BOYS TO MEN
Can Anyone Save the Baddest Boy Band Ever?
Thirty years after the album that saved their career, the state of New Edition is one of utter disarray.
“There were a lot of psychology sessions before any music even got recorded.” – Jimmy Jam
Jimmy Jam knew that he and Terry Lewis were going to be producing an album for New Edition. They’d signed on back in 1987, and recorded a piano ballad with the group called “Helplessly In Love” for the Dragnet soundtrack. “MCA was doing the soundtrack and they wanted MCA artists to do it,” Jam told The Daily Beast. “And ‘Helplessly In Love’ was kind of our ‘get to know you’ record with New Edition. It took a day.”
This New Edition that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis worked with on the Dragnet soundtrack was a quartet of Ralph Tresvant, Ricky Bell, Mike Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe. Former member Bobby Brown had been fired from New Edition a year prior as they were coming off the platinum success of their self-titled second album and just beginning the campaign for its follow-up, 1985’s All for Love. There were a lot of questions about what was next for this group when MCA pulled in Jam and Lewis, fresh off the blockbuster success of Janet Jackson’s Control, to produce N.E.’s fifth album. And just after the “Helplessly In Love” session broke the ice, the producers were thrown a curveball when it was announced that balladeer Johnny Gill was joining the group.
Boston-bred New Edition began as an ‘80s variation on the Jackson 5, with their debut single “Candy Girl” borrowing heavily from the J5 classic “ABC” and lead singer Ralph Tresvant trying hard to evoke young Michael Jackson’s youthful exuberance on follow-up hits like “Cool It Now” and “Count Me Out.” But after puberty, the unceremonious dismissal of co-lead Brown in 1986, and Under the Blue Moon (an album of lukewarm doo-wop covers), it wasn’t clear exactly how New Edition was going to move forward. Tresvant was itching to kick-start a solo career when MCA tapped hitmakers Jam and Lewis to produce a fifth New Edition album. Now they had to manage the added friction of adding Gill—who himself had to get over his own misgivings.
“Absolutely, I had apprehension,” Gill told The Daily Beast. “Because they were still looked at as a boy band or bubblegum kind of a group. That’s not to be derogatory—that’s what the perception of the group was.”
“I was on the outside, looking in, going, ‘Not sure how that’s gonna work,’” adds Gill. “I was still considered a young kid with a mature voice to begin with.” He had been molded as a younger version of urbane quiet storm artists like Freddie Jackson and Luther Vandross. Him joining New Edition was like dropping Teddy Pendergrass into DeBarge.
“The bulk of the songs didn’t take shape until the group was actually in Minneapolis and we had long discussions about what the group dynamic was gonna be between the members,” Jam explains. “There wasn’t anything pre-done. We’ve never taken songs off the shelf, so to speak. We make it relevant to the artist and talk about things that they wanna talk about.”
What New Edition wanted to talk about was the reality of being New Edition. With Janet’s Control as a template, the album’s theme of maturation came into form. Whereas Control had been focused on independence, New Edition was looking at loss of innocence. And with Gill’s very adult voice, it wasn’t going to be hard to emphasize the shift away from cutesy adolescence. But you couldn’t just drop him into the forefront.
“When we did [first single] ‘If It Isn’t Love,’ we knew that that was the most New Edition-sounding record,” Jam explains. “You don’t really hear Johnny on that song—he’s in the background. It’s a New Edition song. It sounds all grown up, but still with the little Jackson 5-ish thing they always had. The second single was ‘…Not My Kind of Girl.’ Which now, begins to bring Johnny in there a little bit. A couple of little ad-libs.”
“And ‘Can You Stand the Rain’—that was our one. That was our ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’ by the Stylistics,’” Jam says. “That was the low voice with Johnny coming in, and then all of a sudden you hear Ralph’s voice and it’s like, ‘Oh, New Edition!’ Over the course of the three records, now Johnny is a part of the group.”
The label bought in, and New Edition bought in. But Jam and Lewis chose to test Gill early on.
“We told Johnny Gill in a meeting, ‘You aren’t going to sing on any songs on this record,” Jam shared. “Ralph is the lead singer and New Edition is his group.”
Gill was anticipating that he’d have to take a backseat.
“He said, ‘You probably aren’t going to be singing on these songs,’” Gill remembers. “I said, ‘Yeah, that’s no problem.’ I didn’t need to be out front. It didn’t even bother me. I understood what it meant to be a team player. It never made me feel like I need to ‘get mine.’”
“Now, we knew in our minds that Johnny was definitely going to sing on the record,” Jam admits with a smirk. “But it was important for Johnny to say in front of everybody else, ‘I’m a team player, I don’t care—I’m just happy to be a part of New Edition.’ As we started working on the records, they started saying, ‘Why ain’t Johnny singing more?’ Well, we knew that was going to happen!”
The uncertainty passed as the new quintet embraced Gill’s strengths. Like the famous story of album closer, “Boys to Men,” a song that has become one of New Edition’s most beloved ballads and a moment that showcases Gill. When Jam and Lewis presented him with the song, Johnny balked and decided to go as hard as possible as a show of protest.
“I’m gonna fuck this song up because now you’re trying to belittle me,” he says, laughing at his frustration back then. “I felt like, ‘All these great songs and you gonna give me this shit?’ By the first verse, everybody was looking at me in the booth. I was just pissed. I said, ‘I don’t give a fuck. If you want me to do it—imma do it.’ And it became a classic. [laughs] Who knew?”
On the heels of hit single “If It Isn’t Love,” Heart Break was released June 20, 1988, the same day as Brown’s blockbuster second album Don’t Be Cruel. It announced New Edition’s transition from wannabe Jackson 5 to the new-school Temptations; they were now a mature vocal group that had shed its early boy band image. With Heart Break, Jam and Lewis’ follow-up to Control added some hip-hop edge to their sound and wound up helping to define the emerging new jack swing wave.
“It was still all new,” Gill recalls. “Working with Jimmy and Terry, watching the way they did the work, from stacking vocals, from knowing the parts, from how they would take what you say in a conversation and the next thing you know, it’s a song—it was an amazing experience.”
New Edition and Bobby Brown hit the road together (along with Al B. Sure!) on the Heartbreak Tour in the fall of ‘88 and would remain on the road throughout 1989. MCA pairing the acts was a no-brainer, and it solidified the New Edition family tree as the pinnacle of R&B cool. Your favorite group had grown up—and one of them was a bona fide superstar. Gill hadn’t seen that kind of stardom, and he remembers the whirlwind of it all:
“Back then, you lived in the moment and you were really just having fun. You’re not thinking about tomorrow—we didn’t realize what was happening. It was just great times. There were challenges, it was business—but we were still able to really enjoy it. As you get older, you realize how important that it is. So much stuff was going on with all of us, it can appear like a blur—you can take it for granted. It was incredible and a blessing. Take it in. It was just a fun era.”
That era has been getting a lot of love lately. Last year’s The New Edition Story was a hit for BET and the group was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BET Awards last summer. New Edition also landed a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and The Bobby Brown Story is set to air this fall. But when it came time for New Edition to bask in the glow of pop-culture adulation, the group went silent. There was a promised tour that never happened. No new music has been released—their last single together was 2014’s “This One’s For Me and You,” billed as a Johnny Gill song featuring New Edition. The group didn’t seem to be capitalizing on the N.E. resurgence.
Then in May, Mike Bivins announced via Instagram that tour plans had long been canceled.
“My long drive home yesterday I said God help me release all my disappointment and receive all your steps you take to fix and help those in need of a breakthrough,” Biv wrote. “We all felt like the victim at times in our long career and sometimes , it rears its head at the wrong time and last year was God's time for us to smell our roses and to do what we do best Entertain. Family business is family business and I know yall need answers on why ish is not going down ( the Big Tour , Part 4,5,6 of more of the movie, or anything else you do to celebrate with your fans).”
“I know yall need answers on why ish is not going down,” he continued in the caption. “I’m on record this morning on behalf of Orchard Park Projects, Boston, Maurice Starr, Candy Girl and all that have participated and worked for this organization. I will do my part and talk and open up communication to get this ish back on track Ralph, Ricky, Ronnie, Bobby, Johnny & Brooke.”
“We know that you’ve come to expect excellence from us,” Ricky Bell posted on his IG shortly thereafter. “Although I’m not able to go into specific details at this very moment, I will say this much: Nobody gets kicked out of N.E. anymore. Those days are long behind us.”
A few weeks later, it was announced that a tour was happening, but it would feature Bell, Biv, DeVoe and Bobby Brown—as a new quartet called RBRM (Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky, Mike). “Since Ralph has his radio show and Johnny’s been touring, a New Edition thing wasn’t able to happen,” Brown told Rolling Stone. “We decided to put a group together and perform for the people.”
Posting on his birthday, Ralph Tresvant seemed to allude to the tensions.
“I have the BEST FANMILY in the entire UNIVERSE!!!!” Tresvant wrote. “This year is the start of Me, Myself and Mines. NOTHING ELSE MATTERS!!!”
There have been unconfirmed reports that this latest rift is born of a copyright issue: Gill and Tresvant have copyrighted the name “New Edition” and shut the other four out. But they won’t share specifics. Gill echoed Bell and Bivins’ sentiments that this is “family business” while also making it clear that public postings didn’t help matters. He criticizes the divisiveness as fueling the bad blood.
“Some get on social media and put their business and your laundry out there,” Gill scoffs. “But…at the end of the day, if that’s what one chooses to do, that’s okay, too. If you’re a true New Edition fan and you want to see this group together again, the last thing you need to do is choose sides. Do that, and the chances of seeing this group get back together is going to be even slimmer to none.”
Heart Break is one of the defining albums in contemporary R&B. That it was born of turmoil and transition isn’t out of character for classics. Rumours wouldn’t exist without the heartache and betrayal that was tearing at Fleetwood Mac. And New Edition’s Heart Break backstory is what fuels the themes behind those tracks. Songs about moving forward (“Boys to Men”), looking back (“Coming Home”), togetherness (“Can You Stand the Rain”) and the thrill of the moment (“N.E. Heartbreak”). The departure of the familiar (Brown) and introduction of the new (Gill)—the friction and uncertainty is what defines New Edition’s greatest album. That it sounds so confident is a testament to Jam and Lewis.
But as for N.E.’s current squabbles? There are still a lot of question marks. Gill sounds resigned to the group’s legacy not going anywhere (“New Edition is always gonna be New Edition”), but less confident about just how realistic it is for anyone to expect this ship to right itself soon.
“We’ve done 35 years of having internal issues. Fighting and agreeing to disagree,” he says. “I often say this to the fans: there’s always constantly a battle. Allow this family to work this out. Just like everyone does in their lives. What is new is that some are bringing it to social media and putting stuff out there. But before social media, all of this stuff was going on.
“It’s a family issue—and that’s where it needs to stay.”