Boyz II Men
Boyz II Men
Rhythm and blues group
Boyz II Men, a Philadelphia-based rhythm and blues quartet, have literally gone from singing together in a bathroom to performing sold-out concerts in the United States’ largest venues. The group’s four members—Nate Morris, Michael McCary, Shawn Stockman, and Wanya Morris— experienced an almost overnight success as their debut album went triple platinum in sales and critics of all ages and races heaped praises upon their work. Since the release of the album Cooley-highharmony in 1991 and its follow-up, II, in 1994, Boyz II Men have established themselves as innovators who combine the standard elements of R&B with new, hip-hop stylings, all the while relishing old-fashioned romantic love as a theme.
From complete unknowns at the beginning of the 1990s, the members of Boyz II Men have leaped into the limelight to become fashion and music trendsetters. The term “doo-hop” has been coined to describe their sound, the “Alex Vanderpoolera” tag to describe their upscale attire. More importantly, the group has been credited with resuscitating the flagging fortunes of Motown Records, long considered the premier label for black pop artists. Asked about the group’s secret for success, Stockman told Knight-Ridder: “Our music makes you feel good. We know life isn’t all peaches-and-cream, but sometimes you just want to relax and forget about all that.”
“The success of Boyz II Men is no fluke,” wrote Patricia Smith of the Akron Beacon Journal. “It’s odd, it’s crazy, it’s hard to believe, it’s a one-in-a-million shot, but it’s no fluke. Four determined young men just happened to be in the right place at the right time—in front of the right person.” Good luck certainly played a part in the Boyz II Men saga, but no one leaps to national prominence these days without careful preparation. In the case of Boyz II Men, that preparation included training in classical music, a thorough knowledge of modern black American music, and long hours dedicated to perfecting vocal talents.
The members of Boyz II Men have little to say about their childhoods, except to emphasize that their clean-cut image reflects their true attitudes about life. “People call us nerds and stuff,” Nate Morris admitted in Entertainment Weekly. “[But] the good thing about that is, they’re knocking us for what we are, not for a façade.” All four of the singers were born and raised in Philadelphia, but each one comes from a distinct neighborhood. Nate Morris grew up in South Philadelphia. He is not related to Wanya (pronounced wan-YAY) Morris, who grew up in North Philadelphia. McCary lived in the
For the Record …
Members include Michael S. McCary (born in 1972); Nate Morris (born in 1971); Wanya Morris (born in 1973); and Shawn Stockman (born in 1972). All members born in Philadelphia, PA.
Group formed by Nate Morris in 1985 in Philadelphia; signed with Motown Records, 1989, and released first album, Cooleyhighharmony, 1991; made numerous live concert appearances in the U.S., including a tour with Hammer (formerly M.C. Hammer), 1992.
Selected awards: Grammy awards for best R&B vocal performance by a group, 1992, 1993, and 1994; American Music awards for best new artist and best R& B vocal performance by a group, 1992; Soul Train award for best new artist, 1992; Image Award for best new artist, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1992.
Addresses: Record company —Motown Records Inc., 6255 Sunset Blvd., 17th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90028.
Logan section of the city, and Stockman grew up in Southwest Philadelphia. The four did not know each other as children.
Just about the only formative experience the singers will talk about is their musical influences. The two most important were the so-called “Motown Sound” and the street-corner harmonizing that is a staple of Philadelphia neighborhoods. “All we used to grow up on was Motown—Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, the Temptations,” Stockman pointed out in the Charlotte Observer. “Just to be on a label with artists like that is definitely an honor”
In the Philadelphia Daily News, Stockman gave his home town credit for fostering his and his friends’ ambitions. “One of the things we want is to bring back that Philly sound,” he said. “In the past, there was a time when Philadelphia was nonexistent as far as the music industry was concerned. Nothing was happening. We saw that Philly has all this talent. We were around it and we had a little something going on, so we said, ‘Let’s bring back that Philly sound and try to put Philly back on the music industry map.’”
Boyz II Men began experimenting with the “Philly sound”—a cappella R&B harmonies—as students at Philadelphia’s prestigious High School for the Performing Arts. The four members, along with a fifth friend, Marc Nelson, would meet between classes and after school in the building’s bathrooms to sing together. The bathroom was chosen because it had the best acoustics. Once they had worked out a song, the Boyz might try it on an audience at a favorite teen hangout in Philadelphia, the Gallery in Center City. The group name Boyz II Men was taken from a New Edition song title and was first coined in 1985 by Nate Morris. All of the members admitted a great respect for New Edition and the Christian group Take 6, prominent R& B vocal acts that had achieved success in the late 1980s.
At the Philadelphia High School for the Performing Arts, the members of Boyz II Men studied classical music and vocal arts. They performed in the school’s various chorus groups as well as in their private quartet. Although deeply committed to music, the four students pursued their high school diplomas with little time spent looking toward the future. “We just did talent shows in the Philly area, sometimes in Delaware and New Jersey,” Stockman told the Akron Beacon Journal. “But we really didn’t take it seriously. We had our dreams, but we didn’t make our minds up about music as a career until we met Michael Bivins.”
Bivins was a singer with both New Edition and its spinoff group, Bell Biv DeVoe. He came to Philadelphia in 1989 for a concert at the Civic Center. Mustering their courage, the members of Boyz II Men found their way backstage after the concert to ask Bivins how to pursue a recording contract. Bivins, who was just beginning to manage other performers, asked to hear them sing, and they auditioned on the spot. Impressed, the star gave the boys his phone number and promised to keep in touch. Some weeks later he invited the group to New York City and signed on as their manager. “I was curious where they stood as far as stage presence,” Bivins told Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t seeing the complete package. But I could see that they had the most important piece, which a lot of groups were missing at the time— the vocals”
Bivins’s own contributions to the evolution of Boyz II Men was substantial. He matched their street-corner vocal dynamics with jeep beats and hip-hop swing, and he chose their matching super-preppy sweater-and-tie look, basing it on the character Alex Vanderpool from his favorite soap opera, All My Children. The members of Boyz II Men were perplexed at the fashion statement, but they soon came to accept and enjoy wearing the upscale clothing. “We weren’t really into it at first,” Stockman told Spin magazine. “But once we started wearing the stuff and learning how to put it together, it started to feel good.”
After two and a half months of work with Bivins, Boyz II Men went into the recording studio. “Songs just came into our heads, pop, pop, pop,” Stockman told the Akron Beacon Journal. “We had material from way back, and it felt good to us, so we did it. We wrote seven out of eight songs on the album. When we needed up-tempo, they handed us cassettes with the beats and we wrote the words.... We were ready.” Tracks from the budding Cooleyhighharmony attracted the attention of Motown Records executives, who signed a contract with the group.
The first Boyz II Men single, “Motownphilly,” was released in 1991. According to Rolling Stone contributor Alan Light, the song held appeal for “rap fans,” but was also “smooth enough for R&B radio and MTV.” The song made it into the Billboard Top 20, as did the follow-up single “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” The song that made the group famous, though, was the smash hit “End of the Road,” which was featured in the Eddie Murphy movie Boomerang. “End of the Road” spent 13 weeks in the top position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, breaking a record set by Elvis Presley 30 years ago. In the meantime, Cooleyhighharmony was on its way to selling more than 7 million copies. Needless to say, Motown Records top executives were thrilled with their new stars.
Thrilled, too, were music critics who liked Boyz II Men’s sound and substance. “The vocal quartet Boyz II Men is living, singing proof that the love song—like love itself— will never really disappear,” wrote Christopher John Farley in Time. “Other performers may grab the headlines and spark debates on the op-ed pages, but by going against the critical tide and recording harmonious ballads, Boyz II Men has won an enormous following.... [They send] a message to the rest of the record industry that nice guys can finish first.” Vibe music critic James Hunter called the group’s work “the strongest pure black pop—not way hip hop, but not rote or old fashioned, either—anyone’s heard in years. Here is truly contemporary black music—not Detroit reminiscence, not the new black folk, not new jack city, but something that completely belongs to itself”
As sales of Cooleyhighharmony passed everyone’s expectations—and Boyz II Men turned to a follow-up album—Motown extended the young group a new contract, estimated to be worth $30 million. The group joined a 1992 tour as the opening act for rap singer M.C. Hammer, and their vast popularity more or less forced them to leave their Philadelphia neighborhoods in favor of homes in the suburbs. Even in the midst of all this happy success, however, tragedy struck. In May of 1992, the group’s road manager, Khalil Roundtree, was shot and killed at the Guest Quarters Suite Hotel in Chicago, apparently by robbers. Roundtree’s assistant, Qadree El-Amin, was also wounded in the attack. Stunned by the loss of their friend, Boyz II Men quit touring for two weeks and went home to Philadelphia.
“Khalil was more than just a road manager to us,” Stockman told Knight-Ridder. “He was a mother figure, father figure, technician, mechanic, scout. He was everything to us. He was like our dad. He did so much, we didn’t have to think. All we did was sing, and dance. Which is one of the reasons why we think that he was taken away from us. It was like the Lord’s way of saying that we had to learn a lot of things on our own. We wish he was still here, but we realize why—or we think we know why—he was taken away. Because Khalil’s death changed us as people. We had to be more responsible for our actions. And we’re better people now. We’re a lot wiser, and a lot smarter, and a lot more aware of our surroundings.”
Teenagers when they began their swift rise to fame, the members of Boyz II Men have indeed grown older and wiser after their years at the top of the music charts. “People have some misconceptions about this business,” Stockman told Knight-Ridder. “It is a business. It’s hard work. And when you get some success, people want more of your time.” That time is worth money, however. With the Motown Records contract, product endorsements, a possible clothing line, and major concert appearances, each one of the Boyz II Men quartet can realistically expect to earn several million dollars per year. Stockman told Vibe that, with a second album in the Billboard Top Ten and a tour in preparation, Boyz II Men are only beginning to realize their ambitions. “We have a long way to go as far as achieving the kind of success we want,” he said. “You know, like the Beatles—that kind of longevity. That’s what we’re trying to establish.”
In the midst of a surge in popularity of the hard sounds of some alternative rock music songs and of gangsta rap, Boyz II Men have indeed established their longevity with time-tested mainstream pop offerings. Songs like “I’ll Make Love to You” from their second LP, II, ensured that the group would hold a place in pop music’s memory. Along with Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” it became the longest-running Number One single of all time.
Fast friends who have maintained their ties to the Philadelphia area, the four Boyz II Men members describe themselves as clean-living Christians who pray together, respect women, and attribute their success to their parents and their high school. Nate Morris told the Philadelphia Daily News that he and the other group members are too busy even to revel in their success. Winners of multiple Grammy awards, Image awards from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and American Music awards, they are simply working hard, almost numb to the impact they’ve made on pop music. “When it hits us, trust me, it will hit us,” Morris said. “It probably will come at a weird time. You’ll be sitting around, eating a sandwich in your home or something, and you’ll look on your mantlepiece and see a Grammy up there and say, ‘Wow!’ You actually get the time to sit down and think for awhile”
Stockman told the Philadelphia Daily News: “Everything is like a blur. We don’t really have enough time to appreciate the fruits of our labor. But we don’t want to slouch because the moment you relax, there’s another group coming right behind you who is just as good. We have to keep on our toes. There’s always room for improvement. That’s why we’re always singing”
Cooleyhighharmony, Motown, 1991.
Christmas Interpretations, Motown, 1993.
II, Motown, 1994.
Akron Beacon Journal, January 31, 1992.
Charlotte Observer, October 21, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, August 20,1993; September 16,1994.
Knight-Ridder wire reports, January 6,1992; August 29,1994.
Philadelphia Daily News, February 26, 1992; April 1, 1992; August 26, 1994; September 13, 1994.
Philadelphia Inquirer, September 6, 1992.
Pulse I’, December 1993.
Rolling Stone, March 5, 1992; July 9-23, 1992.
Spin, July 1992.
Time, September 5, 1994.
Vibe, November 1993; October 1994; March 1995.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Motown Records publicity materials, 1995.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Boyz II Men
BOYZ II MEN
Formed: 1988, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Members: Nathan Morris (born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 18 June 1971); Wanya Morris (born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 29 July 1973); Michael McCary (born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 16 December 1971); Shawn Stockman (born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 26 September 1972). Former member: Marc Nelson.
Genre: R&B, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: II (1994)
Hit songs since 1990: "End of the Road," "I'll Make Love to You," "On Bended Knee"
Excelling at tight, four-part harmony layered over sweet melodies, Boyz II Men became the most successful vocal group of the 1990s, selling more records than any group in rhythm and blues history. Building upon the sophisticated vocal interplay of 1960s groups such as the Temptations, as well as the energy and flash of 1980s superstars New Edition, Boyz II Men crafted smooth ballads that glorified sex and romance without venturing into explicitness. Their creamy sound was showcased on tuneful material supplied by hot 1990s record producers such as Babyface and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Well dressed and respectable, the group transcended boundaries of age, race, and sex. Although Boyz II Men's winning streak ran out by the end of the decade, a 2002 comeback album proved that its vocal sophistication and talent remained intact.
Formed in 1988 by five teenagers at the High School of the Creative and Performing Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Boyz II Men initially billed itself as Unique Attraction. After performing a successful Valentine's Day concert sponsored by the school, the group honed a well-timed and executed act modeled upon New Edition. Sneaking backstage during a 1989 concert, the young men met Michael Bivins, a former New Edition member then making a transition into the business side of the music industry. Impressed with the performers' a cappella rendition of the New Edition hit, "Can You Stand the Rain," Bivins arranged for a recording contract with Motown Records, the label that launched famed 1960s groups such as the Supremes and the Temptations. Prior to entering the studio, member Marc Nelson dropped out of the group due to personal difficulties.
Reduced to a quartet, Boyz II Men evinced a subtle sense of harmony and swing on its debut album for Motown, Cooleyhighharmony (1991). Its title taken from the popular film, Cooley High (1975), the album sports a pleasing cross-section of 1990s R&B approaches, from the jumpy, up-tempo style known as "New Jack Swing" to glossy ballads. It was on the latter that the group excelled, its perfectly blended vocals grounded in McCary's low bass and Wanya Morris's pleading, slightly pinched high notes. "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," the first of many number one R&B hits for the group, provides an example of Boyz II Men's unique style. Singing a cappella, without instrumental accompaniment, the members let their voices coast on a rich bed of sound supported by complex harmonies. Plush yet engaging, "It's So Hard" balances genuine feeling with vocal glitter such as melisma, the singing of multiple notes within a syllable. Such flourishes became Boyz II Men's trademark, evident in its smash hit of 1992, "End of the Road."
With "End of the Road" securing the group's popularity through 1993, Boyz II Men did not record a follow-up album until 1994. Building upon the group's success with ballads, II was a well-structured collection of aching slow songs interrupted by the occasional upbeat number, all performed with a combination of grit and polish. "I'll Make Love to You," similar in sound and spirit to "End of the Road," surpassed the popularity of its predecessor, spending fourteen weeks at the number one pop position. Although the lyrics reach a new level of sexual forthrightness, with promises such as "I submit to your demands," they retain a feel of sweetness due to the group's gentle vocalizing. Like many of Boyz II Men's finest songs, "I'll Make Love to You" gains an added dimension through McCary's bass, which provides the music with a compelling through-line.
"On Bended Knee," another massive hit from II, is perhaps even more successful from an artistic standpoint. A swelling, old-fashioned ballad recalling the lush work of 1970s Philadelphia soul producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, "On Bended Knee" is supported with assured, tender vocals that balance the over-the-top lyrics: "I'll never walk again / Until you come back to me." The most impressive moment on II, however, is an a cappella rendition of the Beatles' hit, "Yesterday." Here, the group's deft sense of timing and interaction create a unity of purpose rare in contemporary pop music. Shifting vocal layers with each verse, adding rhythmic bass notes, and playing with volume and texture, Boyz II Men created what critics and fans agree is one of their finest performances. Like the great vocal "doo-wop" groups of the 1950s, Boyz II Men understands how individual sacrifice is built into the collaborative ethos; on "Yesterday" not one element sounds out of place.
Spot Light: "End of the Road"
By 1992 Boyz II Men had built a reputation as an exciting young vocal group on the basis of its Cooleyhighharmony album, released the previous year. Since the group's busy concert schedule prevented an immediate follow-up album, it quickly recorded a contribution for the soundtrack to the film Boomerang (1992). The song, "End of the Road," was a soft ballad written by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, who would become one of the most successful producers of the 1990s. During an era in which many R&B groups were pushing the boundaries of sexuality, the song is notable for its old-fashioned profession of devotion. Trading lead vocals with dexterity, the singers build tension with a series of yearning pleas: "I can't sleep at night without holding you tight / Each time I try I just break down and cry." The bass recitative, recalling the spoken love ballads of 1970s singer Barry White, only adds to the song's romantic urgency. Although the record features the kind of slick, polished sound popular in the early 1990s, its heart-tugging feel of protestation saves it from blandness. Melodic and universal in its appeal, "End of the Road" shot to the top of the pop charts, remaining there for a record-breaking thirteen weeks. Armed with one of the longest-running hits in history, Boyz II Men had, by the end of 1992, achieved pop stardom.
In the mid-1990s Boyz II Men was at the peak of its popularity, but difficult times were ahead. After Motown angered the group by issuing a rehashed album of old material, The Remix Collection (1995), relations with the label became strained. In spite of its title the group's 1997 album Evolution sounds similar to its earlier work, without the advancement of concept and idea that would have signified artistic development. In 2000 the group left Motown and moved to Universal Music for its next album, Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya. By now, Boyz II Men was writing much of its own material, with results less distinctive than the catchy love songs of its recent past. Another setback occurred when Michael McCary developed scoliosis and was forced to perform most of his live performances sitting down. In addition, the group's reliance on traditional love balladry had begun to seem old-fashioned, in comparison to the raunchy style of newer artists such as Sisqó and Next. Speaking to Vibe magazine in 2000, group member Nathan Morris expressed dismay over the new explicitness: "Someone says 'thong.' We say 'lingerie.'" Tellingly, none of the singles from Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya became substantial hits, and Boyz II Men, the most popular vocal group in the business only five years earlier, began to slip out of view.
In 2002, newly signed to Arista Records, Boyz II Men released Full Circle, an album that again showcased the group's impeccable harmonies. On the Babyface-penned ballad, "The Color of Love," the voices blend beautifully, alternating high and low notes and repeating the title in a gentle manner that recalls the soft pop music of the early 1970s. Although most of the album is built upon the group's standard ballad style, the thumping "Ain't a Thang Wrong" provides a nice change of pace, featuring a tough, heavy beat that resembles the sound of hip-hop artist Mary J. Blige. However, critics felt that the remainder of the material on Full Circle, most of it penned by the group, lacked distinction. The romantic style that once seemed so natural for Boyz II Men now sounded calculated; as a result the album did not fare well commercially or critically. In its review the U.K. Guardian complained that "everything is shoehorned into place with ruthless efficiency." In early 2003 McCary left the group, turning his attentions to the restaurant business.
Although its peak was brief, Boyz II Men left a deep imprint on pop and R&B of the 1990s, proving that old-fashioned harmony and love balladry could remain viable in the sophisticated world of modern pop. While other 1990s groups such as Destiny's Child were frequently pulled apart by infighting, Boyz II Men remained cohesive in spirit and sound, its relaxed, collaborative vocals pointing to group confidence and security. Sporting a wide range of voices, from bass to high tenor, the group honored the sound of the past while adding a sleek contemporary sheen. At its best, Boyz II Men created music that was both easy on the ears and artistically satisfying.
Cooleyhighharmony (Motown, 1991); II (Motown, 1994); Evolution (Motown, 1997); Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya (Universal, 2000); Full Circle (Arista, 2002). Soundtracks: Boomerang (La Face, 1992).