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 Cooleyhighharmony 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. “ . . . the good thing about that is, they’re knocking us for what we are, not for a facade.” 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 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 spin-off 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 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 thirteen 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 seven 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 a while.”
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.”
The Remedy, the actual album by Boyz II Men, released in Japan on October 25, 2006 and in the U.S. February 14, 2007, consists of two CDs combining one album of entirely new music and the second with their most popular hits re-recorded. The members of the group now own all masters and rights to all of their original work and have decided to re-record the music based on how they feel as adults, exercising fuller creative control.
This is the second full-length studio album of new material Boyz II Men have released since the departure of their bass, Michael McCary, in 2003.