Four pencil-thin, quasi-pubescent girls shuffle onto the stage of the Strand Theatre in matching outfits: black T-shirts with a pink logo that looks like smeared bubble gum, black Spandex biking shorts, black sneakers. They’ve come to this nearly empty theater in the blue-collar Dorchester section of Boston in late May to audition for a talent show, which explains why they look identical, all the way up to their shoulder-length perms. Three of the girls, wearing metal-frame glasses, line up in a row and the fourth stands in front. A prerecorded music track begins to play, causing a series of metallic beeps like cheap sci-fi sound effects to echo around the Strand. The quartet begins to clap rhythmically and make small side-to-side movements. The girl in front starts to rap. Her recital is wooden. Her words are indecipherable.
Near the back of the theater’s mezzanine, Maurice Starr abruptly stops chatting and leans toward the stage. The 36-year-old promoter of the talent show is somehow enchanted by this amateurish half-rap, half-cheerleader performance. ”That girl in front has something — a little sass,” he says. Unbelievable as this reaction seems, it’s not easily dismissed. That’s because Starr is the man who built this year’s musical sensation, New Kids on the Block, into a group that has sold an astounding 15 million albums, singles, and videocassettes. He’s also the man who discovered an earlier multiplatinum teen phenomenon, New Edition, in 1981. Nevertheless, Starr doesn’t trust his instincts as an entertainment scout. ”I’d be a terrible talent-show judge,” he says. ”I think I can make anybody a star.”
Maybe he can. Starr is the hottest producer in pop music right now, with hits coming from all directions. The current New Kids single, ”Step by Step,” has ripped toward the top of the charts. To do this, it overtook ”Ooh La La (I Can’t Get Over You),” a top 10 tune written and produced by Starr for Perfect Gentlemen, a trio that includes his son, Maurice Jr. Another Starr creation, ”Got to Tell Me Something” by Ana, is moving up the pop chart, and his ”Temptation,” written and produced for the Superiors, is rising on the black singles chart. This kind of success might faze another music mogul. Not Starr. ”Everything I’ve produced in the past two years has been a hit,” he says with matter-of-fact aplomb.
How does he do it? Hooks, hooks, hooks. Starr’s trademark sound is light and bouncy, with cute vocals and sweet melodies. Many critics think he has stooped to conquer the charts, but he’s happy to blend artistic and financial goals. ”I am into commercial success,” Starr freely admits. ”I do what the people like.” His songs grab listeners right away. ”You hear the hook in the first 15 seconds,” he says. ”You hear it once and you want to sing it all the way through.” Even if you aren’t crazy about some of Starr’s more saccharine tunes, you often cannot get them out of your head. ”Maurice has his finger on the pulse of teen America,” says Don Ienner, president of Columbia Records, the New Kids’ label.
As a composer, Starr works his muse to exhaustion. He carries a microcassette recorder everywhere so he can hum or sing a new riff onto tape before he forgets it. Starr writes nearly all the songs on his artists’ records, apparently cranking out material at will: ”I took a plane ride from New York to Boston and wrote 10 songs,” he says. For the just-released New Kids album he came up with about 25 tunes and then had trouble choosing among them. ”They all sounded like hits to me,” says Billboard’s Songwriter of the Year for 1989.
To make sure that Starr the composer is well served, Starr the producer has often called upon Starr the session man to perform. The New Kids album Hangin’ Tough carried this credit: ”All instruments played or programmed by Maurice Starr.” (Except, as another credit noted, for a little synthesizer programming on one tune by New Kid Danny Wood.) Often Starr has sung backup vocals as well. This do-it-all approach may be coming to an end, however, as Starr’s musical empire grows ever larger. Although he’ll probably continue to write most of the material for his artists, Starr is calling on five or six ”ghost producers” to follow his directions in the studio for everything from laying down basic tracks to mixing the finished product. He then comes in for any necessary adjustments at the end.
Less time for music means more time for business. Starr pays almost fanatical attention to every phase of the music industry, creating finely detailed master plans for each of his artists extending up to three years into the future. On yellow legal pads he carries in his briefcase, Starr notes when new singles will be coming out, when promotional calls should be made to radio stations for those singles, when photos need to be taken for album covers, when tours begin and end. No detail is too small. ”This way I know it’s done right,” he says. ”When I’m involved with every phase it seems like the song goes to the top.” Says John Doelp, director of product management at Epic Records, which is releasing albums by three of Starr’s acts: ”Maurice reminds me of a Berry Gordy of the ’60s or the Gamble and Huff of the ’70s, combined with a promoter like P.T. Barnum.”
While sitting in the Strand Theatre, Starr pulls out a legal pad to show what he sketched out earlier that day during a brief flight: his concept for this summer’s New Kids mega-tour, called Magic Summer, which will use routines created by magician Harry Blackstone. Starr has worked out the first 30 minutes of the two-hour show, beginning with the group singing offstage as a tease before a rocket ship delivers them for the performance. He has chosen the first half-dozen songs, decided on a few bits of stage movement, and even written some patter to get the group from one lead singer to the next — ”Hey, Joe, why don’t you do a medley of your hits?”