Show Them the Money

New Edition is banking on a reunion to revive its members' fortunes.

Ronnie DeVoe, one-sixth of the reunited New Edition, is all business--more or less. He's over two hours late for a scheduled telephone interview ("I had a rough one last night," he explains, laughing), but when he finally calls, he's as bottom-line-oriented as any corporate CEO. Ask him about the group's ongoing tour and you'll receive an answer that can be measured in dollars and cents. "It's been great," he says. "We've been doing maybe 85 or 90 percent of capacity, and the show in Atlanta a couple nights ago was completely sold out."

Those of you who suspected that the members of New Edition--Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, DeVoe, Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill--decided to get back together again primarily for financial reasons should go to the head of the class. DeVoe doesn't describe the motivations that led to the act's new MCA album, Home Again, in such avaricious terms--he's too charming, articulate and canny for that. But it doesn't take a lot of between-the-lines reading to suss out the truth of the situation. Given the modest responses that greeted 1993's Hootie Mack (the most recent platter by Bell Biv DeVoe, a project featuring Ricky, Michael and Ronnie) and the latest solo efforts by Brown, Tresvant and Gill, the various Edition alums needed a hit. And DeVoe sees no need to apologize for combining forces in order to land one.

"You have to do things like this in life," he notes. "You never know how things are going to go. Something you do might not be as successful as the last thing, or it might turn out to be even more successful. But whichever way it goes, you know there are going to be ups and downs--and you're probably going to come to a point in your career or your life where you need to take a different path or make a different decision about where to go next. And if you make the right decision, it can set you up for the next five or ten years. That's what it's all about--reaching the next level."

Thus far, Home Again hasn't quite given the singers the boost for which they've been pining. The CD entered the Billboard sales charts in the number-one position and has been certified platinum. Moreover, the lead single, "Hit Me Off," made a significant splash, and its smoochy successor, "I'm Still in Love With You," is ensconced in the Top 10 after thirteen weeks of release. But for guys accustomed to moving millions upon millions of units, such numbers are a bit of a letdown.

The quality of Home Again probably has something to do with this comparatively lackluster performance. While the crooners acquit themselves well, songs like "Tighten Up" and "How Do You Like Your Love Served" are much too typical. Surprises on the recording are few and far between. What's more, the sextet has been victimized by its own popularity. The sound exemplified by New Edition and its various graduates has been replicated by literally dozens of acts. By playing it safe and making a record mainly intended to cover bases, New Edition has become old hat.

And make no mistake about it: With Home Again, covering bases was New Edition's objective. "On this album, we knew that we wanted everyone to get their chance to shine as individuals, but we also knew that we would have to keep the collective concerns of the group in mind as well," DeVoe confirms. "Bobby has his fans, and so do Bell Biv Devoe, Johnny and Ralph. In fact, we have more fans individually than we ever had when we were a group. New Edition was never able to sell more than about two million albums up until the time we split off, but Bobby sold seven million copies of one of his things, and Bell Biv DeVoe sold four million, and Johnny and Ralph went on to sell more than two million on their own, too. So to not bring those elements to the table would be kind of crazy for us. And I think we did a good job on the new record. You can hear a little bit of Bobby Brown and a little bit of BBD and so on down the line. But even so, we didn't step too far away from the overall group sound of New Edition."

The original five Editions--Bell, Bivins, DeVoe, Brown and Tresvant--met at the Boston junior high school they attended. They teamed up as a group in 1981 and began playing local talent contests. Producer/songwriter/egomaniac Maurice Starr, who promoted some of these competitions, was floored by one such performance and immediately appointed himself as the act's Svengali. He was a hard taskmaster, as DeVoe remembers. "We used to rehearse four or five times a week for three or four hours a day," he says. "That's when we learned what it took to be on stage and smile and do all the things you're supposed to do to keep people happy."

This grind paid off in 1983: Starr signed New Edition to a contract with the Streetwise imprint, which promoted the teens' debut singles, "Candy Girl" and "Is This the End," into nationwide faves. MCA soon came courting, giving the youngsters a chance to escape from Starr's clutches. Although he wrote and produced most of the material on New Edition's self-titled 1984 debut, including the smashes "Cool It Now" and "Mr. Telephone Man," Starr was stripped of the day-to-day control he so coveted. (Shed no tears for him, though. He subsequently fabricated New Kids on the Block, a veritable cash machine that he'd initially envisioned as a white New Edition.)

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