The Boyz carry the mantle of Motown

July 21, 1995|By Gary Graff | Gary Graff,Knight-Ridder News Service

If a symbolic baton has been passed from vintage Motown to the new company, it's wrapped in the smooth, rich harmonies of Boyz II Men.

Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. said as much at the dedication ceremonies of the renovated Motown Historical Museum in Detroit and "The Motown Sound" exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. In his comments, Mr. Gordy specifically thanked current Motown chief Jheryl Busby for Boyz II Men, calling them a group "that could have been as much a part of the original Motown as it is the current company."

There's no question that Boyz II Men is the hottest and most durable group to come out of the Motown stable since the Commodores during the '70s. Since debuting in 1991, the Philadelphia quartet has sold more than 17 million copies of its three albums. The latest, "II," has sold 8 million and is still in the Billboard Top 10, 44 weeks after its release.

The group has also been a hit machine, from its debut single "Motownphilly" -- appropriately enough about the musical common ground between Detroit and Philadelphia -- to its latest hit, "Water Runs Dry." Boyz II Men shares the record, with Whitney Houston, for the longest run at No. 1 in Billboard. Its "I'll Make Love to You" logged 14 weeks in the top spot.

The way the four Boyz see it, however, such prodigious success is to be expected from anyone working under the Motown banner.

The tradition

"Just being on the label, you are carrying something of that tradition on," says Shawn Stockman, 22. "The old slogan was that Motown was 'The Sound of Young America.' As young Americans on the Motown label, we're trying to carry on that tradition."

Mr. Gordy isn't the only figure from Motown's heyday to think that the group -- Mr. Stockman, Michael McCary, Nathan Morris and Wanya Morris -- is doing a fine job of it.

"I love Boyz II Men," says Otis Williams of the Temptations. "To me, they epitomize the new sense of music, but they still do it with class.

"You see a lot of groups coming along with their pants down, a real sloppy-looking image. Boyz II Men are doing it the right way. They're doing music the way it should be made and maintaining the image the way it should be carried.

"In essence, that's why they're selling beaucoup albums."

Mr. Stockman says the Tempts have become particularly good friends during the Boyz' five years at Motown. "They call us the puppies, the little puppies," he says with a laugh. But it was Mr. Williams and the late Melvin Franklin who were the first to offer the singers their home numbers and encourage them to call at any time.

"They really extended themselves," Mr. Stockman says. "They tell us things like 'never take anybody out of the group and never put anybody new into the group. It wrecks it from the view of the listeners and consumers.' We value that, because we know what they've gone through -- the different group members, the problems that they had. We know they know what they're talking about."

Most of Motown's long-timers have been equally warm, Mr. Stockman reports. There are words of encouragement, smiles, even hugs. "They make us feel like they listen to us and they're digging our stuff," he says.

And why shouldn't they? Boyz II Men's success is only enhancing the value and image of a company which, after spending most of the '80s moribund and out of step, now has one of the hottest groups of the '90s.

Hobnobbing

Still, it's as much a charge for the Boyz to be hobnobbing with musicians that influenced them. Recording backup vocals for Stevie Wonder's "Jungle Fever" was a particular thrill. "I guess we learned from him more musical things than anything else," Mr. Stockman says. "Just watching him play the keyboards and teach us all our notes, going all over the place -- that was amazing. He's a genius."

They had a shorter meeting with Diana Ross during a benefit concert in Washington. Because it was her show, the former Supreme didn't have much time to spend with the Boyz. "But she did come up to us, took a few pictures, offered words of encouragement," Mr. Stockman remembers. "That goes a long way for us."

Meetings with Gordy

The Boyz have had some polite meetings with Mr. Gordy, who serves as Motown's chairman emeritus, but haven't developed much of relationship with him. During their early trips to Detroit, however, they made sure to visit the original recording studios at Hitsville U.S.A.

"That just helped us realize what they've gone through and where the history was made," Mr. Stockman says. "We saw all the original equipment . . . and to us it's just amazing how they came up with those good-sounding records on those machines. I can't imagine doing the stuff that we do now on that equipment."

Then again, Mr. Stockman and the other Boyz can't imagine doing much recording right now, anyway. Their tour commitments take them through the end of the year, and after that they're planning a long break, at least a year, with no new Boyz album planned for 1996.

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