order of the box demonstrates, how it maneuvered to keep up. In its beginning, Cameo-Parkway was at the epicenter of the teen idol craze, but by the time the Beatles arrived in 1964, the label was releasing some of the earliest garage rock singles from the industrialized Midwest and was an incubator for burgeoning Philly soul.

The label was founded by Bernie Lowe and Karl Mann, a songwriting team who hit early success for penning “Teddy Bear,” a number one hit for Elvis Presley in 1957. A year earlier they had decided to try getting into the label business themselves, setting up shop in Lowe’s basement. Their ingenuity was well timed: That same year a local disc jockey named Dick Clark was hired to host “American Bandstand” and the program, broadcast from Philadelphia, went national. In the coming years, the program would stoke the flames of the teen idol craze while turning several of Cameo-Parkway’s artists into stars.

The first two discs of the box set bring to life many forgotten Philadelphia locals, most area teenagers or blue collars workers, who briefly commandeered the national stage. This was the height of the 45 RPM single, marketed to the new teenage market by Cameo-Parkway’s hit factory. The results were plucky two-minute gems like “Butterfly,” the label’s first hit featuring a Buddy Holly-style hiccup vocal by Charlie Gracie. The music’s innocent themes (songs about the hardships of teenage life and the need to escape) often flirted with sexual innuendos and the frenzied dance rhythms of R&B. “Back to School Again” placed a steamy saxophone solo at its core and featured a husky vocal performance by Timmie Rodgers. “Bad Motorcycle” by forgotten girl group the Storey Sisters swooned over a local bad boy in the James Dean mold — “I knew by the way he smoked, he was a bad motorcycle — Vroom! Vroom! Vroom!,” they sang. Another rocker, “Two Weeks With Pay” by Georgie Young and the Rockin’ Bocs, lamented “working like a dog all day” and declared the only solution was hitting the road. And yes, handclaps provided the insistent beat.

The cool, stinging guitars, squawking horns and rattling piano playing were staples of these early songs, some directly lifting melodies from songs both in the eminent domain (“South Street” was a rewrite of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races”) or not (“Mashed Potato Time” shared songwriting credit with the writers of Motown’s “Please Mr. Postman”). Whatever the case was, it was clear that the Cameo-Parkway catalog both was influenced by and catered to this country’s first phase of suburban teenage boredom, the ecstatic thrill of freedom that gave it future possibilities and the dance craze that ensued.

Dance singles became the bread and butter of Cameo-Parkway. They were synonymous with singer Ernest Evans, a local poultry shop worker who changed his name to Chubby Checker. He and teen idol Bobby Rydell endured as Cameo-Parkway’s biggest national stars. “The Twist” became Checker’s calling card, a song that entered the charts twice in 1960 and 1962 when it preceded and then capitalized on the dance style it emulated. Checker continued to make spin-offs while other artists delivered their own dance-oriented hits including the Orlons (“The Wah-Watusi”), Dee Dee Sharp (“Mashed Potato Time”) and Rydell (“The Cha-Cha-Cha”).

Eventually Lowe sold his share of the company in 1965, a time when the label was in a period of stagnation. The country had entered a darker time following the Kennedy assassination and the Beatles and Bob Dylan were turning pop music in a more serious direction. Plus, “American Bandstand” had relocated to the West Coast. The label sought rejuvenation, not necessarily in its hometown, but in far-off places like the Midwest and Britain. The latter half of the box features songs the label either signed or licensed from overseas label. It creates an eccentric snapshot of the period, where rough, Detroit-era garage rock was just starting to make noise. The label had regional hits with Bob Seger, almost a decade before his Silver Bullet Band fame. Plus, it scored the landmark garage rock nugget “96 Tears” by the Saginaw-based band ? and the Mysterians. In 1966, the song’s strutting organ part and sneering vocals gave the label its last number one hit.

The box also demonstrates the label was moving fast to keep up with the times. Blue-eyed soul singer Evie Sands was signed as a folk artist. Local girl Patti LaBelle debuted her first singles before signing to Atlantic. The Kinks released their first-ever U.S. singles in 1964. And the label even boasted a Beatle on their roster — Pete Best, who recorded “Boys,” a Shirelles cover that his former band took their shot with two years earlier, featuring Best’s replacement Ringo Starr on vocals.

The success of Cameo-Parkway provided a path for Philadelphia’s next musical renaissance in the early ‘70s: black soul. Its offices later became the home of Philadelphia International, the landmark label owned by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who briefly worked with Cameo-Parkway as songwriters and who today say the experience served as their training ground.

Gamble and Huff would build a roster more famous than their former employers. One reason is because, until now, Cameo-Parkway’s catalog has largely remained silent, sitting in vaults awaiting reissue. In the meantime, the label’s former stars — adults eager to remind the public of their history — were forced to rerecord their former hits and flood the market with knockoffs of the originals. The prevailing reason for the delay is that Cameo-Parkway was almost too prolific, making the process of locating and retrieving master tape a process that took over a decade. Abko, which bought Cameo-Parkway in 1969, is planning to release individual titles of its artists this year.

Although it was started as a minor player that rose to prominence, these four discs are proof of pop music’s earliest days, when change came with speed and, in the best cases, the results were sweet.

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