Pop singer, songwriter
“When Bobby Brown moves, fans swoon,” writes Steve Dougherty in People. “And critics shift into hyperpraise. Even the far-from-funky New York Times cheered a ’bravado [Brown] performance that harks back to the glory days’ of 60s music.” Brown is the latest in an impressive string of pop superstars who danced their way to the top of the music world in the 1980s. Such 1980s music phenoms as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, and Paula Abdul all infused their pounding rhythms and up-tempo lyrics with plenty of acrobatic dance steps in their performances. Indeed, in these days of elaborate tour productions and slick music videos, a performer’s ability to dance, set new fashion standards, and make a good appearance on camera are nearly as essential as the actual music in determining their success in the increasingly competitive pop market.
And all of this has certainly not been lost on Brown, who, though still in his early twenties, has already discovered what he believes to be the key to a lasting show-business career—diversification. “I’m not just a singer, or a dancer, or a performer,” Brown told Rolling Stone’s Rob Tannenbaum. “I want to be a lot of different things. People don’t know what Bobby Brown is. I want to be mysterious. I don’t want people to be able to label me. I just wanna be Bobby, the Man Who Does Everything.” Brown took one large step in attaining that status with his second solo album, Don’t Be Cruel, a 1988 release that has sold more than six million copies and spawned the Top 5 singles “My Prerogative,” “Roni,” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” The album reached Number 1 on the Billboard charts in 1989, making Brown, then just nineteen, the first teenager to record a Number 1 album since Ricky Nelson in 1957 and Stevie Wonder in 1963. The key to Brown’s music, says Rolling Stone’s Tannenbaum, lies in Brown’s ability to adapt “the traditional techniques of soul to the coarser language of rap... it’s obvious that Brown has displaced his elders on the pop charts not just because his songs adapt hip-hop beats but also because he has revived the aggressive sexuality that rap drew from James Brown.”
This hybrid sound, which has been called “the new funk,” or “new jack swing,” was developed simultaneously in the late 1980s by New York producer Teddy Riley and the L.A. team of Antonio Reid and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds. The purpose of the new sound was to make the hard edges of rap a little softer for a wider teen audience. And the smooth, charismatic Brown has proven to be the perfect vehicle for the dawn of the new funk.
When Brown became a bona fide superstar with the success of Don’t Be Cruel, he was already considered
Full name, Bobby Baresford Brown; born in Boston, Mass. Member of group New Edition, 1980-86; solo performer, 1986—; released first solo LP, 1987; second solo LP, Don’t Be Cruel, hit Number 1 on the charts, 1989; had four Top 5 singles, “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Roni,” “My Prerogative,” “Every Little Step”; appeared on soundtrack and in film Ghostbusters II.
Addresses: Record company —MCA Records, 70 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, Calif. 91608.
a veteran performer despite his youth. Many music fans would recognize him as a member of the early 1980s teen group New Edition, but Brown’s career had its informal debut when he was just three years old. It was then that his mother set him down onstage during a James Brown concert at Boston’s Sugar Shack—and his two-minute, impromptu boogie brought down the house. “I just strutted around to the music,” Brown told People. “Ever since, I liked being onstage.”
Brown grew up in Roxbury, a rough section of Boston, and though he admits his mischief in those days sometimes placed him on the wrong side of the law, he insists that his main weakness was for expensive clothes and jewelry that would set him apart. “There were two kinds of fellas at my school—the stoners and the kind who liked women and wore sharp clothes and put lotion on their hands and said nice things to the ladies,” Brown told People. “I was the second kind. I lo-o-o-ove women… They’ve got so much more to offer emotionally.”
But a tragic incident helped transform Brown from a petty thief and pretty-boy to the serious young musician he has become. When he was just eleven, Brown watched as his best friend was fatally stabbed in a knife fight. It was then that he made the determination to get out of the life he was leading. Together with several friends, Brown formed a singing group that started out doing harmony covers of Larry Graham and Donny Hathaway records. By 1980, when Brown was just twelve, the group became formally known as New Edition, and the boys had their first major break when the producer Maurice Starr heard them performing in a talent competition.
In 1981 the band signed a recording contract with MCA and, under Starr’s direction, began producing singles that sounded strangely similar to such successful teen groups as the Jackson Five and the Osmonds. Starr has even admitted that New Edition’s first hit single, “Candy Girl,” was modeled after the Jackson Five songs “ABC” and “I Want You Back.” Regardless, Starr and MCA both knew they had a hot act on their hands, and for the next five years New Edition performed before throngs of screaming teenage girls across America.
The New Edition experience was for Brown, in progression, a dream, an experience, a business, and finally a hassle. He quit the group in 1986 when infighting among the band members had grown intense, and when Brown grew suspicious that he was being swindled by MCA and Starr. There were also rumors that the band was using drugs, rumors which Brown claims were fanned by the rejected managers. “People at MCA thought we was into drugs,” Brown told Rolling Stone. “That wasn’t us. We were a bunch of brats, but we wasn’t into drugs, we wasn’t into liquor. We was into girls.”
Embarking on his solo career, Brown decided that he wanted to keep his career closer to home, so he put his affairs into the hands of his brother, Tommy, and his mother. Starr, on the other hand, told Rolling Stone, “I was gonna make New Edition the biggest group in the world. When we parted, I said, ’Let me show them how smart I am—I’m coming back with a white teen group.’” Sure enough, Starr did return with the immensely successful, all-white group New Kids on the Block in the late 1980s.
But Brown knows he has moved beyond the teeny-bopper circuit. His heroes have always been the greats—like Michael Jackson, Elvis, and James Brown—and for good measure he would like to develop himself as an actor, a la Madonna, Prince, and Eddie Murphy. When the producers of the film Ghostbusters II came knocking on the door of MCA records in search of a distributor for the film’s soundtrack album, Brown was MCA’s hottest act. MCA was awarded the contract on the stipulation that Brown appear prominently on the album, a project the singer was only too happy to undertake. There was some risk, however, in that the record would have to stand up to comparison with the first Ghostbusters soundtrack, which featured Ray Parker’s gigantic single “Ghostbusters.” Realizing that his participation was the key to the deal, Brown shrewdly agreed to sing on the album on the condition that he be given a role in the film. The result was Brown’s surprisingly effective cameo appearance in the film as the obnoxious butler of the mayor of New York. “Acting is just a frame of mind,” Brown told Rolling Stone with a characteristic shrug. “If you know how to block the camera off from being there, it’s easy to act like another person. It’s very easy.” And for now, Brown is acting like the new edition of the ultimate pop superstar.
King of Stage, MCA, 1987.
Don’t Be Cruel, MCA, 1988.
Ghostbusters II Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1990.
Rolling Stone, September 7, 1989.
Entertainer Bobby Brown shot to stardom in the early 1980s as one among five teen idols in the boy-band New Edition. Promoted as a modern-day Jackson 5, New Edition—which included Brown as well as Ralph Tresvant, Michael Bivens, Ricky Bell, and Ronnie De-Voe—rocketed to fame with sweet, teen-oriented pop songs, such as "Candy Girl," "Cool It Now," and "Mr. Telephone Man." New Edition heralded a new wave of teen celebrities and innocent, pop music.
As Brown matured, he and other members of the group gravitated away from the "bubblegum" pop sound of their early years. They were among the first pioneers of a new sound called new jack swing. New jack swing overlaid pop music with a heavy dose of hip-hop beats, R&B rhythms, and samplings of rap, and had lyrics with more mature romantic themes. New jack swing served as an edgy bridge between the innocent teenage fare of New Edition's early years and the overtly mature themes and hard edge of rap music. The shift in New Edition's sound also revealed shifts in the band: the members were growing apart. In 1986 Brown was the first to leave the group. Brown became the first of the group to use new jack swing music to attain success as a solo artist with his 1988 hit album Don't Be Cruel.
Brown enjoyed phenomenal success as a solo artist in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with his albums reaching platinum-level sales and numbers of his singles regularly reaching into the Top 10 and Top 40, and several peaking at number one, on the charts. With his music stardom confirmed, Brown ventured into other aspects of the entertainment industry. He explained his aspirations to Rob Tannenbaum of Rolling Stone: "I'm not just a singer, or a dancer, or a performer. I want to be a lot of different things. People don't know what Bobby Brown is. I want to be mysterious. I don't want people to be able to label me. I just wanna be Bobby, the Man Who Does Everything." To this end, Brown took occasional parts in feature films, starting with Ghostbusters II in 1989; collaborated with other musicians; and made appearances on television. Yet despite Brown's continued creation of new music and ability to land appearances in film and television into the 2000s, his personal life began to overshadow his professional success. By 2006, Brown had become a controversial public figure due to his more-than-a-decade-long struggle with the law over such issues as driving violations, drug-possession, and domestic violence.
Formed Group with Elementary School Friends
Bobby Baresford Brown was born on February 5, 1969, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was raised by his parents Herbert, a construction worker, and Carole Brown, a grade school teacher, in the Roxbury area of the city. Brown had a religious upbringing, singing with his parents in church and enjoying R&B and blues at home. From an early age, Brown had a clear talent. His mother finagled a way to show it off by putting her three-year-old son on stage to dance with James Brown at Boston's Sugar Shack. The audience loved it, and so did young Brown. As a youth Brown developed an interest in hip-hop and DJ-ing.
Life in Roxbury was not easy, however. It was a high crime area, and Brown found himself tempted by crime's promise of easy money. After witnessing the death of his friend in a fight at age eleven, Brown determined a different path for himself. To earn money, he and his friends from elementary school, Ricky Bell and Michael Bivins, formed a singing group called New Edition in 1978. In 1980 they added Ralph Tresvant and Robbie DeVoe before making their professional debut in a Boston talent contest. There they were spotted by producer Maurice Starr, who signed them to his Streetwise label.
Brown shared lead vocals in the group with Ralph Tresvant and developed a harmonious style much like the famed Jackson 5. New Edition's first single, "Candy Girl," was released in 1983 and became a chart-topping hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the course of the next two years the group became stars of the teen music scene. While the group's music accounted for much of its fame, Ebony credited the members' "unpretentious clean-cut image" for part as well. Major record labels had refused to sign New Edition at first, but the success of "Candy Girl" was enough to win New Edition a contract with MCA in 1984.
By 1985 Brown was becoming unhappy with New Edition's brand of sugary teen pop, and left the group in 1986 to begin a solo career. His first solo album was the uninspiring King of Stage album in 1987. The contrast between this and his next album, 1988's Don't Be Cruel, was dramatic. The middle of the road R&B of King of Stage gave way to a cutting edge fusion of soulful R&B with hip-hop rhythms and occasional rap sections inside otherwise conventional ballads. Don't Be Cruel sold over 6 million copies and put Brown at the forefront of a style known as new jack swing which was to dominate the R&B charts for the next five years.
A total of five singles from the album made the top 10 in both R&B and pop charts. "My Prerogative" stayed on the top of the R&B charts for two weeks, and several other of the album's singles, such as "Don't Be Cruel," "On Our Own," "Roni," and "Every Little Step," also made memorable chart climbs. Don't Be Cruel eventually reached platinum-level sales seven times over the years, and by 2006 VH1 ranked "My Prerogative" among the top 100 songs of the 1980s.
Despite the high point Don't Be Cruel would mark in Brown's career, he did not release another album of new music immediately. Instead he released a remix album titled Dance … Ya Know It!, which reached platinum-level sales. He also collaborated with Glenn Medeiros for "Ain't She Worth It," which reached number one on the charts.
Bad Boy Image Overshadowed Career
Brown's next album of new music, Bobby, did not appear until 1992, the year he married singer Whitney Houston. And while it included hits such as "Humpin' Around" and eventually sold 2 million records, Brown was becoming better known as "Bad Boy Bobby Brown" than as a noteworthy singer. Allegations of drug addiction and domestic violence, convictions for drunk driving, and probation violations dogged him since the early 1990s. In 1993 Brown's raunchy stage show led to his arrest in Georgia for "lewd behavior." He spent five days in a Florida jail in 1998 for a drunk-driving incident. He was convicted on a domestic battery charge in 2003. In 2004 a court in Georgia sentenced him to 60 days in jail for a probation violation following a drunk-driving incident. He was also called to court more than once over the years for falling behind on his child support payments to Kim Ward, the mother of two of his four children. Brown's marriage to Houston had been tumultuous from the start, and in 2006 a divorce was pending.
At a Glance …
Born Bobby Baresford Brown on February 5, 1969, in Boston, MA; married Whitney Houston July 18, 1992 (divorce pending 2006); children: Bobbi Kristina Houston Brown; Landon (previous relationship); LaPrincia and Bobby Jr. (previous relationship with Kim Ward).
Career: New Edition singing group, member, 1980–86; solo performer, 1986–; actor, producer, and TV personality, 1989–.
Awards: People's Choice award, 1989; American Music award, 1990, 1993; Grammy award, 1990.
Addresses: Label—c/o MCA Records, Singer, 70 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608.
As the controversy over Brown's personal life grew, he continued to perform and make records. In 1996 Brown reunited with New Edition to release the album Home Again, which debuted at number one on the charts. The reformed band went on tour, but Brown left again in 1997, not long before the release of his fourth solo album, Forever. The album did not sell well. Although Brown continued to create new music in collaboration with other artists, such as his "Thug Lovin'" duet with Ja Rule in 2002, his subsequent albums in the early 2000s were collections of his greatest hits.
Brown's acting career never reached the status of his hit singles, but he successfully landed parts and appearances in film and television. In 1989 he landed his first film role; for Ghostbusters II he played a role and wrote some music for the soundtrack. Since then he has made regular appearances in minor Hollywood films, including Knights (1993), A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (1996), and Two Can Play That Game (2001). But the degree to which Brown's personal life had come to overshadow his music and acting ability peaked in 2005 when Brown, Houston, and their children (the couple had one daughter together and others from previous relationships) appeared in a reality TV series called Being Bobby Brown, described by Entertainment Weekly as an honest "life-between-court-appearances" portrait. Despite Brown's plans to reunite with New Edition members for a tour in 2008, critics doubted his ability to ever again enjoy widespread popularity for his musical ability or acting skill. His positive professional legacy may be limited to the 1980s and 1990s.
Albums with New Edition
Candy Girl, Streetwise, 1983.
New Edition, MCA, 1984.
All For Love, MCA, 1985.
Christmas All Over the World, MCA, 1985.
Home Again, MCA, 1996.
King of Stage, MCA, 1987.
Don't be Cruel, MCA, 1988.
Dance … Ya Know It! (remix album), MCA, 1990.
Bobby, MCA, 1992.
Remixes in the Key of B (remix album), MCA, 1993.
Forever, MCA, 1997.
Greatest Hits, MCA, 2000.
The Definitive Collection, Geffen, 2006.
Ghostbusters II, 1989.
Nemesis II, 1995.
Nemesis III-Pray Harder, 1995.
A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, 1996.
Go for Broke, 2001.
Two Can Play that Game, 2001.
Being Bobby Brown (reality series), 2005.
(With New Edition), "Candy Girl," 1983.
"Don't be Cruel," 1989.
"My Prerogative," 1989.
"Every Little Step," 1989.
(With Ja Rule), "On Our Own" (theme from Ghostbusters II), 1989.
"Humpin' Around," 1992.
"Thug Luvin," 2002.
Ebony, June 1986, p. 58.
Entertainment Weekly, July 21, 2000, p. 84; June 10, 2005, p. 62; July 15, 2005, p. 62.
Jet, December 7, 1998, p32; April 26, 1999, p. 60; July 3, 2000, p. 36; December 25, 2000; p. 45; January 5, 2004, p. 63; May 23, 2005, p. 34.
People Weekly, May 3, 2004, p. 20; January 10, 2005, p. 51; July 4, 2005, p. 75; July 11, 2005, p. 39.
Redbook, March 1996, p. 72.
Rolling Stone, September 7, 1989; October 5, 2006, p. 18.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 14, 2006, p. C2.
"Bobby Brown Biography," allmusic, www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:55rp283c054a∼T1 (June 3, 2006).
"Bobby Brown," www.angelfire.com/ne/NE/bobby.html (June 5, 2006).
"Bobby Brown," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (May 26, 2006).
"Bobby Brown Jailed for Probation Violations," CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/Music/02/28/bobby.brown.reut/index.html (May 26, 2006).
"The Greatest: 100 Greatest Songs of the '80s," VH1, www.vh1.com/shows/dyn/the_greatest/106853/episode_featured_copy.jhtml (November 2, 2006).
Brown, Bobby the singer who went from teen sensation to controversial R&B star, inventing New Jack Swing in the process; b. Boston, Mass., Feb. 5, 1969. Bobby Brown grew up in the projects in the Roxbury section of Boston. His father was a construction worker and his mother taught grade school. They sang in church, and listened to blues and R&B at home. Brown saw music as his way out of the projects. He formed the vocal group New Edition with four of his Roxbury friends, sharing lead vocal duty with Ralph Tresvant for five years before going solo in 1986 at age 17. Despite the group’s success, his solo debut, King of Stage, sold disappointingly, with the single “Girlfriend” a comparatively middling R&B hit.
In 1988, he hooked up with producers Teddy Riley and L.A. Reid and Babyface. The album they produced, the chart-topping, sextuple platinum Don’t Be Cruel, helped change the face of popular music, fusing melodic, soulful songs with hip-hop rhythms, bringing the hybrid style new jack swing to a pop audience. The title track went gold, topped the R&B charts, and hit #8 on the pop charts. The gold follow-up single, “My Prerogative,” topped both the pop and R&B charts. “Roni” went to #3; “Every Little Step” went gold, topped the R&B chart, and hit #3 pop; “Rock Witcha” went gold and hit #7 pop. Brown also had a platinum single with the #2 pop tune “On Our Own,” featured in the film Ghost-busters II. He topped the pop charts again on a gold duet with Glen Medeiros, “She Ain’t Worth It.”
A remix album followed, went to #9, and sold platinum. However, Brown’s rise to super pop stardom wasn’t without controversy. His hip-shaking live show proved too much for the authorities in Columbus, Ga., who cited him in violation of the city’s lewd behavior act and fined him $600. This was not the last of his legal difficulties (though it was the least). Brown fathered several children with various girlfriends, and did some time in drug rehab. Then he married Whitney Houston in a lavish wedding at Houston’s N.J. estate in 1992.
After the wedding, Brown finally released a new album, Bobby. The album debuted at #2 and eventually sold two million copies. The singles “Humping Around” (#3 pop/#lR&B) and “Good Enough” (#7 pop) both went gold. “Get Away” hit #14. The album also included a duet with Houston, “Something in Common.”
Brown joined the chart-topping New Edition reunion in 1996 before returning to his solo career with Forever in 1997, but the album didn’t even go gold. Earlier that year, his recording studio in Atlanta went bankrupt. Beset by rumors of marital difficulty, Brown and Houston remain wed, although Brown’s career seems now to have stalled, while Houston continues to top the charts while also developing a successful acting career.
King of Stage (1986); Don’t Be Cruel (1988); Dance!...Ya Know It (1989); Bobby (1992); Remixes in the Key ofB (1993); Forever (1997).