The case for New Edition
Why isn’t ultimate 1980s vocal collective in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
In mid-October, when 19 nominees were announced for the 2017 class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it was as if a pop culture grenade had been unpinned. It’s all music, but the entire process is very political.
Pearl Jam is on the list, along with Jane’s Addiction and Depeche Mode. Electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk. The Cars. Influential disco legends Chic, in their 15th year of eligibility, as well as soul legend Chaka Khan, in her 14th year of eligibility. Folk goddess Joan Baez is there, too. In a bit of real poetic justice, Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson were announced. For Tupac, it’s his first year of eligibility, while the Control superstar has been overlooked since 2007.
Chosen by committee and by social media vote, the newest inductees will be announced in April 2017, and the 32nd annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame concert will again take place at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Will groundbreaking, black punk underdogs Bad Brains make it on their first try? Will Tupac join fellow rhyme heroes Grandmaster Flash and The Furious 5 (2007), Run-D.M.C. (2009), the Beastie Boys (2012), Public Enemy (2013), and N.W.A. (2016)?
It seems like everyone has a favorite who has been passed over by the house that Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner built — an institution that has been accused of being “too male, too white, and too rich.” And because of its history, its massive success, and its impact on black and mainstream culture, it’s starting to sting that New Edition continues to be ignored by the Rock Hall. The group has never even been nominated.
Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Bobby Brown, Ronnie DeVoe, Johnny Gill, and Ralph Tresvant, are New Edition, the most influential, genre-spanning, rhythm and blues vocal group of the ’80s, formed in 1978 in Boston. The group has been eligible for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame since 2009.
Together, as solo acts, and as the pioneering new jack swing trio Bell Biv DeVoe, they’ve sold close to 30 million albums. New Edition, beloved by millions, has toured amphitheaters and stadiums successfully for 32 years. January brings a BET miniseries based on the group’s tumultuous stories. There is a Hollywood Walk of Fame Star on the way. Hollywood continues to embrace New Edition’s music, style and choreography, which was celebrated to great acclaim in 2013’s The Best Man Holiday.
And for her bubbly video for 2011’s Love On Top, Beyoncé took direct inspiration from New Edition’s classic clip for their 1988 hit If It Isn’t Love, borrowing the group’s memorable steps, mic work and sequined jackets. “I remember seeing videos from New Edition, The Jackson 5 and the Temptations,” Beyoncé said in October 2011. “Bands I love for their beautiful harmonies and precise choreography … I always wanted to make a video and be part of a boy group myself.”
Their talents were honed in black talent shows before being “discovered” by African-American Boston music Svengali Maurice Starr, who got them signed to MCA. New Edition fell out with their controlling mentor over reported creative and business differences in 1984, but it was New Edition’s alluring concept that helped Starr launch multiplatinum white pop vocal group New Kids On The Block.
An ambitious Bivins, the business-minded visionary of New Edition, learned from Starr. By the next decade, he would oversee and manage his own stable of multiplatinum groups, including best-selling Philadelphia singing phenoms Boyz II Men and the hip-hop/R&B kiddie act Another Bad Creation. It was further proof of New Edition’s malleable DNA.
New Edition’s influence is diverse and deep and zigzags from classic R&B, and rap to pop. From the aforementioned New Kids and Boyz II Men, Guy, Jodeci to Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, 112 and One Direction, New Edition’s reach is sturdy and deep. So deep that New Edition has somehow managed to sidestep the dreaded “boy band” label.
Artists qualify 25 years after the release of their first single. For New Edition, that’s 1983’s Candy Girl, which features the delightfully earnest debut title single as well as Popcorn Love, Is This The End, and Jealous Girl. Candy Girl, a Billboard No. 1 R&B hit, was recorded when the members were between 13 and 15 years old. In 1984 came the No. 1 R&B/No. 4 Pop hit, Cool It Now, and the No. 1 R&B Mr. Telephone Man,” (written by Ray Parker Jr.). All for Love was in 1985, a 1 million seller that produced the No. 2 R&B single Count Me Out and the black radio favorite A Little Bit of Love (Is All It Takes). A showstopping appearance in 1985’s classic Krush Groove followed, as did an endorsement deal with Coca-Cola, and the holiday album Christmas All Over The World, which featured a cover of the Jackson 5’s Give Love on Christmas Day. It would be the last New Edition album to feature vocals from future solo superstar Brown.
What truly separates New Edition from its ’80s and ’90s “boy band” peers is their solo ventures. You’d have to go back as far as John, Paul, George and Ringo to find another act that has enjoyed the spoils of individual stardom across the board. Consider this: Following his break from the group, Brown lifted himself into the superstar stratosphere after he moved a remarkable 7 million copies of his 1988 landmark Don’t Be Cruel in the United States alone. The Grammy award-winning Brown is of course his own movie. The relentless dancing machine, whose charismatic pull was so powerful that pop queen Whitney Houston would later marry the two-fisted bad boy, had No. 1 R&B and pop singles in late 1980s and early 1990s — from the Elvis-signifying Don’t be Cruel, to My Prerogative to Every Little Step.
Heartthrob and lead New Edition vocalist Tresvant achieved platinum sales with his critically-acclaimed, self-titled 1990 debut. And that same year, the gruff, church-groomed Gill hit double platinum with his self-titled third solo work.
And this is not even counting the genre-defining (R&B and rap) and pop takeover success of Bell Biv DeVoe. Their debut single, Poison, also released in 1990, went to No. 1 R&B, No. 3 Pop, and has been featured in movies, television series and video games. The most unlikeliest breakout stars of the New Edition family were seemingly everywhere, becoming BET and MTV favorites. BBD’s Poison album racked up more than 4 million copies.
New Edition was following and expanding upon a recipe put in place by groups such as Hall of Fame inductees The Temptations. They were a throwback to the polished, well-choreographed, leave-it-all-out-on-the-floor performers they worshiped.
“New Edition deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,” said blues guitarist Tito Jackson from his Las Vegas home. “And hopefully they will make it someday.” Jackson is of course a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, a founding member of both The Jacksons, and the eternal Jackson 5.
“They certainly should be in the [Hall of Fame],” said Zola Mashariki, head of original programming at BET. “We’re talking about six guys whose lives intertwined, and at times were separated and found success on their own.” She said BET makes it a point to capture the group’s layered imprint in their forthcoming The New Edition Story, much in the same way the 2015 blockbuster Straight Outta Compton underlined the cultural significance of N.W.A. to a new generation. “There was no way,” she said, “that we could tell their story within just two hours and … do justice to their individual experiences.”
Ronnie DeVoe is in an upbeat frame of mind. “It feels like redemption,” he said from his Atlanta residence. “For years it felt like we weren’t getting our due. [We] want people to see this movie and ask, ‘Why isn’t New Edition in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?’ ”
New Edition faces an arduous road. Inductees includes the aforementioned Temptations, Bob Dylan, the Supremes, the Beatles, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, the Clash, Prince, David Bowie, Donna Summers, Guns ‘N Roses, and Nirvana. A real murderers’ row.
Each year, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame committee — which includes among others Bruce Springsteen sideman and guitarist Steven Van Zandt, founding editor-in-chief of the Source James Bernard, pioneering disc jockey Meg Griffin, bandleader Paul Shaffer, and author/music critic Dave Marsh — nominates a batch of artists on influence, impact and importance to be inducted into the “performer category.” Once ballots are sent to more than 800 music artists, industry power brokers, and historians, the five performers who receive the most votes are included in that year’s induction.
The back and forth over who is deserving of enshrinement in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is endless. Forget the inevitable dustups over whether hip-hop even belongs at the table (it does), eyebrows were raised even when Miles Davis was inducted in 2006, no doubt a heavy nod from the Rock Hall committee to the ever-evolving trumpeter’s early ’70s rock/funk excursions such as Bitches Brew (1970), Live-Evil (1970), A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971) and On The Corner (1972). Ahmet Ertegun, then chairman of the Rock Hall, said at the time that he didn’t vote for Davis. He believed Davis belonged in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. “I love Miles Davis … I also love John Coltrane and Jack Teagarden, but I’m not voting for them either.”
From The Doobie Brothers to Devo — the list of so-called snubs is long. Many rock fans are still crying foul that Bon Jovi — the band has sold more than 130 million albums worldwide, and has been eligible since 2009 — is not in the hall. Jon Bon Jovi believes it’s personal. Tina Turner has still not been invited in as a solo act — though she was inducted in 1991 as one-half of Ike & Tina. There were no women inducted into the 2016 class. Metal, EDM, ’80s R&B and pop, and alternative rock continue to be routinely neglected by the Hall of Fame committee. Along with Judas Priest, genre-defining visionaries such as Nina Simone, Slayer, Kate Bush, Willie Nelson, Stevie Nicks, Barry White, Eric B & Rakim, the Cure, the Replacements, and Luther Vandross are still waiting for an invite.
It goes to arguably the most debated question of them all: What exactly constitutes “rock ‘n’ roll”? On its official website, the hall defines its roster with words from Ice Cube’s 2016 N.W.A induction speech. “Rock & roll is not an instrument. Rock & roll is not even a style of music,” Ice Cube said. “Rock ‘n’ roll is a spirit … It’s been going since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal, punk rock and, yes, hip-hop. And what connects us all is that spirit. … Rock & roll is not conforming to the people who came before you, but creating your own path in music and in life.”
So does New Edition live up to that? “You have artists out there who are not even singing their own songs onstage,” said Tito Jackson with a laugh. He pulled off one of the most unlikeliest statements of the summer when his infectious, line-dancing ready single Get It Baby became a top 20 Adult R&B hit. “They’re singing to a track. The groups that are coming out today can’t hold a candle to New Edition.”
There are some cases that bolster New Edition’s cause. British pop rockers exports The Dave Clark Five may have given the Beatles a run for their money in the U.K., even scoring a No. 1 hit in America with 1965’s Over and Over, but the band’s overall impact on this side of the pond remains marginal.
Percy Sledge’s soaring 1966 staple When a Man Loves a Woman is one of the most indelible records in the soul canon. But that doesn’t change the reality that Sledge is, essentially, a one-hit wonder — albeit a great one. And what makes the Paul Butterfield Blues Band more deserving of being in the hall than New Edition?
Certainly, New Edition has the stats. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, New Edition has achieved double platinum sales on three releases — their 1984 self-titled debut, the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced 1988 set Heart Break, and their 1996 No. 1 pop reunion album Home Again. The group went platinum with 1986’s All For Love and gold with 1986’s Under The Blue Moon. New Edition has also charted five No. 1 R&B singles and four Top-10 Hot 100 pop hits, including such hits as the aforementioned Cool It Now and If It Isn’t Love, Can You Stand The Rain (1988), Hit Me Off (1996), and I’m Still In Love With You (1996).
New Edition are bankable road warriors. Box office bible Pollstar reports that since Aug. 4, New Edition has hit the concert trail 24 times, averaging a respectable touring gross of $260,453. To put those numbers in perspective, Boyz II Men averaged just $117,811 in ticket sales in the same period.
Still, author and music journalist Alan Light, a former editor-in-chief of Vibe who currently serves on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s nominating committee, believes New Edition could be in for a long wait. “There’s a case to be made for them in terms of their influence and impact,” he said. “But I feel like there are a bunch of steps that should come before we get to New Edition. There’s a lot to fill in out of that universe.”
The universe Light is referring to is the post Motown/STAX Records wave of deserving soul, funk and R&B artists who have yet to be inducted. Last year, 16 of the 42 nominating members were dismissed in order to inject what many viewed as a much-needed youth movement inside the Baby Boomer-dominated institution. Such artists as the Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Rage Against The Machine and Prophets of Rage guitarist Tom Morello, and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl were recruited.
In this new environment, LL Cool J — who led the way for Def Jam Records, the most important hip-hop label of the ’80s — would get his much deserved due with an induction. After being nominated in 2013, LL Cool J received the most co-signs by committee members. And yet he was passed over all three times after his ballot was placed before Rock Hall voters. Janet Jackson, whose passionate fan base has called out the Rock Hall over what they perceive to be a continued outright snubbing, finally received a nomination in 2015. She is one of the favorites to earn induction in 2017. Still frustration remains.
“Last year on the ballot we had Chic, the J.B.’s [James Brown’s revolutionary backing band] and five other post-’60s acts and none of them got in,” Light said, pointing to a slight disconnect between the nominating committee and the greater Hall of Fame voters. “We nominated the Spinners and the Spinners didn’t get in. And I’ve fought a lot for the Meters and they still haven’t gotten in.”
Light said there’s something that doesn’t line up between the nominating committee and what gets a reaction from the greater Hall of Fame voters. “If a huge, impactful star like Janet Jackson hasn’t been easy to get in,” he said, “then what do you do with a New Edition? We have to keep massaging the process.”
Henry Fambrough, 77, doesn’t know what to make of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Fambrough is the last surviving original member of the Spinners. He continues to tour, performing such ’70s staples as It’s a Shame, I’ll Be Around, Mighty Love (Part 1), Sadie, and The Rubberband Man.
“Me and the other members of the Spinners, before the rest of them passed away, used to sit around and talk about why they keep passing us by,” said the otherwise jovial, five-time Grammy-nominated performer. “I know we stack up against any of the other singing groups in there. I guess people in the [Rock Hall] have their own mind. The only thing you can do is sit back and laugh.”
New Edition’s Michael Bivins doesn’t put all the blame on Hall of Fame voters. He said that the younger generation of R&B acts needs to take a page out of the hip-hop community’s book and simply demand more.
“The thing with the committee of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is rap has kicked them in the a– so bad that it has become a thorn in their side,” he explained from his Connecticut home. “That’s why we’ve seen Run-D.M.C., Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, N.W.A. and some of the other great hip-hop groups make it. But what’s not a thorn in their a– is R&B. If we don’t start to raise that Russell Simmons flag and say, ‘What about us?,’ then they will continue to pay us no mind. New Edition has gone past 25 years. So what’s the problem?”
Fortunately, the guys are not exactly weeping over any perceived Rock & Roll Hall of Fame disses. “We’ve gone through a lot of challenges, up and down, personally and professionally,” said Ricky Bell, who now resides in Nashville, Tennessee. “It’s been an uphill battle for New Edition. And look where we are now.”
Bell isn’t just waxing philosophically. New Edition’s three-decade plus odyssey has been filled with triumph, tragedy and comebacks. But they’re still standing. “God doesn’t give you everything because he doesn’t want you to sit back in your rocking chair,” said Ronnie DeVoe of New Edition’s future Rock & Roll Hall of Fame odds. “We still have some more work to do.”
Flash-forward. Three weeks later and three members of New Edition are taking part in arguably the biggest gig of their careers. Bell Biv DeVoe are performing before President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama’s last White House concert. “BBD KILLING ‘Poison’ & everybody dancing w/ wreckless abandonment,” Questlove said via Instagram of the surreal celebration at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“We met the president,” Bivins said to me days later, in wonder. “We got to shake [Obama’s and Michelle Obama’s] hand. He even told me he wanted to borrow my jacket for his last speech. I almost fell out.”
Getting completely lit with POTUS and FLOTUS. Who needs the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
“It just feels like finally some of those things are coming to us,” said DeVoe. “There’s no other feeling like this in the world.”