Show Them the Money

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.)

Even without Starr, New Edition flourished, hitting the charts with "Count Me Out," "A Little Bit of Love (Is All It Takes)" and "Once in a Lifetime Groove." So solid was the group's foundation that Brown's decision to go solo in 1986 didn't prove fatal; Johnny Gill came aboard as a replacement and helped the group to another Top 10 hit, "If It Isn't Love," in 1988. This, however, was a last hurrah--at least for a while. After a tour to support the album Heart Break, the various players went off on their own.

In many ways, the music that followed was better than anything by New Edition. Brown's second solo album, 1988's Don't Be Cruel, made a huge impact thanks to its breakthrough single, "My Prerogative"--but its import goes beyond mere sales. Producer Teddy Riley's work on the long-player became the most persuasive salvo to that point in a burgeoning R&B movement dubbed New Jack Swing. And while this term is now exhausted, the sound itself continues to inform virtually all the material put out by contemporary soul artists.

Bell Biv DeVoe was part of the New Jack Swing wave, too: Poison, from 1990, combined Riley's smooth sound with a hip-hop orientation provided by guest producers such as Hank Shocklee, who helped give early Public Enemy tracks their propulsive menace. For a while, "Poison" and "B.B.D. (I Thought It Was Me)?" ruled the radio, and although they've been forgotten in most quarters, they deserve better. On New Edition Solo Hits, a compilation put out last year by MCA to capitalize on the arrival of Home Again, they're every bit as enjoyable as Brown's groovers.

Of course, Poison's reputation has faded in large part because Bell Biv DeVoe couldn't top it: Hootie Mack was mere product whose relative commercial dive went unmourned. But it's still mildly unfair that neither BBD nor Brown has been given credit for helping to usher in a new era in popular soul. DeVoe admits to being rankled by this slight.

"As far as the community is concerned--the people who buy our records and come to our concerts--the respect is there," he says. "But sometimes in the media, they really don't allow us to take our rightful position as trendsetters. The mixture of hip-hop and R&B that Bell Biv DeVoe fused together shows up all the time now, with groups like TLC and Immature. But the writers and so on don't usually mention us when they talk about them.

"It's too bad, but growing up in the business, you get so you can look past those kinds of things. You want to get good write-ups and everything, but what's more important is having the people on our side. As long as they're coming to our concerts and screaming and letting us know after the show that they think we're really humble guys, then that's what it's all about for us. And when we talk to these other groups personally, they let us know what we meant to them."

It's doubtful that Home Again will serve as an inspiration to a new generation of soulsters; it's simply too familiar. But DeVoe sees New Edition's live dates as an opportunity to remind people that it's no sin to put on a show.

"We pride ourselves on that," he stresses. "I think that's one of the reasons we're still around. Now the industry gauges your success on how many records you sell. When a new artist comes along, they're like, 'Let's bring in this producer so we can make a slammin' record,' as opposed to, 'Let's find a group and groom them to be the next Temptations or the next Jacksons or the next Beatles--a group that's going to stand the test of time.' And I think that attitude has already hurt things as far as touring is concerned. People expect a lot when they go to a show and see an entertainer that they've seen on video and heard on the radio five or ten times a day. And when that person comes out and just walks around and has no stage presence, it makes people not want to go to concerts anymore. But we're trying to change that. We're trying to bring back entertainment the way it's meant to be."

This mission won't go on indefinitely. DeVoe says New Edition will probably go back into hibernation following its current jaunt, with the various members returning to separate endeavors. How this all will shake out is unclear at present, but Gill has a solo record, Let's Get the Mood Right, in stores now; Bivins is working behind the scenes with signees to his company, Biv10 Entertainment (he's the man responsible for foisting Boyz II Men on an unsuspecting planet); and Brown plans to busy himself with film and music ventures in between denials of problems in his marriage to Whitney Houston and tabloid-friendly arrests. (In November he paid a settlement to a man who'd accused him of battery following a 1995 scuffle in a bar at Disney World.)

As for DeVoe, he and his Bell Biv DeVoe cohorts are readying material for inclusion on the soundtrack of an upcoming Tommy Davidson comedy, Booty Call. "That's perfect for us, because we've always been about the booty," he crows. But he insists that he's not allowing extracurricular pursuits to blind his eyes to the prize.

"This tour has been a check-your-egos-at-the-door kind of thing, and I'd be lying if I was to say that it hasn't been a rollercoaster ride," he says. "But this is what we need to do in order to reach our goals. And we're going to do it."

New Edition, with Blackstreet and Keith Sweat. 7 p.m. Wednesday, February 12, McNichols Arena, $38.50/$44, 830-


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