January 23, 1995 in Features

Brash Boyz The Philadelphia Foursome Boyz Ii Men Are Smooth Operators With Sweet Harmony And Savvy Hype

Michael Saunders The Boston Globe
 

Four young men singing earnest, heartfelt love songs: a timeless sound. It is for this reason that Boyz II Men could have been a barbershop quartet in the days of gaslights and horse-drawn carriages, or streetcorner doo-wop harmonizers of the ‘50s, hoping each arching falsetto would win swoons from shapely passers-by.

But these Boyz are children of the present. There is no precedent for the slickly packaged pop stars they have become, nor is there any blueprint for their future. No one knows how long the eye-popping success will last, or if the parabolic curve of popularity is still arching steeply upward, or flattening toward its crest and eventual descent.

The folks at Motown Records are busying themselves with the present, not the future. Right now, the group is the hottest act in pop music. In less than four years, the group has racked up staggering sales numbers that have placed it squarely in the same league, at least bottom-line wise, with Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

Fans bought nearly 8 million copies of the group’s first album, “Cooleyhighharmony,” and the latest album, the appropriately titled “II,” has sold nearly 5 million copies in four months on the strength of two singles, “I’ll Make Love II You” and “On Bended Knee.”

The current tour has sold out at venues around the globe.

To Motown’s competitors, the inescapable question looms: Why is Boyz II Men so huge?

It’s a simple formula, but one so maddeningly elusive to the copy-cat acts such as Silk, Shai, Color Me Badd and Immature spawned in the wake of “Cooleyhighharmony.” Find three, four or five good-looking young people with decent voices. Carefully sculpt their grooming and attire. Manufacture a stage presence and hope they have innate charisma. Give them simple songs written with ear-pleasing vocal harmonies and foot-tapping rhythms. Release a single and pray people listen.

That’s it.

There’s no mystery to it, because it’s the same track followed by doowop groups like the Platters and the Drifters, the kind of groups Boyz II Men most closely resemble. But the winning combination of well-worn pop planning and ‘90s marketing has worked out well for the Philadelphia foursome - Michael McCrary, Shawn Stockman, Nate Morris and Wanya Morris (whose name is pronounced Wan-YAY and who is not related to Nate).

Within this straightforward framework for success are smaller pillars helping to buttress the group’s popularity. That aforementioned ‘50s-meets-‘90s sound, the blend of doo-wop and hip-hop, has multigenerational appeal. That’s no small feat, considering the mutual disdain that parents have for music their children like, and vice versa.

In 1991, Boyz II Men’s first single, “Motownphilly,” cracked open the door for the band, announcing a sound mixing the universal appeal of sweet harmonies and a rump-shaking rhythmic force. The song’s brasssection flourishes and propulsive tempo abruptly stop mid-song for an a cappella break that puts the spotlight solely on the voices.

Scoring a crossover hit with a debut cut would have been enough to make people remember Boyz II Men if not for the dreamy ballad that most people heard after it, the runaway smash - no hyperbole here - “End of the Road.” It capped the soundtrack to the Eddie Murphy movie, “Boomerang,” which quickly bounced out of theaters and into the home video market. The song, however, spent 13 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, dethroning the King himself, Elvis Presley. In 1956, Presley’s 45 rpm disc containing “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” had an 11-week run at No. 1.

The seemingly “instant” success of Boyz II Men shocked many people, but the members have been together since 1988, as students at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts in Philadelphia.

The foursome played school functions, performed in malls and dabbled in studio backup work on songs for other singers. They tried to get as much exposure as they could, but knew that they would need more than small-time gigs. So, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, they wangled their way into a group showcase at Philadelphia’s Civic Center.

Also at the showcase was Michael Bivins, Boston-born member of New Edition and Bell Biv Devoe. They had never met him before, and he didn’t know who they were, but he agreed to listen to them sing. The members auditioned in a hallway, and Bivins apparently liked what he heard because he became their manager two months later.

Bivins steered the group toward Motown Records and helped mold them along the lines of the groups who had made Motown a pop force: the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Jackson 5. The group was polished and poised, onstage and off, with matching preppy outfits that embodied the mesh of past and present.

The group became as visually attractive as it was aurally interesting. It was a strategy Bivins had learned well from a master of the game, Maurice Starr, the impresario who formed New Edition, then spawned New Kids on the Block. Starr knew that the young women are the most dominant force in the record industry. Tap into their affection with a love song or two and head for high ground to escape the inevitable flood of money.

Boyz II Men have a high cuteness quotient that draws millions of young, screaming fans across the world. The repertoire of love songs doesn’t hurt, either. But the legions of adult fans usually focus on the group’s aura of worldliness that harks back to the days of slow dancing and missed curfews.

Following traditions has always worked for Boyz II Men, so there seems no reason to stop now.

MEMO: A sidebar appeared with this story under the headline “‘on Bended Knee’ caps Billboard chart.”

A sidebar appeared with this story under the headline “‘on Bended Knee’ caps Billboard chart.”


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email