Boyz II Men brings back R&B vibe
With one less member, trio has adjusted to fit
At a recent gig at the Nebraska State Fair, the members of R&B singing group Boyz II Men, were not terribly surprised when a concertgoer got down on bended knee and proposed to his girlfriend.
“That kind of stuff happens all the time,” says group member Wanya (pronounced WON-yay) Morris, noting that their hit “On Bended Knee” is a natural soundtrack for such occasions. “We’ve been in meet-and-greets, and while taking a picture somebody will just get down on their knees and propose to their girlfriend right in front of us, saying the show was what made him want to do it right now.”
Indeed, since forming in 1986, Boyz II Men, who perform on the Mid-South Fair’s entertainment stage Sunday night, has probably been responsible for more tender moments between young lovers than wine coolers. Morris, Michael McCary, Shawn Stockman and Nathan Morris formed Boyz II Men out of a group at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. A backstage meeting with Michael Bivins of the vocal groups New Edition and Bell Biv Devoe led to the group’s being signed with Motown.
With their first song, “Motownphilly,” an homage to their soul inspirations, Boyz II Men confidently unveiled their mixture of danceable, New Jack rhythms and old school, unabashedly emotional R&B. Between 1991 and 1997 they logged an impressive five No. 1 songs on the pop charts, at one point becoming only the third act in history — the other two being Elvis Presley and the Beatles — to hold the top spot with two consecutive songs.
Beginning in 1997, their chart dominance was interrupted by a decade of setbacks that included Wanya Morris’ vocal problems, the departure of McCary, and a break with Motown.
But last year Boyz II Men returned with a fury, with Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville, an album that finds the now trio surveying hits from their original record label’s storied soul catalog.
“It wasn’t actually our idea,” says Morris of the project, which was initiated by executives at the group’s new label, Decca, like Motown now a subsidiary of the behemoth Universal Music Group.
Co-produced by the group and “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson, the album features Boyz II Men’s takes on everything from Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” to Edwin Starr’s “War,” their rendition of which features a brilliant new vocalese introduction.
“We tried to maintain the integrity of the songs by keeping the music very similar, maybe adding little twists here and there to give it a newness,” Morris says. “We figured (the record) would do something simply because those songs are proven hits. Then we felt we would just bring our twist to them. Really, we can’t make them better. The only thing we could do to them is mess them up, so we really just put our hearts and our souls into it and tried to find the spirit in the songs.”
Fans who lost track of the group when they made Throwback on their own MSM label, may have been shocked to find the original quartet stripped down to a trio following the departure of McCary in 2003 for health reasons. According to Morris, McCary’s departure actually reinvigorated the group by forcing them to re- examine how they did things.
“We felt like a table that had lost a leg,” he recalls. “We had to turn the table over, take the three legs, and put them in positions where we could stand again. That’s just what we did. We started making adjustments in our show. We started making adjustments in our vocal arrangements. We started making adjustments in our a cappella. In our everyday business dealings. It was easier to move faster, but we still felt like something was missing, and it wasn’t until three years ago that we felt we had come to a head with the situation.”
Boyz II Men returns to the music scene with “Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville,” an album that finds the group surveying hits from the Motown record label’s storied soul catalog.