*Summer, 1988, just after noon. New Edition members Ralph Tresvant, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe and Johnny Gill, new to the line-up, were sitting around a Hollywood hotel suite explaining the album they’d just recorded, their fifth.
Heartbreak, mostly written and produced by the team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—-then red hot because of their breakthrough production of Janet Jackson‘s album Control two years earlier—-was “grown up music,” as opposed to the teeny bopper songs on which NE debuted when the guys were just kids.
“We got somethin’ for ya’ll this time,” said Bivins. “You ain’t heard us like this before.” The others co-signed his words with head nods and “Uh-huhs.” “Word.” They began tossing out song titles. ”Wait ‘til they hear “If It Isn’t Love”, one said. “NE Heartbreak”, said another.
Somebody mentioned the ballad, “Can You Stand The Rain” (what would any self-respecting R&B group be without a rain song? The Temptations had “I wish It Would Rain”; The Dramatics, “In The Rain”, etc.), and pretty soon the fellas were singing the song’s chorus, hitting all the harmonies, a cappella: “Sunny day, everybody loves them/can you stand the rainnnn.” The album wasn’t out yet. The first time I heard the song was when they sang it for me.
As editor of Black Beat, a national monthly “fanzine” I joined as it launched in 1982, I’d gotten to know the guys through numerous interviews. New Edition, along with Michael Jackson, Prince and the sibling vocal group DeBarge, were the publication’s bread and butter. When NE wasn’t our main cover, their names or images were somewhere on the cover.
Decades later, New Edition being in the headlines of late—-a BET mini-series, the recent presentation of a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, a new Bell, Biv, DeVoe collection—got me to reminiscing.
Just as the Temptations inspired a generation of vocal groups, and the Jackson 5 inspired a slew of acts, including New Edition, NE is the reason for such “boy bands” as New Kids On The Block (formed by producer Maurice Starr after NE left him), Backstreet Boys and N’Sync.
However, few musical units have survived what NE endured. I mean, how many times can you get ripped off by early producers, managers and labels before just giving up? How do you get beyond all the in-fighting and clashing opinions regarding the direction of the group?
One answer: Somewhere along the journey, they all came to the realization that, despite their differences, they needed each other.
Another answer: they were really good. One of the last acts from the era of great R&B song and dance groups, NE, thanks in large part to Brooke Payne–the group’s choreographer, big brother, father figure and from the very beginning, the unit’s tireless stalwart and voice of reason–developed into a dynamic, charismatic, show-stopping revue.
While other vocal groups took to performing dressed casually, as if they’d walked in off the street and into the spotlight, New Edition always hit the stage in coordinated suits, resembling, in the words of James Brown, “someone that somebody would pay good money to see.”
I’m trying to think of another act that has enjoyed a sustained success as five acts in one—-NE, Bell, Biv, DeVoe, solo acts Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant.
I think of the old days: how, after NE started having hits, folks bet money that Ralph, who did most of the lead singing, would be the group’s first solo success, especially after Bobby’s debut solo album–1985’s King Of Stage, despite a minor hit with the ballad, “Girlfriend”–tanked.
How, a year before Ray Parker. Jr. recorded 1984’s “Mr. Telephone Man” on New Edition, he cut it for kid singer Junior Tucker on the Geffen label. Tucker’s version didn’t get much attention, but the song was a hit for New Edition. (Quick: How many songs can you come up with where an anguished lover, while trying to get their sweetheart on the line, ends up baring their soul to the phone operator?)
Bobby, I was told, was a notoriously deep sleeper on the road. Once, after an incessantly ringing phone and banging on the hotel room door didn’t work, NE security man Jeff Dyson had the hotel management take Brown’s door–locked and latched from the inside–off its hinges. Bobby even slept through that.
Sometime in 1990, after yet another NE interview, Bivins, blossoming into quite the entrepreneur, invited me to hear demos of new acts he’d signed either to Biv 10 Entertainment, his Motown-associated production company, or acts that he’d manage. For my exclusive preview, Bivins took me to that hallowed place where most artists and producers prefer listening to their music—-his car.
In the underground parking lot of a West Hollywood hotel, Bivins played me cassettes (remember those?) by a hip hop kid act called Another Bad Creation (ABC). He was particularly proud of a vocal quartet that had hustled its way backstage after a New Edition show in Philadelphia and sang for Bivins an a cappella version of NE’s “Boys to Men”. In fact, the amateur group had renamed itself after the song.
As the music’s Executive Producer, What Bivins recorded on the group sounded great, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him I thought their a cappella stuff pinched too hard off gospel a cappella group Take 6, which debuted two years earlier.
What did I know? Boyz II Men was a steamrolling success with the hits “Motownphilly,” “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” and especially, the L.A./Babyface-produced “The End Of The Road,” a global smash that stayed at #1 on the Billboard pop singles chart for so long—a record 13 weeks–that I contemplated suicide simply to avoid hearing it.
More than 30 years since the group debuted, I am enthralled that New Edition is still going strong. Now in their late 40s (and 50s), with wives, longtime partners and families, the boys are indeed men. It’s interesting–of all the young groups I interviewed during the ‘80s and ‘90s, many of them New Edition-inspired, NE was the only one that never bragged that they’d never break up. It was as if, even as teens, they knew survival was a matter of one day at a time.
Today, while the bands that told me they’d last forever no longer exist, NE continues doing its thing. Consider the irony: New Edition, with four acts in one, figured out they were better off united, not just through thick and thin, but thin and thinnest.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]