Not the 'End of the Road': Boyz II Men's Nathan Morris gets candid ahead of Des Moines show
Who knew that five soulful, harmonizing young men would go on to become the best-selling rhythm and blues group ever?
Boyz II Men continues to hold that title with the aid of such hits as "End of the Road," "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," "Motown Philly" and more. The group continues to tour, with Nathan Morris, Wanya Morris, and Shawn Stockman keeping their legacy going.
In an interview with the Des Moines Register, Nathan Morris dished on his musical upbringing, former group member Michael McCary, producer Dallas Austin, plus more.
Down memory lane
From early childhood, it seemed Morris was destined for music. He began singing in church and playing the trumpet. He stood out as a fourth-grader when, during a vocal class, Morris' teacher played a song that the class was working on a week earlier but began to play the song in another key. Morris pointed this out to his teacher and started to sing the song in its original key.
Morris said he loved to listen to the legendary Sam Cooke: "He's the guy I listened to all my childhood. So, he had a really big influence on me, vocally and musically."
Morris was known for being a bit of a troublemaker. He said he was bullied for being the smallest classmate. When it was time for graduation, his teacher advised that he be directed to the High School for Creative & Performing Arts in Philadelphia. Morris wasn't ecstatic to go because he wanted to play football, and his grades didn't qualify. But his mother and teacher were able to get him an audition.
In 1988, while in history class, Morris began to sing aloud and the teacher told him to be quiet. Instead, the Philadelphia native started to sing louder. Classmate and future Boyz II Men mate Marc Nelson joined in with him. They were kicked out of class and hit it off.
"I wound up in a group out of boredom," Morris said.
From Unique Attraction to Boyz II Men
Nelson and Morris had trouble keeping a stable group because members kept graduating. They joined Wanya Morris, Stockman, and bass vocalist Michael McCary and called themselves Unique Attraction. After performing a Valentine's Day show at school, singing New Edition's "Boys to Men," the group decided to change their name.
Now known as Boyz II Men, the group lucked out when Bell Biv Devoe, which had sprouted from New Edition, came to town for a concert. Morris' friend knew a local DJ securing tickets to the show and ended up backstage.
They met Michael Bivins, who was in New Edition and then Bell Biv DeVoe. Interlocking their harmonies, the group performed an a cappella version of "Can You Stand The Rain." Bivins, diving into music entrepreneurship, offered the group a recording deal on the spot.
Morris described meeting Bivins: "My first impression was cool. He was kind of what we envisioned, the guy who has handled all the business for New Edition, and that was his thing," Morris said. Nelson, dealing with personal conflicts, soon departed from the group, later returning to the music scene as a member of a group called Az Yet.
Dominating the '90s
Bivins helped produce the group's first project, "CooleyHighHarmony," released April 30, 1991, through Motown Roecrds. While new jack swing was "in" during the 1990s, Boyz II Men brought something new to the table. Eventually, their soulful sounds would be labeled as "hip-hop doo-wop."
Boyz II Men released No.1 hit records "Motownphilly" and "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" on their debut album. "CooleyHighHarmony" peaked at No.3 on the Billboard 200 and won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
"It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" became a dedication song to the group's tour manager, Khalil Rountree, who was shot and killed in Chicago in 1992. "He was pretty much a father figure. He was more than just a road manager," Morris said.
Morris said Rountree took the group under his wing and sheltered them in the business. "When he was killed in Chicago, it turned us upside down for a while," he said.
"End of the Road" was released in 1992, originally the soundtrack for Eddie Murphy's movie "Boomerang."
"We just got a call and asked to perform on it," Morris said. "We said yes, being fans of L.A. Reid and Babyface at the time."
Because of a hectic tour schedule, the song was recorded in a Philadelphia studio in about six hours.
"Going back on the road, we didn't think anything about it, and it wound up being very successful," Morris said. The track spent a record-breaking 13 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart at No.1.
In August 1994, "II" was released, selling over 12 million albums. Boyz II Men earned two Grammys for Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for their hit single "I'll Make Love to You," written by Babyface.
The following year, Boyz II Men combined vocals with Mariah Carey. The group got a call from music executive, and Carey's now ex-husband, Tommy Mattola about collaborating.
"It was one of those scenes that just came together," Morris said. "We happened to come together with a song that she was writing a song, and I was writing, that happened to wind up being the same concept. So we put two songs together to create one." Carey and Boyz II Men created "One Sweet Day," which spent 16 weeks at No.1 on the pop charts.
Things took a turn in 1995 when Motown released a cash-in product titled "The Remix Collection." Boyz II Men then decided to sign a distribution deal with Sony, not Motown, for their group label called Stonecreek. Success persisted, including the platinum track "A Song for Mama" from the 1997 project "Evolution." "Evolution" sold 2 million copies.
The 2000s and Michael McCary leaving
In 2002, the group signed with Arista Records and released "Full Circle." It didn't reach the same heights as earlier projects. Arista ended its contract with the group.
McCary left the group in 2003 because of scoliosis, which prevented him from participating on the road. Asked whether he keeps in contact with McCary, Morris said: "We used to. We had once thought there was a chance that he would be back in the group, but that was up to him." Morris said that a lot of people don't know that McCary left the group in 1999. "He was only part of the first couple of albums. He was there for eight years, in the beginning," Morris said.
Despite the group's popularity dwindling in the 2000s, a loyal fan base snatched up new albums throughout the decade. Boyz II Men's "Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA" earned the men two Grammy nominations. To coincide with the group's 20th anniversary, Boyz II Men released "Twenty" in 2001, and it debuted at No. 20 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums Chart. Most recently, the group released "Under The Streetlight" in 2017 showcasing a doo-wop sound.
Issues with Dallas Austin
Dallas Austin, who produced "End of the Road" and "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," said in an interview with DJ Vlad released last month that the group became cocky following the success of their first album. He also said that they were hard to work with on their second album and that they were rude to Babyface during the making of "I'll Make Love to You."
Morris responded to Austin's claims in an expletive-laden tweet calling his interview filled with "lies." Morris said he doesn't know what prompted Austin's offensive. "We never really had beef with Dallas Austin. … If he's willing to figure out … what his issues are, sure we can have a conversation, but at this point, I don't have much to say to him."
A legacy to remember
Morris said he believes "people don't have the patience for longevity any more" in the music industry. "People sit down for about a minute and a half, and they got to find something else to do because they're bored," he said.
Besides Grammys, Boyz II Men's major success includes nine American Music Awards, nine Soul Train Awards, three Billboard Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and 64 million albums sold.
"We've been blessed," Morris said.
The group celebrated their 28th anniversary last week. Morris said an album might be down the road for the group's 30th or 40th anniversary. Morris now flips houses — he said he's always been into interior designing and home construction. The group has an acclaimed residency at the Mirage Resort and Casino in Las Vegas since 2013 and will appear in a season 2 episode of the '90s sitcom "Schooled" on ABC.
Motown Philly is back again
Boyz II Men is bringing their classic sound to Des Moines at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 1 at the Des Moines Civic Center.
"We're looking forward to it. I'm sure our fans kind of know what to expect," Morris said. "We try to make sure the audience stays energetic and can sing along and have a great time."
If you go
When: Tuesday, Oct. 1.
Where: Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St.
Time: 7:30 p.m.