Music News & Reviews

For Boyz II Men, life on and off the stage has been good

The name wasn't an accident. When Boyz II Men began a hit-making career 18 years ago, its four members were in their late teens.

As the singles End of the Road, On Bended Knee and I'll Make Love to You hit the top of the pop and R&B charts, singers Shawn Stockman, Nathan Morris, Wanya Morris (no relation) and Michael McCary were entering their early 20s.

That means the Philadelphia-born and -bred artists met as school-age friends, grew up very much in the public eye and became stars who went on to sell 20 million copies of their first two albums at roughly the same time that they became old enough to enter a nightclub.

Today, as Stockman, Morris and Morris are in their late 30s (McCary departed the group in 2003), life remains sweet. No, they don't top the charts as they used to. But their recordings remain consistent sellers, as witnessed by the top-30 status attained by the 2007 covers album Motown: Hitsville USA. Similarly, the group remains a top-selling concert act: Only a handful of tickets remain for Boy II Men's performance Saturday at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

But for Stockman, 37, being part of Boyz II Men as he approaches middle age carries a deeper reward. He can sing to the world and then go to the supermarket.

"I think we're in a place I believe a lot of artists would envy," Stockman said in a phone interview last week from New York. "We're able to have the best of both worlds. We're still able to physically perform at the level that we need to. As far as that's concerned, nothing has changed. But the thing now is that after we perform to 5,000, 10,000 or 20,000 people wherever in the world, we can go home, raise our kids, be husbands and enjoy life. We can go the store and buy milk and eggs.

"Seriously. So much of our world is based around TMZ, YouTube and all these gossip Web sites — all of which we as a group, and me, personally, do not get into. So it's nice to know we can live our lives in the midst of all that garbage. We live the highs and enjoy the mellows."

Product of their musical environment

Like their sound, the members of Boyz II Men hail from Philadelphia, a city as earnestly devoted to soul music as Detroit or Memphis. When Stockman was a child, Philadelphia was just starting to receive its proper due as a soul and R&B metropolis thanks to, among other things, a sound forged in the city by the songwriting and production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

"We were fortunate to have that type of music and that type of history at our disposal while we were growing up," Stockman said. "If that music wasn't on the radio, then our parents were playing it at home. You couldn't help but be influenced by that sound and by Gamble and Huff. It was just something that was in our blood."

But by the time the five founding members of Boyz II Men got together (singer Marc Nelson departed before the group's first recordings), pop, soul and R&B were undergoing a major stylistic shift. Hip-hop began to take hold. So did sampled sounds that became integral to the music's beat and rhythm. Boyz II Men was a singing group at heart, focusing on rich and often romantic harmonizing. But the sounds that surrounded it were changing rapidly into a sample-savvy sound called New Jack Swing.

"All those things helped shape who we are and helped shape music everywhere," Stockman said. "Being musicians, we couldn't help but listen to what was going on and to what, at the time, was hot. It was New Jack Swing. It was hip-hop. It was R&B, gospel, pop and rock. It was a rich time for music. And we tried our best to scoop it all up."

Hits Men

Although raised in Philly, Boyz II Men signed to Motown. Its debut album, Cooleyhighharmony, sold more than 14 million copies. 1994's II topped the 16 million mark. The follow-ups, Evolution (from 1997) and Nathan Michael Shawn Wayna (released in 2000 after Motown was absorbed by Universal Records), paled in comparison but still managed to go multiplatinum.

Today, the trio version of Boyz II Men is spreading the love with a just-released covers album, Love, and an especially high-profile side project for Stockman.

Love is an ambitious project that features interpretations of pop hits obvious (the 1972 Spinners pop-soul hit Could It Be I'm Falling in Love) and unexpected (the 1998 Goo Goo Dolls power ballad Iris). It teams the trio with producer Randy Jackson of American Idol fame. Jackson's career includes a brief membership in Journey during the mid-'80s and, before that, an extensive career as a bass guitarist on jazz and funk albums. Jackson also produced Motown: Hitsville USA.

"Randy's cool," Stockman said. "We've known him for some time. His history and our history, it's just a perfect fit. He understood what we wanted and what we needed to do to bring this album to life."

Stockman also is following Jackson into the world of TV talent-show judging. On Monday, Stockman made his debut as one of the judges — along with Ben Folds and the Louisville-raised Nicole Scherzinger of Pussycat Dolls — for NBC's The Sing-off, an American Idol-like competition for a cappella groups.

"That's turning out to be a lot of fun because, for me, it's different but the same," Stockman said. "It's similar to the music I'm used to, which is a cappella singing. We've got some great kids and great talent on the show. But I think people will also be pleasantly surprised at how a cappella singing can be entertaining and skillful at the same time."

Missing McCary

One of the bigger projects in the big picture for Boyz II Men is a possible 2011 reunion with McCary to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Cooleyhighharmony, but those plans are still on the drawing board. McCary departed Boyz II Men not out of conflicts with his bandmates but because of worsening back problems brought on by scoliosis.

"That pretty much took him out of the game completely," Stockman said. "Hopefully he is able to get back — at least for this particular project. We've been talking a lot about it. But we have to make sure he is prepared mentally and physically to handle the touring, the performances, the interviews, all of that. Hopefully, it will all work out."

With or without McCary's return, the Boyz II Men trio view performing — and music, in general — as more than a mere occupation. It remains a nourishing means of artistic expression and the most fun a pack of friends from Philly can have.

"Our music is what keeps us alive in a lot of ways — not just monetarily, but physically, emotionally and spiritually," Stockman said. "It is still incredibly important to us and very much a part of who we are."