With BET’s airing this week of its three-part series documenting the storied career of one of the best known and most well-loved R&B “boy bands,” and with that band getting its long overdue “star” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on January 23, 2017, it made me wonder: is New Edition the greatest “boy band” in black music history?
Now, before you revoke my music blog card and throw Motown greats like the Jackson 5 or Boyz II Men into this argument, I’ll acknowledge both those groups’ accomplishments and concede that, other than New Edition, they represent the only other two acts who even belong in this conversation (sorry B2K, Force MDs, Hi-Five and Troop fans).
That said, I think this discussion calls for an examination of the three main contenders’ achievements over their historic careers. I’ll begin with the group who came first – the Jackson 5 (later billed as the Jacksons).
There probably isn’t a soul over the age of 25 who hasn’t at least heard of the Jackson 5, who originally consisted of the five oldest brothers – Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, Marlon and Michael – before Jermaine was replaced by Randy and the name was changed to simply the Jacksons when they left Motown for Epic/CBS Records.
The J5 came hot out of the box in 1970 with their first four singles not only topping the soul music charts, but also the pop chart – the Billboard Hot 100. Those unforgettable bubblegum hits were “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There.” Their fifth and sixth singles (“Mama’s Pearl” and “Never Can Say Goodbye”) came damn close, both peaking at #2 pop in 1971, with “Never Can” managing to reach #1 soul.
It goes without saying that the Jacksons from Gary, IN, captured the hearts of America with a quickness during the first two years that nearly rivaled that of the Beatles some six or seven years earlier. The brothers were so popular that everyone wanted to get in on the act. Copycat family groups (The Osmonds, the DeFranco Family, The Sylvers) popped up all over the place and the Jacksons’ brand would expand to a TV cartoon and a family TV variety show.
But things slowed down for the Jacksons as the 70s wore on, and the brothers would find a new home at CBS Records. There, they rekindled some of their earlier success by recording six albums between 1976 and 1989, with half of those selling a million copies or better and generating about a half-dozen top-40 hits between them.
The individual members would go on to make their own records, but it was only Michael and Jermaine – the two original lead singers – who found continued success. Michael, of course, reached astronomical heights that arguably no other solo singer has before or since.
As for the remaining brothers, well they’ve appeared on an ill-fated reality TV show in recent years, but records and successful touring are things of the distant past.
Then there’s the group Boyz II Men (who, ironically, wouldn’t have made it big had it not been for New Edition).
Boyz II Men consisted of four unrelated guys out of Philadelphia – Wanya Morris, Shawn Stockman, Nathan Morris and Michael McCrary (who left in 2003 due to health issues). Like the J5, Boyz II Men were a Motown act, and they too would hit right off the bat with a string of highly successful singles.
From 1991-1998, the Boyz gave us a dozen top-10 R&B singles, with ten of those reaching the same status on the pop chart, including five #1 hits: “End of the Road,” “I’ll Make Love To You,” “On Bended Knee,” “One Sweet Day” (with Mariah Carey) and “4 Seasons of Loneliness.”
Indeed these four Boyz could do no wrong during the 1990s, with their lush street-corner honed harmonies powering three of the longest-running #1 singles in pop chart history (“End of the Road,” “I’ll Make Love” and “Day” spent a total of 43 weeks at #1 between them). And like the J5 before them, several copycat groups emerged, including Shai, All-4-One and Portrait along with others.
But unlike the J5 (and New Edition, which I’ll get to in a minute), none of B2M’s members had any measure of a successful solo career, with not one of them scoring a top-40 hit on his own. Wanya Morris did have a featured role on Brandy’s 1995 hit, “Broken Hearted,” but that was essentially her hit, not his. And Shawn Stockman recorded a solo album in 1995 at the peak of his group’s popularity, but the album was never released.
Today, they’re still touring and making albums, but Boyz II Men haven’t had a gold release since the ironically titled Full Circle in 2002.
As for their singles? The last time they had a top-40 R&B hit was in 2000, with another ironically titled effort, this one called “Thank You in Advance.”
Which takes us to the group that inspired this article.
Bridging the gap between the Jacksons and Boyz II Men was New Edition, a band on MCA Records whose big break came via record producer Maurice Starr in 1982 with their first hit single, “Candy Girl.” The group’s original five members – Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant, Michael Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe and Ricky Bell – all hailed from Boston.
With that original lineup, the boys from Boston had a string of #1 R&B hits that also did respectfully on the pop charts, like “Candy Girl,” “Cool It Now” and “Mr. Telephone Man,” the latter two being million-sellers. In total, between 1983-86, the group accumulated ten top-10 hits on the Billboard R&B chart.
When Bobby Brown was replaced by Johnny Gill in 1987, the group added six more (with the last two occurring after Bobby rejoined the band in 1996).
And like the Jackson 5, New Edition’s success inspired many boy bands who followed, including huge acts like Hi-Five, Boyz II Men, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys and N-Sync – among others.
However, this story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning what New Edition was able to accomplish with several side projects involving each of the original members.
When Bobby Brown initially left the group in 1985, he became the first member to have success on his own with several solo projects. One of them – the 1988 album Don’t Be Cruel – became one of the biggest albums of the second half of the ’80s. In just a one-year span between late ’88 and ’89, Brown accumulated six straight gold or platinum singles, including five from his album plus “On Our Own” from the Ghostbusters II soundtrack.
Then in 1990, after having achieved huge success with their album Heartbreak, the remaining members followed Brown’s lead and had major releases away from New Edition.
First came Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe, who – as the trio Bell Biv DeVoe – released the album Poison, which generated the million-selling #1 title track, plus four other big R&B hits. The album ended up selling four million copies, more than any New Edition album had before it.
Johnny Gill’s self-titled album quickly followed. It, too, contained several big R&B/ pop crossover hits, like “Rub You The Right Way” and “My, My, My” – both #1 on Billboard’s Hot Black Singles lists in 1990. Another song, “Wrap My Body Tight,” also reached #1 R&B, while a fourth, “Fairweather Friend,” just missed at #2.
Finally, the group’s original lead singer, Ralph Tresvant, released his own self-titled album later in 1990, which also went platinum and generated a #1 R&B hit with the tune “Sensitivity,” and included another big hit, “Stone Cold Gentleman,” which featured former N.E. member Bobby Brown.
To say the members of New Edition were having success between 1989 and ’92 would be a gross understatement. They were so popular, there were times when the group members’ individual projects were competing with one another for chart space. Most notably, Gill’s “Rub You The Right Way” displaced BBD’s “Poison” from #1 on the R&B list in May 1990.
In total, between 1986 and 1996, the members of New Edition had 30 different songs (apart from the group) reach the top ten of the Billboard R&B charts, with 14 of those hitting #1. What’s more – all the members accounted for at least one #1 hit, with Brown having six, Johnny Gill having four, BBD having three, and Tresvant having one.
In R&B history, no other group featuring at least six members could claim such a feat. Not even the Jacksons. Yes, Michael had those kind of numbers – even better – on his own. But he didn’t spread the wealth with his brothers. Only Jermaine and (one-hit wonder) Marlon were able to achieve hits away from the Jacksons, while Jackie, Tito and Randy never really did.
And, as I mentioned earlier, none of the members of Boyz II Men charted outside of the group.
What’s more – all six of the members of New Edition are now still with the group, as they now join the Jacksons as groups who’ve had TV movies made about them.
All of which makes a pretty strong case that, when one considers the collective works of the members of New Edition, they could arguably be the greatest R&B boy band ever.
Or at least a very close second…
What do you think?
PS: Many thanks to fellow blogger, The Dean of Dialogue, for the inspiration to write this article!