To understand Boyz II Men, you must understand history: Looking back, most people would cede 1956 to Elvis Presley. After all, that was the year of ”Hound Dog” and ”Heartbreak Hotel,” the year the King’s lascivious loins unleashed waves of lust and dread across the nation.
But think again. The man who really ruled 1956 was Harry Belafonte. While Elvis was off igniting a revolution, Belafonte’s tame, breezy cocktail of island tunes, Calypso, became the best-selling album of the year. It survived 31 weeks at No. 1; the King’s Elvis Presley lasted only 10.
Fast-forward to 1994, and marvel as history repeats itself. In a year packed with raw, insurgent, and sometimes terrifying moments — punk bands rising from the underground to strafe the pop charts, Courtney Love swan-diving into the throng at a Manhattan theater, Kurt Cobain snuffing out his own life — you eventually have to admit that Boyz II Men, a Philly hip-hop doo-wop quartet whose sound is roughly as dangerous as that city’s cream cheese, eclipsed them all. Unabashed soldiers of the mainstream, the Boyz watched their second platter, II, debut at the peak of the charts. So did Soundgarden and the Beastie Boys, but those grungier brethren quickly dribbled out of the top 10. Boyz II Men never left.
How can a group of beat-box preppies who love God, dress like the Four Freshmen, and coo lines like ”pour the wine/ light the fire/ girl, your wish is my command” even survive in these anxious days of industrial noise, gangsta rap, and Natural Born Killers? The same way Belafonte quashed Elvis: by appealing to a silent majority of teenyboppers and yuppies who long for a little warmth, innocence, and puppy love in their lives. Sappy? Sure. So was Forrest Gump.
Let the rest of the world lurch toward an apocalyptic dawn; Boyz II Men — (left to right) Wanya Morris, Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman, and Michael McCary — aches for the past. Considering how their matching cardigans, smooth moves, and wedding-banquet balladry harken back to Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, it’s no accident they sing for Motown. Like their ancestors at Berry Gordy’s hit factory, the Boyz are talented traditionalists; they actually know how to sing. Nor do they shy away from their middle-of-the-road place in history: In fact, they close II with a chic doo-wop version of the Beatles’ ”Yesterday.”
And as for Elvis, the Lands’ End loverboyz have already dethroned the King. Twice. Two years ago, their hit ”End of the Road” crowned the singles chart for 13 straight weeks, breaking a record held by ”Don’t Be Cruel,” Presley’s 1956 smash.
It happened again in 1994. For 14 weeks, every other song in America bowed to a lush swooner called ”I’ll Make Love to You.” It became the longest- running No. 1 single of all time (tied with Whitney Houston’s ”I Will Always Love You”), and Elvis dropped another notch in the record books.
Alert Harry Belafonte.