The return of Captain Sky | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

The return of Captain Sky 

Chicago’s funk superhero releases his first album in 40 years—and this time his mission includes mentoring Black teenagers on the south side.

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Daryl Cameron, better known as Captain Sky, at Harold Washington Park earlier this month - JEFF MARINI FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Daryl Cameron, better known as Captain Sky, at Harold Washington Park earlier this month
  • Jeff Marini for Chicago Reader

Daryl Cameron believes the time is right for his cape.

A little more than 40 years ago, Cameron filled two voids. In the late 1970s, he noticed that scarcely any prominent funk artists lived in Chicago, even though the music was still very much in fashion and had deep roots here. At the same time, he saw a shortage of Black superheroes in pop culture. So he created a costumed alter ego, Captain Sky, and released three albums that celebrated his extraterrestrial powers with upbeat electric dance-floor funk. Since then, Cameron has drifted in and out of music, but he established a lasting legacy with those early records—in part by inspiring some of the pioneers of hip-hop.

This summer Cameron is releasing the first tracks from his first full-length album since 1980, The Whole 9, via his own Captain Sky Cre8tive Conceptz label. He's putting it out piecemeal, and since June 5 he's been dropping one of its nine songs every 21 days through streaming services. No physical editions are planned yet, but the full collection will be available digitally on November 27. Cameron is also launching a nonprofit to mentor young African American men. Though the cover of his 1978 debut, The Adventures of Captain Sky, depicts him flying above the city on a golden LP, with his current music and social mission he's responding to people on the ground.

"The cape is on right now," Cameron says from his home in Olympia Fields. "It's just not visible. It's not a physical cape—it is the authority that I have to bring about my vision."

Musically, The Whole 9 connects to The Adventures of Captain Sky and the two albums that followed. Cameron's overarching mood is as resolutely positive now as it was then. Classic funk guitars, scratchy yet precise, engage with bass and keyboard vamps while horns sneak in brief solos. Cameron, who's about to turn 63, still prefers live instruments over samples, and he shuns Auto-Tune in favor of his natural voice. While he's always written or cowritten the majority of his repertoire, he's now introducing reimagined versions of other artists' material and expanding into different idioms: his new tunes include a blues song ("So So Good").

Cameron has made a bigger change in the themes his music addresses. On his debut, he celebrated virility with "Super Sporm" (name-checked on the 1979 Sugarhill Gang smash "Rapper's Delight"), but compared to the good-time dance tracks that dominated his early work, his new material reflects a more spiritual, inspirational outlook. He also remakes the Intruders' 1973 R&B hookup hit, "I Wanna Know Your Name," as the devotional "I Wanna Praise Your Name."

  • One of the shorter versions of "Super Sporm"

"My spirituality has been deeply rooted," Cameron says. "It wasn't a sudden, microwave, voila moment. It's still getting stronger. I never want to feel that it's something I want to arrive at—there's always something for me to learn. If I sit down with a guy who's Catholic, a guy who's Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever and have a conversation about the Creator, you may call him something different than I call him, but we'll be able to relate."

That positive sentiment goes back to Cameron's youth growing up near 99th and Green Street in Washington Heights. He describes an idyllic childhood, and at age 13 he got a guitar from his father as a birthday gift. In the early 1970s, Cameron went to the Lutheran-run Luther High School South, the same school that Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., aka Common, would attend 15 years later. Religion was part of the curriculum, and he says that his recent lyrics reflect that education.

Predominantly white Luther was a world away from Cameron's south-side neighborhood, but he calls the experience "all a part of my growth and development." He says he didn't have significant trouble because he was Black. He played rock and funk with racially diverse groups of friends, both in a student group and outside school, and listened to soul on WVON.

"Music is universal, man, it has no color," Cameron says. "It doesn't have a gender, really. Some of it does: You can listen to some stuff, and it's kind of soft. And some other stuff is hard. But even as men, we have some female tendencies. It's always a mixture."

As Cameron recalls, Chicago's music scene had a familial camaraderie when he was getting started. After playing in the Bionic Band and South Side Movement in the mid-70s, he sang in Aura, a duo with Sheryl Sawyer (daughter of future mayor Eugene Sawyer). In early 1978, Cameron started working with industry veteran Eddie Thomas, who represented him as a solo act.

Thomas had been Curtis Mayfield's business partner, and as an independent promoter he'd established many national contacts. Through Thomas's intervention, within a few months Cameron had signed with California-based label AVI, whose roster featured disco band Le Pamplemousse, Chicago soul singer Lowrell, and Liberace. But the fantasy Cameron projected was a far different sort than that of Las Vegas's flamboyant Mr. Showbiz: the easygoing Adventures of Captain Sky blended George Clinton with DC Comics. Since Cameron's parents paid for the studio time to make the album, he didn't feel pressure from the label to wrap the sessions up too quickly. Keyboardist Donald Burnside, who worked on the arrangements and played on the record, says they took their time to develop a sound that kept everything loose. He also remembers Cameron devising the Captain Sky concept in his own bedroom.

Captain Sky in his dressing room at the International Amphitheatre during the 1979 WVON Christmas show (left) and on the cover of the 1980 album Concerned Party #1 - PHOTO COURTESY DARYL CAMERON
  • Captain Sky in his dressing room at the International Amphitheatre during the 1979 WVON Christmas show (left) and on the cover of the 1980 album Concerned Party #1
  • Photo courtesy Daryl Cameron

"These were some of the freest sessions I've ever been involved in," Burnside says. "Nobody told me anything; I played anything I wanted to play. It wasn't like the Ohio Players, where everything was super structured. 'Super Sporm' just works with singing, chanting, or playing the saxophone. If I could figure out why, I'd patent it and never have to worry about anything again."

Cameron's debut stood out for another reason too. Billboard reported in July 1978 that AVI had used a 12-inch of the Adventures of Captain Sky track "Wonder Worm" to introduce "expanded grooves on its disco disks to aid deejays to program parts of a record visually." By widening the groove at key moments, this modification made it easier for DJs to work a song into a mix. It also helped make Cameron's music popular with a group of trailblazing young musicians—but not for the exact reasons he might've anticipated.

"All the DJ had to do was play the record one time to know which breakdown was which," Cameron says. "The first groove could be a heavy percussion break; the next may be a bass break, or just the drums and percussion. So that record was one of the first to ever do this."

The timing couldn't have been better. That same 1978 issue of Billboard noted that Bronx DJs had been buying specific R&B albums to loop their rhythm breaks. Soon the result, hip-hop, became a nationwide phenomenon. On "Super Sporm" Cameron left unexpected yet fitting gaps in his vocals, creating plenty of room for multilayered percussive forays that made The Adventures of Captain Sky a sought-after part of that burgeoning genre's source material. Whosampled.com lists cuts from his three late-70s and early-80s records as part of 45 hip-hop tracks, including such cornerstones as Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" and Public Enemy's "You're Gonna Get Yours." He's shouted out by name in "Rapper's Delight" (as "my man Captain Sky"), and two of its verses refer to "Super Sporm." In the first, the Sugarhill Gang invoke a Black superhero to mock the white concept of Superman: "He can't satisfy you with his little worm / But I can bust you out with my super sperm."

"I realized if my name is mentioned in the very first rap hit, then I had something to do with the coming together of the whole genre," Cameron says. "It was an honor, and it doesn't make me stick my chest out and say, 'I'm the man.' It's very humbling. I love Chicago, but New York really embraced me on that particular record."

"I realized if my name is mentioned in the very first rap hit, then I had something to do with the coming together of the whole genre. It was an honor." - JEFF MARINI FOR CHICAGO READER
  • "I realized if my name is mentioned in the very first rap hit, then I had something to do with the coming together of the whole genre. It was an honor."
  • Jeff Marini for Chicago Reader

Back in Chicago, Cameron had a wider vision for his 1979 follow-up, Pop Goes the Captain. Trumpeter Rodney Clark says this album's large assemblage of horn, string, and percussion players represented the premier Chicago studio talent from a time when such sessions were still happening in local R&B—an era that would end just a few years later. One of the guitarists, the late Danny Leake, would go on to become a crucial audio engineer, most notably for Stevie Wonder.

Cameron was becoming conspicuous nationwide in more ways than one. At well over six feet tall even in ordinary shoes, he looked even taller performing "Wonder Worm" on Soul Train in early 1979: he wore a rakishly cut white jumpsuit with matching boots and fringed cape, flamboyant sunglasses, and a huge star-shaped belt buckle, while holding the microphone in one hand and a gleaming, LP-shaped silver shield in the other. A clip of his appearance has been uploaded to YouTube, and everyone's moves and styles still look like as much fun as they must've been in 1978. Cameron toured with future house-music progenitor Vince Lawrence, then a teenager, running his pyrotechnics. And his outlandish outfits were created by Dexter Griffin, who also worked with Bootsy Collins. Collaboration fueled imagination.

  • Captain Sky performs "Wonder Worm" on Soul Train in January 1979.

"Costume designer Dexter Griffin was phenomenal," Cameron said. "I would tell him exactly what I wanted in the costume, and we never met. He had all of my specs, all of my measurements. I'd say, 'I need something with purple,' and he'd say, 'How about purple and silver? Make the boots come up to the thighs.' A few days later, he'd just make it and send it to me via FedEx."

Cameron recorded the cheerful 1980 album Concerned Party #1 (TEC Records) with Chicagoans, but within a year or two he was living in Philadelphia. That record would be his last full-length till The Whole 9. He moved back here in 1985, but the days of fantastic costumes and large-scale instrumental arrangements were largely in the past. Cameron spent time informally advising upstart artists, but the emotional blow of his father's death in 1991 curtailed his involvement in the local scene. He also acknowledges another hindrance to his personal and professional lives: he calls himself "a survivor of the 1970s snowstorm, where everybody would like to play in the snow." Though he's now drug free, his road wasn't a short one. "It was really a part of social acceptance in the music business," he says. "But I rebounded from the coke thing."

The death of Cameron's mother in 2011 hit him even harder than the loss of his father—after surviving its toll, he says, "getting through this pandemic is nothing." He moved to Houston that year to regroup, continued writing songs, and became a state-certified recovery-support specialist to help people going through substance abuse. Cameron moved back to Chicago about two years ago and put his training and experience to work, taking a job at a south-side hospital he prefers not to name.

"I was stationed for people who came off the streets, for people who OD'd or had a really bad situation with drugs," Cameron says. "I had to sit down and meet them where they are. I've been there myself. I would sit there, and I would have to really encourage a patient to go into detox. They were ready to leave, and I had to share some of my story with them to encourage them to stay."

The funk numbers, ballads, and religious songs that make up The Whole 9 embrace uplifting affirmations in their lyrics and tone. But this spiritual transformation in Cameron's music didn't require him to ditch his Captain Sky identity. While he still asserts his power over the dance floor on "I Just Wanna Have Some Fun" (released on June 26), he turns the euphemism in its title on its head, expressing a preference for casual conversation over the lunar-powered pickups of 1979. He incorporates occasional guest raps from new colleagues but also retains long-term collaborators, such as keyboardist and cowriter Keith Stewart and vocalist Yvonne Gage, who sang on Pop Goes the Captain. His vocal delivery—relaxed and assertive—bonds his varied repertoire together, so that when he comments on scripture in the slow contemporary gospel "If We Believe," the segue feels natural.

"My inspiration for The Whole 9 came from knowing that I'm a miracle and that I was preserved to make music, to make people smile, to make people feel good, help people in their lives," Cameron says. "Captain Sky is my creative expression inside of me. It's all one and the same. Everybody knows my birth name is Daryl Cameron, but Captain Sky is the brand. There's a spiritual side of Captain Sky, a romantic side. I'm an original member of the original nation of funkateers. All of those different sides are a part of the many moods and facets of who Captain Sky is as a creative person."

  • "Turn On tha' Juice," the lead cut from The Whole 9

In June, around the time of our conversations for this story, Cameron drove past looted stores near 119th and Halsted. He called me later that day, aghast that some rioters had destroyed the only places where their own families could buy groceries. But he also knows that systemic racism can produce enough frustration, anger, and grief to contribute to such violence. "Turn On tha' Juice," the lead track on The Whole 9, includes a reference to Colin Kaepernick's protest against the killing of Black people by police: "You're criticized for standing up / Just the same for kneeling down."

"I don't condone stealing, but I understand that after years of being treated like S-H-I-T from Emmett Till on, enough is enough," Cameron says. "It took the Civil War to change things in this country."

Cameron intends to create ongoing change on the south side by setting up his nonprofit, an empowerment program for Black teenage boys called Mentoring and Leadership Essentials (MALE). Here too Cameron will draw on his experiences to offer guidance. His plans for the rest of 2020 include recruiting people to help him apply for grant funding and establish the program.

"Let's just say a young man is 16, 17, a senior in high school, and he ended up being the guy on the block," Cameron says. "He's not satisfied with working at McDonald's. He's making more money in his pocket than most people—he's making it the wrong way. It's hard to get this guy to turn away from what he's doing. You can't convince a guy to give his Mercedes back and get a respectable job—it's really hard. If you catch them before they make the left turn and guide them and nurture them, the chances of really getting through to them are greater."

"There's a spiritual side of Captain Sky, a romantic side. I'm an original member of the original nation of funkateers. All of those different sides are a part of the many moods and facets of who Captain Sky is." - JEFF MARINI FOR CHICAGO READER
  • "There's a spiritual side of Captain Sky, a romantic side. I'm an original member of the original nation of funkateers. All of those different sides are a part of the many moods and facets of who Captain Sky is."
  • Jeff Marini for Chicago Reader

Cameron knows a lot about how to turn away from drugs, but he could also teach young men about the power of owning your own work and cooperating artistically. He has a personal example close at hand, because he controls the music he's making now—though Sony subsidiary the Orchard handles his distribution, he holds the rights to everything. (He also owns the rights to most of his older material.) Cameron intends to use Cre8tive Conceptz as a platform for emerging artists; he mentions up-and-coming Chicago rapper Roc Solid as an example.

"You go in, you spend your blood, sweat, tears on something, and you take it to a record company and they give you a piece of it," Cameron says. "How did that happen? Everybody was OK with that at a certain point, because that was the norm."

These days, though, he wants to end up with more than a piece, even if he does partner with someone else to release his music. He's getting a 50 percent cut of the profits from upcoming reissues of The Adventures of Captain Sky and Pop Goes the Captain—both of which are scheduled to drop in September via Past Due, the funk and disco reissue label that Chicago DJ and producer Jerome Derradji runs as an imprint of Still Music.

"You still have to be able to delegate and to share your pie. I have this good-tasting pie, and I can say, 'John Doe, I want to give you a slice.' In return for John's slice, there's some things that John is bringing to the party," Cameron says. "I don't mind. Nobody's going to own more of me than me ever again."  v

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