Before NKOTB, It Was Black and Brown Boy Bands That Paved the Way
Throughout pop history, the legacy of post-Beatles boy bands and teen pop have lacked respect. Journalist Maria Sherman’s new book, Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS, shakes off decades of under-appreciation for the pop subgenre and lays out a fascinating, in-depth history of the groups and fans that have shaped boy band culture.
For fans and curious-minded music nerds alike, the fully illustrated Larger Than Life aims to inform while being accessible. Sherman, a writer for Jezebel, lays out the history of this particular facet of teen pop with plenty of historical context and admiration for both the boy bands in question and the millions of young and often lifelong devotees that are personally responsible for turning the boys into music superstars.
In the following excerpt, Sherman tees off a chapter about New Kids on the Block with a proper foundation. The passage highlights the early black and brown artists that changed pop forever, like Jackson 5 and Menudo, whiling detailing a history of New Edition, the Boston crew that inspired the formation of NKOTB in the Eighties.
From Motown to Menudo: Black and Brown People Invented the Modern Boy Band
As previously alluded, the modern boy band — defined as a group of young men singing melodiously and dancing together — did not begin in the ’80s when Boston brats New Kids on the Block stormed onto boomboxes and Walkmen everywhere, hangin’ tough. In the midst of the ’60s and ’70s, the Beatles’ desire to hold some hands, the Bay City Rollers’ jeers for S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y night, and a celebration of African American music like R&B and soul in the mainstream by a white teenage generation more tolerant than their parents, a new era of boy bands was being built. And contrary to the contemporary image of these harmonizing hunks, they were people of color.
For example: Motown Records.
I’m kidding, except, uh, not at all. Motown not only proved that white audiences would listen to, love, and collaborate with black artists, the label also brought forth black vocal groups like the Jackson 5, the Four Tops, and the Temptations, whose infusion of R&B, soul, gospel, jazz, rock and roll, and pop delighted audiences nationwide beyond groups of young women. On paper, much of what these Motown groups did screamed “boy band” and, had the term existed at the time, they probably would’ve been branded that way by the press. Instead, they’re viewed as artists with a swoon-worthy energy that registers more like straight-up romance than youthful crushing. They performed hits still beloved today—such as “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by the Four Tops and “My Girl” by the Temptations—and they did so by abiding by Motown creator Berry Gordy’s opaque factory system, the very same that boy band masterminds would imitate in the ’80s, ’90s, ’00s, and beyond.
Gordy, formerly an assembly line worker at Ford’s factory in Detroit, where his famed Hitsville U.S.A., home of Motown Records, was headquartered, took what he learned in the warehouse and applied it to the music business. He ran a tight ship that included morning writing and recording sessions and a rotating cast and crew of various talents who’d try the same song countless times with different arrangements until they reached perfection. Once the song did, he found a way to replicate the process, production line style, and quick. In automotive terms, he instituted quality control and mass manufacturing. To Gordy, something as subjective as music could be streamlined, even conquered. Long hours and a tireless work schedule made his shop one full of master craftsmen, the same thoroughgoing, high-risk, high-reward practice that links all boy bands to one another. There’s no rest for the ambitious.
Latin America, too, had already been bitten by the boy band bug before the music overwhelmed US audiences with New Kids on the Block. In 1977, producer Edgardo Díaz formed Menudo in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the largest group the island had ever seen and one of the most successful Latin groups in music history. Disregarding the five-year rule, Menudo’s first run lasted two decades because of the unusual way the boy band was set up. Members were replaced once they turned sixteen—a seemingly cut-throat business practice. (A few beloved boys got to remain in the band a bit longer, but only superstars like Ricky Martin and Draco Rosa. Most did not.) By keeping his boys forever young, by keeping them boys, Díaz ensured that their voices would never descend too low with the effects of puberty, and that Menudo would maintain an equally young, perennially replenishing audience. For that reason, their music has always been child-friendly, but over time, their look moved from sneakers to skinny jeans and a bit sexier clothing, a brilliant play for the loyal young women in the crowd.
However, Menudo was never able to fully cross over to the English-language market, though they made the attempt with three Anglophonic albums. (Maurice Starr was actually recruited to contribute songs to Menudo’s attempt at English-language music but Díaz told him no, that because his Puerto Rican boys couldn’t, and this is a direct quote, “feel it the same way that other people, especially black singers, can,” Starr’s R&B songs wouldn’t work for them. He wanted pop songs, an idea Starr took and ran with when he created New Kids on the Block a few years later.)
Menudo broke up in 2009, having featured 39 singers in the boy band’s thirty year career. Their influence on subsequent groups is undeniable and, unfortunately, underserved in the greater boy band conversation. That’s an experience no one knows better than the men of New Edition.
If It Isn’t Love, It’s New Edition
In 1978, three boys from Orchard Park, in Roxbury, inner-city Boston—the fresh-faced, elementary school–aged Bobby Brown, Michael Bivins, and Ricky Bell—started a vocal group with two additional neighborhood pals who left almost as quickly as they joined, Travis Pettus and Corey Rackley. The peewee boy band wanted to make their own spending money by performing small gigs at schools around town, delighting supportive communities with their high-note Motown covers. Not long after Pettus and Rackley decided the shows weren’t for them, Brown, Bivins, and Bell were joined by friend Ralph “Rizz” Tresvant and local choreographer Brooke Payne’s nephew Ronnie DeVoe. As the legend goes, Payne, who met the boys after watching them perform at a local talent show, christened the group New Edition, as in “the new edition of the Jackson 5.” He became their first manager.
On November 15, 1981, after coming in second at the Hollywood Talent Night in Boston’s Strand Theatre, the quintet managed to impress its organizer, local producer Maurice Starr. Even though the prize for first place was a recording session with Starr and they were the runner-up, he was clearly enamored with them. (The winners were a rap group, anyway, and Starr wanted to work with a black bubblegum-pop band.) He signed the boys to his Streetwise Records and gave them a song he was working on called “Candy Girl.” With Starr behind them, in March 1983, New Edition released their debut LP, also called Candy Girl. They became local heroes virtually overnight. By April, the title track had hit number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on the Billboard hot black singles chart. They became heroes in a lot of other places, too.
New Edition felt like they were on top of the world or, at least, Boston. Ready to embark on their first national stint playing to new audiences across the country, a tour bus pulled up into the projects that summer and brought the boys face-to-face with their new lives as touring musicians. It was grueling work. When the tweens returned home a few months later, feeling like they really were the Jackson 5 (at least, as dog-tired as Motown act probably felt all the time), Bobby, Michael, Ricky, Ronnie, and Ralph optimistically opened checks for tour and Candy Girl album sales that totaled a dismal $1.87, presented to them as effects of recoupment. In New Edition’s 2005 VH1 Behind the Music episode, Starr explained, “people think I’ve got these guys’ money. The booking agent sent the money directly to them, and whatever my percentage was, they sent to me… I did not take their money.” After seeking damages in a legal battle that settled out of court, the group cut ties with Starr and Streetwise Records.
In 1984, New Edition signed to MCA Records and released their self-titled second album with hits like the ’80s electro-pop “Cool It Now” and the middle school crush ballad “Mr. Telephone Man,” written by Ray Parker Jr. (yes, the Ghostbusters theme song guy). Unsurprising to anyone who heard it but surprising given their circumstance, it sold really well and was certified double platinum by 1995. They were stars. Sonically, the record was straight-up pop, and New Edition, now full-on teenagers, felt it wasn’t totally their speed. They craved a bit more edge, a bit more rebelliousness. Simultaneously, Ralph Tresvant was made the de facto front man of the group (Bell sang lead prior to “Candy Girl,”) and the others grew increasingly unsettled with the unbalanced power dynamic. I should clarify: everyone was unhappy, but Bobby Brown was pissed. He hated New Edition’s public-facing innocent image.
Then, this: in 1985 New Edition learned the contract they had signed with MCA Records wasn’t actually with the label at all. They were tethered to a company called Jump & Shoot Productions, a trap that befalls many first-time music industry hopefuls. The boy band found themselves in a production deal instead of a record deal, an exploitative agreement in which a middleman takes profits from an act and can decide when, where, and how much to pay musicians for their work, labor, and royalties. To give you a sense of how bad an arrangement like that actually is, in the Behind the Music special, New Edition’s 1985–1997 tour manager Jeff Dyson referred to the deal as “legalized slavery.” To get out of the contract, the boys had to borrow a considerable amount from MCA. Instead of simply being broke, they took on untenable amounts of debt.
To pay off what they owed, the group was pushed through an accelerated schedule, only intensifying their interpersonal conflict. In the winter of 1985, New Edition released their third full-length LP, All for Love. The next month, the boys, tired of Bobby Brown’s showboating and attention-seeking, provocative performances, voted him out of the band. (In a 2017 episode of Oprah: Where Are They Now?, New Edition revealed that Brown’s on-stage antics weren’t the only reason for their decision. The band was under industry pressure to get rid of Brown. Ricky Bell said, “The way that it was presented to us at the time was if we didn’t get rid of him, everything was in jeopardy.”) The following year, Brown released his debut solo album, the not-so-subtle King of the Stage. It didn’t do well. Brown was still singing what felt like New Edition songs and had not yet found his footing as a solo artist despite his desire to make it on his own. New Edition’s first and only album as a quartet, an entire album of doo-wop covers called Under the Blue Moon, out the same year, performed only decently by their standards. It went gold.
New Edition’s woes only intensified from there. (Are you sensing a pattern here?) This time, it was boy band competition in the form of a bunch of playful Caucasian kids their former producer Maurice Starr put together with the aim that they would become “the white New Edition,” called New Kids on the Block. Ralph Tresvant, too, thought about pursuing a solo project like Brown before him, a move that would prove to be common in most ensuing boy band stories: once one goes, fracturing is inevitable.
With Ralph’s impending exit, another lead vocalist, Johnny Gill from Washington, D.C., was invited to join the group. And he did, for a while. Except Tresvant hadn’t actually left New Edition, and they became a quintet once again. Gill contributed vocals on their 1988 smooth new jack swing LP, Heart Break, New Edition’s first time working with the production dream team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, known for their work on Janet Jackson’s Control. The album went platinum in three months. Soon, New Edition was able to pay off their debts.
Gill stuck with the group until 1990, when New Edition embarked on an indefinite hiatus. In that time, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ron DeVoe formed a trio called Bell Biv DeVoe (BBD). The “Poison” group would go on to have a successful R&B career, but nothing like Bobby Brown, whose second LP, Don’t Be Cruel, released the same day as Heart Break, went seven times platinum. Justin Timberlake, eat your heart out.
Eventually New Edition would reunite in 1996, in the midst of the next wave of boy band fever, but not for very long. Every once in a while, the group will crop up in new and exciting ways: brief appearances here, a multipart biographical docuseries on BET there. Though they never fully received the mainstream notability of the Jackson 5 before them or New Kids on the Block afterward, New Edition was the definitive boy band, setting the stage for all who followed.
From the book LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands from NKTOB to BTS by Maria Sherman. Reprinted by permission of Black Dog & Leventhal, an imprint of Running Press, part of the Perseus division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2020 Maria Sherman.
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