In an excerpt from her upcoming book “Larger Than Life”, journalist Maria Sherman examines how Jackson 5, Menudo and New Edition inspired a generation of groups. We reproduce excerpts of a review by Brittany Spanos for Rolling Stone
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, a new era of boy bands was being built. And contrary to the contemporary image of these harmonising hunks, they were people of color.
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 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.
Gordy, formerly an assembly line worker at Ford’s factory in Detroit, where his famed Hitsville, 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.
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.
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.
Menudo’s first run lasted two decades because of the unusual way the boy band was set up.
Members were replaced once they turned 16. (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.
In 1982, Menudo reportedly earned US$20 million. For a prefabricated act, that’s nothing short of enviable.
However, Menudo was never able to fully cross over to the English-language market, though they made the attempt with three Anglophonic albums.
Menudo broke up in 2009, having featured 39 singers in the boy band’s 30-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, 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 impressed 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.
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.
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 gruelling work.
When the tweens returned home a few months later, feeling like they really were the Jackson 5, Bobby, Michael, Ricky, Ronnie, and Ralph optimistically opened cheques for tour and “Candy Girl” album sales that totalled a dismal US$1,87, presented to them as effects of recoupment.
In 2005 Starr said “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 “Mr Telephone Man”, written by Ray Parker Jr (yes, the “Ghostbusters” theme song guy).
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 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 labour.
New Edition’s 1985–1997 tour manager Jeff Dyson referred to the deal as “legalised slavery”.
To get out of the contract, the boys had to borrow a considerable amount from MCA.
To pay off what they owed, the group was pushed through an accelerated schedule, only intensifying their interpersonal conflict.
In 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. 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.
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, 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 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.
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.-