In 1991, Cooleyhighharmony, the debut from four sweet-voiced Philly singers, took the pop world by storm. Here’s how the group became — and remained — cultural icons while many of their peers have faded.
The music business was an entirely different monster when Boyz II Men dropped their first record back in 1991. It was a time of giant, lumbering record labels, inescapable pop stars, and enormous record sales that seem utterly impossible today. Once that all came tumbling down, the Philly-born phenoms could have lived off their hits, put their feet up on their Grammys, and retired early. That’s what most of their ’90s peers have done. But as the band’s Nathan Morris explains, the group chose to keep making music. This playlist tells the story of Boyz II Men and how they survived.
>>> Track 01 >>> “Motownphilly” | 1991
The Boyz II Men origin story is the stuff of legend.
Put another way: It’s a little bit different each time you hear it.
But the boiled-down Cliffs Notes version is right there in the first single:
Back in school we used to dream about this every day
Could it really happen,
Or do dreams just fade away?
The story starts with a small group of kids from different neighborhoods meeting up at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. This was the late ’80s, back when CAPA was at 11th and Catharine. Now, you’ll find it at Broad and Christian, between the street signs that say “Boyz II Men Blvd.” The group went on to sell more than 60 million records, but in the beginning, they were just art-school kids with a dream.
Because of CAPA’s reputation — and its alumni mailing list that includes Questlove and Black Thought of the Roots, Jazmine Sullivan, Leslie Odom Jr. and, uh, Tony Luke Jr., among many others — people like to compare it to Fame, the early-’80s movie/TV franchise about kids in leg warmers who twirled in the streets and danced on top of New York City cabs.
“It was nothing like that at all,” laughs Nathan Morris, the eldest member of Boyz II Men and therefore its de facto leader to this day.
The way he tells it, CAPA is a real high school, only with more music classes and better talent shows. He was accepted after an audition in which he sang in German and Italian. Morris doesn’t remember which songs, and he doesn’t actually speak those languages. He made up for that with practice: “I’ve been a preparation guy all my life.”
As a vocal major, he learned about classical and jazz, but also lyrical metaphors, cadences and harmony structures, all of which would form the foundation for his career. “They wanted to make sure that we were well-rounded when we left school,” he says. “It was definitely not a school where you just show up with the latest songs and all of a sudden you’re a superstar.”
A few years in, Morris teamed up with some like-minded vocal majors, and they began singing together. The group was sometimes five or six strong and at least in the beginning called itself Unique Attraction. They bought cheap suits at a two-for-one place and made the girls scream at a Valentine’s Day concert with their pitch-perfect harmonies and synchronized dance moves.
Then we started singing and
They said it sounded smooth
So we started a group and here we are
Kickin’ it just for you
By 1989, they’d whittled themselves down to a quintet (on their way to becoming a quartet) and changed their moniker to Boyz II Men, after a favorite New Edition song. That’s when things started getting serious … and a little bit apocryphal.
Like a lot of Philly kids with musical aspirations, the group met up with Charlie Mack — the longtime local music promoter immortalized in the DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince song “Charlie Mack (The First Out the Limo)” — who invited them to a concert. Was it the New Edition show at the Spectrum in January of ’89? Or Power 99’s “Powerhouse II” festival at the Civic Center in May? Some other show entirely? The details get hazy and harder to confirm with each passing year, each sepia-toned retelling.
Nathan Morris says it was the Civic Center and that Michael Bivins of New Edition was there. When the CAPA crew got there, they couldn’t find Mack. He was running late, maybe. Back then, the only people who had cell phones were spies and Bayside High’s Zack Morris.
Desperate to get inside and meet their idols, the CAPA crew did a little singing, a little sweet-talking, and voilà, some kind soul donated a backstage pass to their cause. Of course, one pass doesn’t really cut it for a party of five, so the first guy in had to slip it back out a window to the next guy, and so on.
And it was backstage that they tracked down Bivins. According to Morris, they sang for him in the wings, surrounded by famous artists on the bill that night: Cherrelle, Kid ’N Play, Patti LaBelle, etc. (Some versions of the story have Paula Abdul and Keith Sweat there, too, for some reason.)
The 2017 TV miniseries The New Edition Story sets up a more dramatic scene: a dark parking lot behind the venue. The Boyz II Men kids stop Bivins just as he’s stepping up into his tour bus. They sing him a few bars of New Edition’s “Can You Stand the Rain.” Impressed, or intrigued, or maybe just flattered, Biv gives the kids his phone number. That was the moment that changed everything.
Fast-forward to 1991 and “Motownphilly,” a jazzy New Jack Swing banger with sweet vocal harmonies and a hip-hop sheen. It’s a runaway hit. MTV plays the hell out of the video, introducing the world to these four smartly dressed young men from Philly who can harmonize like nobody’s business: Nathan Morris from South Philly, Wanyá Morris (no relation) from North Philly, Shawn Stockman from Southwest Philly, and Michael McCary from Logan.
In the background of several shots are fellow CAPA kids, including Ahmir ”Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, back when the Roots were called the Square Roots. Bivins, now Boyz II Men’s producer, manager and collaborator, raps their origin story:
Now check this out, one day back in Philly
Four guys wanted to sing. They came up to me. I said
“Well what’s your name?”
“Boyz II Men!”
“Hey, ya know what I’m sayin’?”
Then I said, “Alright fellas
Well let me see what you can do.”
The lyrics don’t mention the two years between that impromptu backstage audition and the eventual release of their first record, Cooleyhighharmony, probably because big-break diamond-in-the-rough, plucked-from-obscurity success stories rarely include the part where the wunderkinds pester their heroes.
But that’s what happened. Nathan Morris took that number and called Bivins every day. For weeks.
“I hounded him,” Morris recalls. They talked about music and business, but mainly those calls were about Morris convincing Bivins to take Boyz II Men under his wing on a professional level. In the R&B and pop world, New Edition was the closest thing Boyz II Men had to a blueprint.
(Michael Bivins could not be reached to comment for this article. At press time, he and the rest of New Edition were preparing for a just-announced reunion tour and a residency in Las Vegas.)
“It’s not something that he really thought about doing,” says Morris. “I believed that he could do it. I mean, I followed his career, and I saw the role that he played in his group.”
“He saw something in me I didn’t even see in myself,” Bivins recalls in the Netflix documentary series This Is Pop. Eventually, he agreed. “If it wasn’t for Nate Morris,” he says, “I would’ve never been a music executive.”
In the midst of launching his career as an executive and his post-New Edition act Bell Biv Devoe, Bivins helped get Boyz II Men signed to Motown, co-wrote several songs with them, and executive-produced Cooleyhighharmony. He also came up with their preppy style. So it makes perfect sense that he shows up in “Motownphilly.” For that brief period, his story was completely intertwined with theirs.
>>> Track 02 >>> “End of the Road” | 1992
“Motownphilly” went to number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The next single, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” peaked at number two. “End of the Road” finally took Boyz II Men to the top.
Written by hitmakers Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Daryl Simmons, the song is a genuine heartbreaker, the kind you belt out in the mirror when you have the house to yourself. After a slow buildup, “End of the Road” becomes a tidal wave of emotional vocals, with three guys holding down the chorus so Wanyá can go crazy coloring outside the lines. At the end, the music fades, and all we hear is hands clapping, voices soaring.
Originally, you could only find the song as a single and on the soundtrack to the Eddie Murphy comedy Boomerang, but that was before Motown realized what a gigantic hit it had on its hands. Soon, the label rereleased Cooleyhighharmony with “End of the Road” tacked on as a bonus track. All told, the record reached nine million copies sold, making it certified platinum nine times over.
The songs dominated proms and weddings everywhere — the slow dances, the dancey dances, all of it. Even a song called “Uhh Ahh” went to number 16. It all added up to Boyz II Men landing an opening slot on MC Hammer’s Too Legit to Quit tour and taking home the first of four Grammys they’d collect over the course of their career.
>>> Track 03 >>> “1-4-ALL-4-1” | 1992
Were it not for YouTube, nobody would remember “1-4-ALL-4-1.” Unlike other songs touched by Boyz II Men in that era, this one didn’t turn to gold. It probably never had a chance up against “Under the Bridge,” “November Rain,” and Whitney Houston belting out “I Will Always Love You.” Its vague pro-unity message is admirable, albeit hokey. Its energy is high, but its budget is low.
Credited to the East Coast Family, “1-4-ALL-4-1” incorporates the work of some 16 different acts — rappers and singers, solo artists and vocal groups — giving each one a turn at the mic for a few seconds. Crooked hats and oversize sweatshirts abound. The song is somehow utterly of its time and oddly out of step with it.
This was a golden age of child rappers, so the video opens with a kid popping up out of a manhole to tell us, “My name is Fruit Punch, but I don’t get out much.” It’s a little hilarious, a bit heartbreaking. A chyron informs us that Fruit Punch is Biv’s cousin. Rap-star tweens Another Bad Creation show up a little later, their hair still bleached blond from their part in the Robert Townsend superhero comedy The Meteor Man.
A gospel-ish singer named Yvette belts out only one line in “1-4-ALL-4-1,” but she goes on to star in sitcoms like Community and The Odd Couple reboot a couple decades later under her full name, Yvette Nicole Brown. But mostly, these are acts we’ll never hear from again: a group of women rappers called Tom Boyy, a jazzy piano player named Rico, a gaggle of smooth-singing white guys who call themselves Whytgize. And on and on. Boyz II Men get the most screen time, leading the video to its jubilant final chorus.
“1-4-ALL-4-1” was a showcase for Biv 10 Records, then a newly sprouted wing of Motown Records led by Michael Bivins. In 2021, it feels like an infomercial for a product that didn’t sell. Best-laid plans.
“There were artists that were successful, and then there were some that were trying to get off the ground and see how their career would go,” Morris says. “Some did well and some didn’t. I guess that’s sorta life.”
Not long after “1-4-ALL-4-1,” Boyz II Men parted ways with Michael Bivins; his name is noticeably absent from their next album’s liner notes.
The song wasn’t the cause, but it’s not easy to pin down a reason beyond “personality conflicts.” In the past, Nathan Morris has chalked up the split to how young and inexperienced everybody was in their roles in the early days. When Cooleyhighharmony dropped, Michael Bivins, aspiring mogul, was 22. Morris was 20. Wanyá, the group’s youngest member, was 17 and still enrolled at CAPA.
In 2012, the group was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and several key figures in the Boyz II Men story showed up to sing their praises, including superstar record producers and songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. When Michael Bivins took the mic, he praised the group’s talent and perseverance. After the speech, it was hugs all around.
>>> Track 04 >>> “I’ll Make Love to You”/ “On Bended Knee” | 1994
Boyz II Men continued to work with Motown, and 1994’s II (sans Bivins) became an even bigger record than Cooleyhighharmony. That year, the only song that could knock the Babyface-penned “I’ll Make Love to You” out of the number one spot on the charts was “On Bended Knee,” written and produced by Jam and Lewis.
Till then, only Elvis and the Beatles had achieved back-to-back number ones on the Billboard Hot 100 in the rock era. Total record sales can be difficult to confirm, but II has sold something like 12 million copies in the U.S. alone. The record ran away with the Best R&B Album Grammy, while Boyz II Men became, reputedly, the best-selling artist in the history of Motown records, whose artists include the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie.
For a lot of young, world-conquering acts, this part of the story is where you find the wild years, full of youthful indiscretions, incidents and controversies. But Boyz II Men were a little too tightly managed and well-behaved for that sort of thing. Nobody tore up a hotel room. Nobody had a meltdown on an airplane.
“No, nothing like that. I mean, we were just taught different, man. None of us are perfect, by any means, but we were just taught to just be different,” says Morris.
Besides, that sort of stuff would clash with their image and their work ethic. The Boyz II Men kids always kept it classy.
“That was by design,” says Morris. “That mattered to us. We always wanted to impress our parents. We were on Motown, so we knew the classic songs and the artists, where they come from and what they did. We just tried to emulate who they were. We didn’t want to go too far off the script.” Critics lauded Boyz II Men’s poise and their throwback Temptations style.
“That we achieved success so young in our career, sometimes the music industry doesn’t respect it,” says Nathan Morris, just 20 when Cooleyhighharmony dropped.
Unlike other young R&B groups that scored hits around that time — En Vogue, SWV, Jodeci — Boyz II Men haven’t staged a late-career reunion, because they never broke up, never went on “extended hiatus.” Nobody split from the band to pursue a high-profile solo career. “The fact that we achieved success so young in our career, and so early, sometimes the music industry doesn’t really respect it,” Morris says. “Accolades come when you’re, you know, 60, 70 years old. We had done all we had done by the age of 25, 26. It was a good thing and a bad thing. We just wanted to be the best we could at what we did. Every day was about trying to better ourselves, and we kind of let the career fly by and really didn’t enjoy a lot of it.”
>>> Track 05 >>> “Vibin’” | 1995
“Vibin’” started out as a laid-back jam on II. “We’re just vibin’, dancing the night away,” goes the peanut-butter-smooth chorus. Its video was all flashy moves and outdoor party scenes. The song enjoyed a brief if unspectacular life on the radio, then faded.
A year later, it came lumbering back like Frankenstein’s monster with a thumping beat stitched onto the bottom and some decidedly not-laid-back rap verses welded to the top. This “Vibin’” video has a boxing theme, with Boyz II Men in the back of the ring, singing that same soft chorus while Treach, Busta Rhymes, Craig Mack and Method Man drop rhymes in the foreground. It’s not bad, but it’s certainly weird.
Turns out you can blame Motown for this and the other musical chimeras on 1995’s The Remix Collection. Clearly a strike-while-the-iron’s-hot cash grab, the record takes tracks from Cooleyhighharmony and II and refurbishes them with hip-hop and New Jack Swing razzle-dazzle like horns and record scratches. The label released it despite Boyz II Men’s protests that it was, per Reuters, “unauthorized and sub-standard.” Critics agreed The Remix Collection was a strange artifact. “Boyz II Men almost seem like guests on their own song,” J.D. Considine wrote in the Baltimore Sun.
Although the record “quickly disappeared from the shelves” (according to AllMusic.com), it somewhat soured Boyz II Men’s relationship with Motown and their opinions on major labels in general. After this, the group took a more hands-on approach to their creative output. Eventually they’d found the independent MSM Record label and release their own records when it suited them, relying on the majors mostly for distribution starting in 2004.
>>> Track 06 >>> “4 Seasons of Loneliness” | 1997
This sultry Jam and Lewis ballad quickly became Boyz II Men’s fifth number one hit, but in the three years since they’d put out their last (non-remix) record, the pop music landscape had shifted dramatically. Suddenly, the group was battling for young hearts and minds against the likes of ’N Sync, the Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees, and it wasn’t a fair fight.
Where Boyz II Men was dubbed a “crossover act” for their ability to appeal to audiences outside the R&B and urban genres, these new white acts landed on the pop charts from day one. They didn’t have to cross over. Shawn Stockman put it this way in This Is Pop: “We had to work twice as hard to get to what their birthright was.”
“We always wanted to impress our parents. We were on Motown, so we knew the classic songs and the artists,” Nathan Morris says of Boyz II Men’s classy reputation. “We just tried to emulate who they were.”
Pop culture critic Jason King, also in This Is Pop, described these boy bands as “basically racial mirrors of what Boyz II Men [was] doing.” None of them quite had the singing chops, but the way they danced and dressed bore more than a passing resemblance. Several of these groups even cited Boyz II Men as an inspiration.
“I mean, it’s typical in urban music, unfortunately,” says Nathan Morris.
Occasionally, Boyz II Men found themselves lumped in under that “boy band” umbrella, but it wasn’t a comfortable fit. To Morris, it wasn’t just about race: “We created our own entity and our own image. We wanted to be together.” Boyz II Men wasn’t generated in a boardroom, he argues. There were no casting calls. They were forged in the hallways of a Philly high school.
“Wherever we went,” Morris says, “we always wanted to make sure people knew where we were from. We wanted them to know what Philly was about and what it meant to us. It was like a badge of honor to us that we had to carry everywhere.”
You could argue that this authenticity isn’t merely a moral victory, seeing as many of the boy bands from this era split up long ago. Still, 1997’s Evolution “only” sold three million copies. Not bad for most artists, but for Boyz II Men, it signaled a return to earth. The next one, 2000’s Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya — which they produced and wrote most of — continued the downward trend in sales.
“Wherever we went, we always wanted to make sure people knew what Philly was about and what it meant to us,” says Nathan Morris. “It was like a badge of honor.”
In 2002, they released Full Circle, which had high label expectations and lower listener interest. Soon after, Michael McCary left the group due to back pain brought on by multiple sclerosis. Later attempts to bring him back into the fold failed due to a mix of personality and revenue-sharing disagreements, according to some reports.
Once Arista, which signed them in 2002, dropped them in the wake of disappointing record sales, Boyz II Men had to soldier on as a trio without the help of a major label. Only in their 30s, they were already transitioning from superstars to fairly young elder statesmen.
>>> Track 07 >>> “Let It Whip” | 2004
Boyz II Men is best known for its heartbreakers, but “Motownphilly” wasn’t exactly an aberration. Their catalog has no shortage of up-tempo grooves and danceable beats. On 2004’s Throwback, Vol. 1, the group seemed to showcase their range with this cover of the Dazz Band’s funk favorite “Let It Whip,” Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” They also took on “Sara Smile” by Hall and Oates, the only Philly act to rack up more number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The trio was settling into a comfort zone, independent of major labels and in control of their own agenda. With their reputation sealed and money in the bank, the group no longer worried about hit songs and top-selling records.
There was no Throwback Vol. 2, but the trio has continued to record covers in what has become an increasingly eclectic discography. See 2009’s Love, which includes their takes on songs by Bonnie Raitt, Cyndi Lauper and Journey, among others, or 2017’s Under the Streetlight, which is mostly doo-wop.
Morris likes where the group is at now, in control of its destiny: “That’s our creative freedom. That gives us the ability to do whatever we want to do. Because for the last 15, 16, maybe 20 years now, we haven’t really had to depend on a record label for anything. The pressure of having to come up with a new hit and people telling you how you’ve got to make the record, I guess I’m too old for that.”
>>> Track 08 >>> “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” | 2021
The pandemic has hit Nathan Morris hard. He’s lost a few loved ones to COVID.
“It’s been rough,” he says when we talk on the phone in early July 2021. “You just do the best you can. I’m slowly realizing that it’s not ever gonna go away and it’s just a matter of how you adjust to it.”
He means COVID, but he could also be talking about loss in general. The group has had to say goodbye to more than its share of friends, family and peers over the years.
After the call, Morris is going to finish prepping his Florida home for a hurricane supposedly heading in his direction. He still has friends and family in Philly, but he and his bandmates left town a long time ago. Rolling Stone reported in 1992 that after some of the newly well-off kids found their newly purchased vehicles broken into in their old neighborhoods, they relocated.
Moving on has always been a theme in the Boyz II Men story. Their version of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” written in the ’70s by esteemed Motown husband-and-wife duo Freddie Perren and Christine Yarian, has become something of a staple at memorial services. The group dedicated early performances of the song to their tour manager, Khalil Rountree, who was murdered on that first cross-country trip with Hammer back in 1992. At the Grammys in 2020, Alicia Keys joined the group in performing it following the news that Kobe Bryant had died earlier that day.
There are always these moments that bring them back to the public consciousness, even when they’re not on the radio.
They played a residency at the Mirage in Las Vegas. They toured with New Kids on the Block. Nathan Morris hosted a real estate rehab show on the DIY Network. Wanyá Morris did Dancing With the Stars. Shawn Stockman was a judge on NBC’s The Sing-Off. As a group, they’ve shown up on Black-ish, The Bachelorette, Carpool Karaoke and Psych. There’s a Boyz II Men wine and Boyz II Men Funko Pop figures. They’ve done commercials for Geico, Wendy’s and Old Navy. When COVID shut down SNL, they performed a split-screen at-home version of “A Song for Mama” with their frequent collaborator, Babyface. It’s a hustle.
“These things take a lot of work to arrange,” Morris says of trying to turn one opportunity into the next and the next. “And we continue to keep doing that. They don’t always win, but some of them do.” The 2021 Black-ish appearance was filmed three years before it aired.
Morris was the group’s leader in the beginning by virtue of being the oldest, and he still finds himself in that role today. He says his bandmate Wanyá is “one of the greatest singers in the history of the world” but not somebody who’s interested in making decisions for the group: “Wan’s told me many times, ‘You know, I’d rather you think about it, because I don’t want to.’”
So he does. “I don’t know anything else. My goal is to serve and protect,” he says. “But we seem to make it work. And I think it started at an early age, understanding that nothing is going to be bigger than the whole when it comes to Boyz II Men and that Boyz II Men is the reason we’re allowed to do all the things that we do.”
Somehow, this group of high-school friends has been singing, recording and performing for 30 years. They’ve outlasted most of their peers, their competition and all those boy bands. What keeps them going? A love of performing, says Morris: “No one can tell us how to do it. No one can control it.”
They still dress to the nines. They still sing for the people. And they do it on their own terms — still kicking it just for you, but also for themselves.
Published as “End of the Road? Not Even Close” in the September 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.