Cameo Records was founded in December 1956 in Philadelphia by Bernie Lowe and Kal Mann (it has no connection to the 1920s record label Cameo Records). Parkway, initially a subsidiary label, was formed in 1958.
Mann and Lowe had been a successful songwriting team prior to the start of label, with Mann writing lyrics and Lowe the music; their biggest hit prior to starting the label was Elvis Presley's "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear". Dave Appell joined the label from its inception as A&R director, and the three worked together as a production team on many early Cameo releases. Mann and Lowe wrote many of the label's early singles, while Mann and Appell also became a successful songwriting team that was responsible for many of the label's hits, particularly after Lowe cut back on his songwriting around 1961 to attend to the business of running the label. In addition, Appell's group the Applejacks functioned as Cameo's house band for the first few years of, serving as backing musicians for the label's vocalists as well as issuing a handful of instrumental singles on their own. Lowe, also a musician, played piano on many early tracks.
The first hit for Cameo was "Butterfly" by Charlie Gracie, which reached #1 nationally in early 1957; it was also Cameo-Parkway's first of five chart-toppers. Throughout the remainder of the decade Cameo continued to have hits by groups like the R&B group the Rays, who had a #3 hit with "Silhouettes" later that year (picked up from independent XYZ Records). In 1958 the label had further hits with "Dinner With Drac", a novelty record by John Zacherle in the top 10, and "Mexican Hat Rock", an instrumental by the Applejacks, in the top 20.
A major factor in Cameo-Parkway's success was its relationship with the Philadelphia-based TV program American Bandstand. Being located in the same city where this popular nationally-broadcast music show was produced meant that Cameo-Parkway artists were always available to perform on the show—especially in the event any other act should cancel. Bandstand host and producer Dick Clark has spoken of the "warm relationship" the program had with Cameo-Parkway, and of the label's willingness to ensure that quality musical acts were always available to the program on short notice. The label benefited tremendously from the arrangement, as the exposure many Cameo-Parkway artists received on American Bandstand helped propel them to stardom.
In 1959 Bobby Rydell scored his first hits with "Kissin' Time" and "We Got Love" on Cameo. From 1960 to 1964, Rydell was the label's second largest hit maker after Chubby Checker, scoring with such hits as "Wild One" (his biggest hit, peaking at #2), "Swingin' School", "Volare", "The Cha-Cha-Cha", "Forget Him" and others.
Chubby Checker had a minor novelty hit in the summer of 1959 called "The Class", which featured Checker doing comic imitations of singers Fats Domino, the Coasters, Elvis Presley, Cozy Cole and the Chipmunks. In 1960 Checker's cover of Hank Ballard's "The Twist" became Parkway's first big hit. Although Ballard's version only reached #16 on the R&B chart in 1958, Checker's version went to #1 in 1960, and again in early 1962. Checker had several hits, including "Pony Time" (his second #1), "Let's Twist Again", "The Fly", "Slow Twistin'" (with Dee Dee Sharp), "Limbo Rock", "Popeye (The Hitchhiker)", "Birdland" and others.
Around 1961 the Cameo and Parkway labels began developing some new stars. The vocal group the Dovells, which featured Len Barry as the lead singer, released "Bristol Stomp", which reached #2 in late 1961, followed by "Bristol Twistin' Annie," "(Do The New) Continental," "Hully Gully Baby" and other dance-related songs in 1962 and 1963. "You Can't Sit Down," a vocal version of the Phil Upchurch instrumental hit, was #35 in Cash Box magazine's year end-survey for 1963. The R&B quartet the Orlons released "The Wah-Watusi", which hit #2 in the summer of 1962. They had a few more top 20 hits, including "Don't Hang Up", "South Street", "Not Me" and "Crossfire!".
Fifteen-year-old Dee Dee Sharp had done a duet with Chubby Checker on "Slow Twistin'", and recorded her first solo single, "Mashed Potato Time", on the same day. It went to #2 in the spring of 1962. More dance songs followed, including the follow-up "Gravy" and another dance song, "Ride!"
In the summer of 1963 the #1 hit "So Much in Love" by the smooth R&B group the Tymes marked the last hit from Cameo-Parkway's peak period.
In the UK, Cameo and Parkway recordings were released first on London Records, then on Top Rank, then on EMI's Columbia label, then briefly Pye International, before finally appearing on their own Pye-distributed Cameo-Parkway label.
In early 1964, three near-simultaneous events sent Cameo-Parkway into a sharp decline from which it would never fully recover. The first was the move of American Bandstand from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in February; suddenly, Cameo-Parkway's primary source of national exposure and promotion was gone. Just as devastating (as it was to many other American labels) was the second event: the onslaught of the British Invasion in 64/65, which dramatically changed the tastes of the American record buying public. Cameo tried to keep pace by licensing a handful of early British beat group singles, notably the first two singles by the Kinks, but none made the US charts.
The third and final event was that Bernie Lowe had become increasingly disenchanted with the business side of record making, and suffering from nervous exhaustion and bouts of depression, he sold his stake in the company in 1964. Mann and Appel soon followed, and by mid-1965 none of Cameo-Parkway's founding trio were associated with the label, and their biggest stars (Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker) had also left. Cameo's new management was unable to duplicate their success with artists like Jo Ann Campbell, Maynard Ferguson, Clark Terry, the instrumental group LeRoy & His Rockin' Fellers and TV-stars-turned-singers like Clint Eastwood and Merv Griffin.
In mid-1966, 23-year-old Neil Bogart was made the label's new head of A&R. Turning to midwestern garage bands and orchestrated soul productions (including the distribution of Curtis Mayfield's "Windy C" label), Bogart managed to shepherd in a brief Cameo-Parkway renaissance. The last major hits for the label were "96 Tears" by Question Mark and the Mysterians (picked up from independent Pa-Go-Go Records), which went to #1 in the fall of 1966; a novelty remake of "Wild Thing" by an impressionist imitating Robert F. Kennedy under the name Senator Bobby (1966); and "Beg, Borrow and Steal" by the Ohio Express (originally on the Attack label as by The Rare Breed) (1967). Bogart also signed Bob Seger to his first recording contract, and Cameo-Parkway issued Seger's first five singles, which were all huge regional hits in Michigan but failed to catch fire nationally.
In mid-1967 Cameo-Parkway became a subsidiary of MGM Records and released four more albums (two on Cameo, one on Parkway and one on Vando) and three more singles (one on Parkway and two on Vando). Cameo's final single, "Billy Sunshine" by Evie Sands (KC-2002), was originally released with the red and yellow "CP" label then reissued with the new MGM-designated label. For the first time both label names appeared on the record labels, although either the Cameo or Parkway name was emphasized, and the two series continued to use separate catalogue numbering systems. This suggests that a gradual merger of the two labels was in progress, but it was never completed. By late 1967, after financial problems worsened, the Cameo-Parkway company was sold to Allen Klein and renamed ABKCO Records, with Bell Records acquiring its remaining subsidiary Vando label. Cameo Parkway Records was shut down in September 1967. Bogart landed feet first at the newly formed Buddah Records founded by former MGM Records executive Art Kass and brought along the former Cameo Parkway promotion staff.1957-1960: Orange label with CAMEO and "cameo" logo, both in black, at top
1960-1966: Red and black label with CAMEO and new "gold cameo locket" logo at left side
1966-1967: Red label with broken orange circle and new CAMEO "CP" logo at top
1967 MGM distribution label: Pink and white label with CAMEO in dark blue w/pink outline and "cameo" logo inside the "O"
Cameo albums also used the above label variations, plus:Early mono albums: Black label with silver print, same CAMEO and "cameo" logo as orange label singles
Early stereo albums: Black label with gold print, same CAMEO and "cameo" logo as orange label singles
1958-1960: Orange label with PARKWAY in black "jumbled" letters between two lyre logos at top
1960-1966: Orange and yellow label with PARKWAY RECORDS in white letters between two lyre logos at top (Some of these labels do not include the lyres)
1966-1967: Yellow label with broken orange octagon and new PARKWAY "CP" logo at top
1967 MGM distribution label: brown label with new "Parkway" logo at top. The logo includes a large black letter "P" with white arrow inside its perimeter, resembling a highway.
Parkway albums also used all of the above label variations
Wyncote Records was a budget label started in 1964. It released compilation albums of material by Cameo and Parkway artists as well as new albums of soundtrack and easy listening music. These records were mainly distributed in drug, book and department stores, usually through rack jobbers.
Other related labels, mostly independently owned but distributed by Cameo-Parkway, includedChariot, featuring Bob Brady and The Con Chords: at least five singles were released under Chariot's Cameo/Parkway distribution before the label was sold to Amy / Mala / Bell
Cheltenham: At least four singles released from 1965-1966
Cotton: At least three singles released in 1962
Fairmount, featuring Lonnie Youngblood: At least 27 singles have been released on this label
Key-Loc: At least one single was distributed under Cameo/Parkway distribution by Sunny and the Sunliners
Lucky Eleven, based in Flint, Michigan, featuring Terry Knight and the Pack, which eventually transformed into Grand Funk Railroad
Sentar: Owned by the families of pop group the New Colony Six (the label's only group), four singles and one album were released under Sentar's Cameo/Parkway distribution
Showplace, featuring the Yellow Payges (at least two singles distributed)
Tomorrow: Originally distributed by Atco, then by Cameo/Parkway. At least two singles were distributed under C/P
Vando: Owned by Van McCoy, five singles and one album were released under the label's C/P distribution, mostly by Chris Bartley
Winchester: Only two singles were released under this label, one by the Tymes and the other by the Spokesmen
Windy C: Owned by Curtis Mayfield, eight singles and one album were released on this label, mostly by the Five Stairsteps
Several C/P labels were based on hometown suburbs, highways and landmarks, including...Parkway: Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Fairmount: Fairmount Park; there is also a Fairmount Ave. north of the Philadelphia Art Museum
Wyncote: Northern suburb of Philadelphia where C/P founder Bernie Lowe resided and set up office for C/P
Cheltenham: Cheltenham Avenue; there is also a Cheltenham High School in suburban Wyncote
ABKCO reissued Cameo-Parkway recordings in the early 1970s, but allowed them to fall out of print after that time. Virtually every Cameo-Parkway recording, including all of their numerous chart hits, was officially unavailable in any format for about 30 years, from 1975 to 2005. In May 2005 ABKCO revived the Cameo-Parkway name for reissues only, and released a multi-CD box set of the labels' most notable output: Cameo-Parkway: 1957-1967. In October 2005 it began to issue various single-artist "best of" CD compilations, including Charlie Gracie, Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp, the Dovells, the Orlons, the Tymes and Question Mark & the Mysterians. A various artists CD titled Cameo-Parkway: The Greatest Hits was also issued, as well as two digital-only compilations: Holiday Hits From Cameo Parkway and Original Northern Soul Hits From Cameo Parkway.
ABKCO has also begun to license repertoire out to other labels, allowing Universal Music to license some songs for its Complete Introduction To Northern Soul box set in 2008, and allowing Collectors' Choice Music to reissue several albums in 2010. Despite these reissues, many more obscure Cameo-Parkway recordings—and even a few of their lesser hits—remain officially unavailable.