When I think of vocal harmonies, I think of two things. College a cappella groups, and Boyz II Men. Through the 90s, Boyz II Men helped inject a vintage vocal styling into the emerging genre of new jack swing, creating what early critics called “hip-hop doo-wop” Eventually, their influence would end up pushing the neo-soul genre into existence, and help redefine R&B. Recently, Boyz II Men introduced themselves to a younger audience, appearing in Fox’s Grease: Live!
The groundbreaking part of the group’s career may be over, but that doesn’t mean they won’t continue to perform. What’s next for the men?
Boyz II Men: Cooleyhighharmony
Boyz II Men was started in 1985, but was originally known as Unique Attraction. Nathan Morris, Marc Nelson, George Baldi, Jon Shoats, and Marguerite Walker were all students at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA). At the time, Morris and Nelson were freshmen, and the others were sophomores. In 1987, Wanya Morris, a freshmen, and already friends with many members of the group from the school’s choir, joined Unique Attraction.
When Shoats, Walker, and Baldi graduated in 1988, they left the group, being replaced by Shawn Stockman. While the re-organized Unique Attraction were practicing in the school’s bathrooms, they were joined by Michael McCary, another student who would become the group’s new bass singer.
With this lineup, the group found their sound had changed. Taking inspiration from New Edition, the band which sparked Bobby Brown’s career, the group changed their name to Boyz II Men, after the song “Boys to Men,” from New Edition’s 1988 album Heart Break. The restructured group performed at CAPA’s Valentine’s Day party in 1989, and shortly after, sneaked backstage at a New Edition concert with the purpose of impressing them.
The show they went to happened to be the same one where New Edition’s Michael Bivins annonuced he, Ricky Bell, and Ronnie DeVoe, would be creating a spin-off group from New Edition, called Bell Biv DeVoe. Fresh after this announcement, Boyz II Men sang New Edition’s “Can You Stand the Rain” to Bivins, who gave Nathan Morris the group’s card. A couple weeks later, Morris called Bivins, who agreed to manage and produce the group. Marc Nelson would end up leaving the group before they made it into the studio, resulting in the quartet that would become international icons of R&B: Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman, Michael McCary, and Wanya Morris.
Cooleyhighharmony was released in 1991. The album’s sound was highly reliant on producer Michael Bivins’ influences, a culmination of what he’d learned working with New Edition and Bell Biv DeVoe. The thing that helped Boyz II Men stand out from similar offerings was their collective voice.
Breaking from New Edition’s rappier vocals, they also didn’t follow in the style of traditional soul vocals. Instead of offering one lead singer with backups, the group utilized everyone’s voice in near-equal parts: tenors provided by Wanya and Shawn, Nathan’s baritone, and Michael McCary’s bass (which also provided a speaking voice on several tracks. As part of promoting the album, each member had a unique nickname: Nathan was Alex Vanderpool, Shawn was Slim, Wanya was Squirt, and Michael’s nickname was Bass, simply describing his role in the group’s singing.
The first single from Cooleyhighharmony was “Motownphilly,” and featured a rap verse from Bivins that relayed his introduction and working with the young group. The music video presented Boyz II Men as a hip-hop group, or at least, made use of that aesthetic. The album’s second single was an a cappella cover of the Motown standard “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” (most known from G.C. Cameron’s cover for the 1975 film Cooley High.) A third single came out, “Uhh Ahh,” a few months later.
Michael Bivins wasn’t new to promoting R&B acts, having cut his teeth with New Edition, and so as Boyz II Men’s manager, he was able to make the album a success. Cooleyhighharmony has sold over nine million copies in its lifetime, and won Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals at the 1992 Grammys. “Motownphilly” and “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” were both #1 on the R&B charts, and broke the Top 5 Pop charts.
Their success earned them a spot as an opener for MC Hammer’s 2 Legit 2 Quit tour. While in Chicago, their tour manager was murdered, and they began dedicating “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” to him, helping keep the song at the top of the charts. Near the end of the 2 Legit 2 Quit tour, the quartet went back in the studio to work on Babyface’s song “End of the Road,” which was used for Boomerang, the Eddie Murphy romcom.
“End of the Road,” released on June 30 1992, was an instant hit. It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August, and stayed there until November. Its thirteen weeks at the top set a new record for longest contiguous stretch at #1. The song’s popularity help propel Boyz II Men from rising R&B musicians to mainstream celebrities. Bivins persuaded them to re-release Cooleyhighharmony including “End of the Road,” but shortly after the reprint came out in 1993, Bivins quit as their manager and producer.
Boyz II Men worked with Babyface and other big names for Christmas Interpretations, their album of Christmas music, and then went back into the studio for their second album, II. The album was a collaborative effort between some of the most respected R&B producers at that time. In addition to Babyface, Tim Kelley and Bob Robinson produced five tracks, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis produced another two.
There were several successful singles released from II, including “I’ll Make Love to You”, “On Bended Knee”, and “Water Runs Dry.” When “I’ll Make Love to You” hit #1, it stayed there for fourteen weeks, making Boyz II Men the first group to have consecutive songs at the #1 for more than ten weeks each. “On Bended Knee” replaced “I’ll Make Love to You” at the top of the charts, making Boyz II Men one of only a couple acts who have replaced themselves at #1 on the Hot 100. (The others were The Beatles and Elvis Presley.)
Boyz II Men: Evolution
In 1995, Motown Records printed The Remix Collection, a compilation of remixes of songs from Cooleyhighharmony and II. Boyz II Men objected to the collection, feeling as though Motown didn’t try to represent the group’s best tracks with the album. Motown went ahead with the release anyway, which understandably upset Boyz II Men.
They decided to leave Motown and founded their own label, though they were still under contract with Motown for their earlier work. Evolution, Boyz II Men’s third album, came out under the Stonecreek label in 1997, and was distributed by Epic Records, instead of Motown. Reviews were mixed, and sales were far lower than Cooleyhighharmony or II. The first single, produced by Jam & Lewis, barely hit #1 on the Hot 100, but Babyface’s “A Song for Mama” and “Can’t Let Her Go” both failed to reach the top.
The global tour to support Evolution, however, was amazingly successful. Unfortunately, nearly a decade of working closely together was beginning to wear relationships thin, and medical issues caused a brief postponement of the tour.
In 1999, Motown was absorbed by Universal Music Group as part of a massive buyout of Motown’s parent firm, and in the shuffle, Boyz II Men ended up under the UMG label, with Universal Records. Critics of Evolution had questioned if Boyz II Men had become dependent on Babyface’s production, so their first release under Universal was almost entirely self-written and -produced. Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya, released in 2000, also attempted to modernize the group’s sound.
Critics were appeased by the changes, reviewing it more favorably than they had Evolution. But Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya was a commercial flop, selling only around 1.5 million copies. The album’s lack of sales helped motivate Boyz II Men to leave Universal. As a final venture with the label, they released Legacy: The Greatest Hits Collection, in 2001, more than two decades after the group first signed with Motown under Michael Bivins.
Boyz II Men in Japan
In 2002, Boyz II Men signed a new deal with Arista Records. They were set on recapturing some of the fame that had supported them in the 90s, and so went into the studio with that goal. They reunited with Babyface for “The Color of Love,” and worked with veteran music video director Little X to produce the video. Full Circle, the album that carried “The Color of Love,” didn’t do any better in stores than Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya had.
After the release of Full Circle, Michael McCary retired from the group, after a prolonged struggle with scoliosis. This led to Arista suspending their contract with the rest of the group, and the three remaining members took a collective hiatus from the music industry.
A year later, Boyz II Men created another new label, the MSM Music Group, and this time worked with Koch Records to distribute Throwback, Vol. 1. The album, a collection of R&B and soul covers, sold around a quarter of a million copies with little promotion outside the group’s supporting tour. In 2005, they worked with Anderson Cameau to create Apocalypse 2000, a music project dedicated to raising money for Haitian relief efforts.
While touring to promote Throwback, Vol. 1, Boyz II Men found a new fanbase in Japanese audiences, leading them to release The Remedy. Their seventh studio album, The Remedy was released only in Japan when it came out in 2006, but a year later they made it available through their website.
The Boyz Return to Motown
In 2007, Boyz II Men returned to Universal Records to release Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA through Universal’s Decca Records imprint. The album was a collection of covers of various tracks from the Motown Records catalog, and was produced by Randy Jackson. Motown included Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, and Boyz II Men even contributed an a cappella version of their hit from more than two decades earlier, “End of the Road.”
Motown managed to reach #6 on Billboard‘s R&B charts, and received Gold certification in the UK. It earned two Grammy nominations, and critics were absolutely in love with the album. Riding the success of Motown, Boyz II Men released Love in 2009. Another cover album, Love featured popular love songs from outside the R&B genre. Artists that were covered included the Goo Goo Dolls, The Beatles, Doris Day, and Chicago.
To celebrate the album, and twenty years as a group since the success of Cooleyhighharmony, Boyz II Men headlined the “Love Cruise” in 2001. A three-day cruise from Miami to the Bahamas, the Love Cruise featured an assortment of Boyz II Men-themed activities, including a Boyz II Men prom, a Boyz II Men poker tournament, and even Boyz II Men wedding vow renewals.
To further celebrate their twentieth anniversary, they released Twenty. The album had 13 original tracks and eight re-recorded classics. Notably, the album was released in Japan before it was released in America. Originally, the group had planned to tour as a quartet, welcoming back Michael McCary. Soon after the announcement, however, McCary backed out citing continued health problems.
What are Boyz II Men Doing Now in 2018?
Since Twenty, Boyz II Men seem to have stopped fighting against their past, accepting that the sound they’re best at isn’t going to sell millions anymore. The group toured through the summer of 2013 with New Kids on the Block and 98 Degrees, but since that fall, they’ve been performing regualrly at the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In 2014, they released their eleventh studio album, Collide. The album was by far their least focused album, featuring songs that ranged from rock anthems to soulful ballads. The album is also notable for its use of autotune, which many critics took as superfluous, considering the group is known almost entirely for their singing voices.
The most recent big performance the group did together was for Fox’s Grease: Live, the live musical the station broadcast back in January. In the broadcast, Boyz II Men played the angels, singing “Beauty School Dropout” for the score. Their rendition of the song (performed by Frankie Avalon in the original Grease) became a focal point for critics, who were in love with the group’s synchronized dance routine. And while the group continues to perform regularly at The Mirage, they have a tour planned for this fall which will go from California to New Jersey.
And as an individual, Wanya Morris has recently been making headlines as a contestant on the latest season of Dancing With the Stars. Paired with Lindsay Arnold, the couple most recently danced a samba to the “Circle of Life,” from The Lion King soundtrack.