Melvin Franklin, who has sung with the legendary Temptations for more than 30 years, leans over a row of seats and, bass voice booming, warmly offers his advice. His audience, four young men sitting side by side, looks up at him with a mixture of studied professionalism — they make hit records too, after all — and open-mouthed awe. ”Listen to your brothers,” Franklin tells them. ”Listen to each other.” Then he walks up on stage.
It’s midafternoon during a rehearsal for tonight’s Arsenio Hall Show, and the four youths who are Boyz II Men are watching their lives spin dizzily on. While the Tempts run through ”Get Ready,” Motown’s newest stars are getting ready to perform. One wears a gray sweatshirt with an ”African-American College Alliance” patch; he’s drinking Evian water from a tiny bottle. Another is holding contracts in one hand and a Sony Handycam in the other. The Tempts are running through a medley of hits, his Handycam is on them, and the legal papers can wait.
The four Boyz — Nathan ”Alex Vanderpool” Morris, 20; Michael ”Bass” McCary, 20; Shawn ”Slim” Stockman, 19; and Wanya ”Squirt” Morris, 18, no relation — saw their chance and took it in 1989. In their hometown of Philadelphia, they snuck backstage at a New Edition concert and impressed Michael Bivins — New Edition member, the Biv in Bell Biv DeVoe, and a budding entrepreneur — enough that he signed them to his production company and became their manager. Three years later, their debut album, Cooleyhighharmony, sits in the Billboard top 10 after more than 40 weeks; it has gone triple-platinum and is certain to sell many more copies on the heels of the Feb. 25 Grammy show, where the group performed and won the award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal.
But if there’s a story to be had in Boyz II Men, enormous record sales are only a part of it. More interesting may be the fact that they can actually sing. In an era when many R&B performers are ”dance” stars — ”dance” being industry code for flashy video types who chirp off-key while audio wizards smooth out the mess-Boyz II Men sound as good as their records. That’s also true of their rivals Color Me Badd, with whom Boyz squared off in an a cappella duel on the Grammys and whose own debut album, C.M.B., also in doo-wop/hip-hop style, is approaching theirs in sales.
And yet the Boyz have a babelike innocence as they cool off in their dressing room, buzzing about a postshow encounter with their host. ”Personally, I didn’t think Arsenio was gonna be that cool,” Stockman says.
”A lot of people that we thought would not be cool are cool,” says Wanya Morris
The Boyz, who grew up in modest middle-class families, still live with their parents, though their hectic schedule has shrunk visits home to one or two days. They formed in 1988 at Philly’s High School of Creative and Performing Arts, where they listened to ”jazz, opera, classical, and everything — so that’s what we sing,” says Nathan Morris. They didn’t see much live music. ”We couldn’t afford to,” he adds. ”Yeah, pretty much,” agrees Stockman. ”Not ‘pretty much’ — that was it,” corrects McCary. Nathan seems their leader, McCary the voice of practicality, Stockman the earnest sentimentalist, and ”Squirt” the most appropriately nicknamed.
”It’s funny that the whole music industry is so different,” says Nathan. ”You’re a new group, and then you do a show with a lot of big names, and the first time they see you, they welcome you with open arms.”
Do they ever wonder whether the names are reacting to them or just to their success? For a moment, they’re quiet. ”We sit down and we talk about it,” says Stockman, looking at the others. ”We realize we’re successful these days, so people are gonna smile in your face. But once you go down, you don’t see ’em anymore, or you don’t get the same response from ’em. So we take the compliments, but it’s like, we also think about, you know….” His voice trails off.
”I think we just do what we’re supposed to do every day, and let the Lord watch our back, period,” Nathan says, anxious to close the subject. ”We take the people as they come, we appreciate all the compliments that they give us — and if anything else happens, we leave that up to Him.”