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- August 13, 1990
- Vol. 34
- No. 6
The Heartthrobs of America
Teenage America Hasn't Had Anything Quite This Screamacious Since 1964, When the Beatles Were the New Kids on the Block
The ever patient McIntyre, who has learned from experience that reason is of dubious value in the frantic face of teenage heartbreak, once again denies the rumor—and offers the child a knee to cry on.
"Wow, that is weird! Joe McIntyre, 17, the object of the fan's obsessive love, later exclaims in the thick, wrong-side-of-the-harbor Boston accent all Kids share. "I was dating a girl from Boston College, but I stopped seeing her." Now, he insists, he's not going with any one girl. "I've never lived with a girl. I'm not at an age where I want to have a real girlfriend. One person for the rest of my life? That's ridiculous. If I was to date someone, she'd have to be a lot older, like 19 or 20."
That's bad news for the dozens of middle schoolers milling in the Hyatt lobby, only nine security-laden floors below Joe and fellow phenoms Jordan Knight, 20, brother Jonathan Knight, 21, Donnie Wahlberg, 20, and Danny Wood, 21. The gee-rated sex gods are on high, unwinding with pizza and Nintendo after performing for 42,000 hysterics at RFK Stadium. Downstairs, the girls—many of whom have promised their parents a lifetime of neatness in return for renting $200-a-night rooms at the hotel—make do with autographs from Joe's dad and the band's 300-lb. security chief, Biscuit. Over-30s take note: When ex-Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant, in town for his own concert, strutted through the lobby, the assembled Kidiacs didn't look twice.
Ghosts of glory past don't haunt the Kids, either. "If it's over tomorrow, so what?" philosophizes manager and father figure Dick Scott, 57. "Today we're the biggest group in the world."
To hear the shrieks that greet the Kids everywhere, as well as the soothing sounds of cash registering, is to believe. Performing for some 2 million screamers in a summer-long, 63-date tour, the Kids are riding the crest of the most frenzied pop-music phenomenon since Beatlemania. Okay, the Fab Four did write their own songs, play their own instruments, spearhead a cultural revolution and produce music that has withstood the test of time and Muzak. But give the Kids credit: Nobody beats them when it comes to marketing. Dell Furano, the Kids' merchandising wiz, reckons that the vast New Kids product line, spewing everything from posters to sleeping bags, will gross $400 million this year alone. Add revenues from their best-selling authorized bio, 3 million-selling long-form videos, plus concert-ticket and record sales, and figure these Kids won't be wanting for lunch money.
Three albums of their Motown-derived, funk-lite music now rank in Billboard's list of best-selling records. The latest LP, Step by Step, released just eight weeks ago, has already sold more than 3 million copies. Hangin' Tough, the group's breakthrough 1988 LP, has sold 8 million. As their current tour rolls on, there are no signs that the group's popularity is peaking. "This is the biggest thing in rock, ever," says Furano. "For comparison, you'd have to go back to the Beatles. They created this kind of intense life-style euphoria. These are young girls falling in love with the performers. In England, where the Kids new album is No. 1, it's the Beatles invasion in reverse."
The Eisenhower of that invasion—and the mastermind of everything having to do with the New Kids on the Block—is the group's creator, composer and songwriter, Maurice Starr, né Larry Johnson. A Floridian who moved north and found his own career stalled—he and brother Michael never made it as the Johnson Brothers—Starr, 36, was the creative force behind New Edition, a black vocal group from Boston that had a string of R&B hits in the mid-'80s. After losing the group in a bitter contract dispute, Starr, who is black, set out to create "a white New Edition."
In the summer of 1984, Starr sent Boston talent agent Mary Alford to scour the city's racially mixed inner-city neighborhoods for white playground break dancers, rappers and singers. In Dorchester she discovered Donnie Wahlberg, then 14, one of nine children of a divorced working mom and a bus driver. "Mary heard about me from some other kids who kept telling her, 'You got to meet Donnie,' " says Wahlberg, whose sense of responsibility almost cost him the opportunity of his life. "She came to my house, but I couldn't talk because my father said I had to mow the lawn. But she came back, and two hours later, I was at Maurice Starr's. When I told him I needed some music, he started clapping his hands. I did one of my best spontaneous raps ever. I swore in it and in the next line, made up a line apologizing for swearing. Then here's Maurice Starr, this famous guy, telling me, Don Wahlberg, a goof-oft kid on food stamps, that I was one of the best rappers he ever heard. I mean, it was like, 'Are you serious?' "
Wahlberg recruited a few former classmates from William M. Trotter Elementary, in predominantly black Roxbury, where he, Wood and the Knights were bused to school. Two original members, Wahlberg's little brother Mark and a friend named Jamie Kelly, dropped out. "The regimen was really tough," says Wahlberg's mom, Alma Conroy. "Rehearsal every night after school, shows on weekends. There was no time for anything else. You really had to want to do this. Mark wasn't ready for it, and Jamie said he'd rather have fun."
Alford's search for "a young, Michael Jackson-type kid" with a high voice to front the group led to Joe McIntyre, then a 12-year-old community theater veteran. He too declined Alford's initial invitation. "I thought Dorchester was too far away," he says. "The others were all buddies. I didn't want to do it. It was like going to camp or something." Once he agreed, he says, "It was hard getting accepted. I would go home crying. Mary would try to talk me out of quitting. One day she asked me to stay long enough to find a replacement. Then she had Donnie call me. Donnie can talk a dog off a chuck wagon. He said, 'The next show, man, just go off. Give it your all.' Two weeks later, I did. I had a great show, no holding back. After that it was all right."
It took a bumpy year as Nynuk, Starr's original name for the group, for the boys to gel. The New Kids moniker ("We all hated Nynuk," Donnie says) was born when Wahlberg wrote a rap titled "New Kids on the Block" for the group's first album, which initially sold a paltry 20,000 copies.
America didn't see the Kidiacs until the summer of 1988, when the group's sweet, R&B flavored single, "Please Don't Go Girl," helped get them a national tour, opening for dream teen Tiffany. Jordan and Jonathan's mother, Marlene Putman, remembers, "All the parents were there at Maurice's house. We put our little care packages in the bus. Then off the boys went, to become famous. They'd call home discouraged at first. 'The bus broke down; the air-conditioning doesn't work.' But as time went on, the calls home became more excited. 'You can't imagine! They love us out here!' The boys were so surprised."
Not so, says Jordan: "I expected exactly what came. Even when that first album died, I went around and told people, 'Yeah, man, we're gonna be famous. I probably won't be in school next year. I'll probably have a tutor.' They must have thought I was arrogant as hell."
Last year, the Kids discovered just how big they had become. "At home, I cannot walk down my own little street," says Jordan. "On the road, I can't even go out in the hallway of a hotel. Some days it gets to me pretty bad. If I want to go out at night, I go to a punk club where they don't care who I am.
"I really feel lucky that there are five of us," he says. "If one of us was solo and it got this big, it would be very, very hard to handle. I can see now why Elvis killed himself with drugs and why so many people have turned to drugs and committed suicide. Because it can really, really get to you if you're alone. Thank God we have each other." Jordan, Joe and Donnie top most fans' dream-date lists and get the biggest ovations; Danny and Jonathan say they're content to dance and sing backup. "I almost never sing lead vocals, and it doesn't bother me," says Jonathan. "With us knowing each other so long, we're more a family than a business."
For Putman, a former social worker whose extended family includes several foster children and disabled adults, Kids-mania has "elevated our lives to the level of fairy tale." Her boys bought her a dream house in a Boston suburb; Donnie purchased homes for both his parents and cars for his siblings. But all of the Kids still live with their folks. Joe's sister, Judy McIntyre, 36, a New York City actress who pens a Kids column for a fanzine, thinks the families have had "a very heavy price to pay. It's horrendous to have to live with fans outside the house. They are a constant presence. When they're knocking on the door at 2 A.M., that gets a little much."
"It is difficult at times," says Donnie's mom, Alma. "But the fans really are wonderful. They'll apologize for invading your privacy." Even the moms, who run the New Kids' fan club and will be appearing on the boys' behalf at J.C. Penney stores around the country this month and next, are getting famous. "You can't help but get caught up in the excitement when a stadium full of kids are calling you by name—'Alma!' " she says. "The worst thing is that we aren't able to do our mothering, because our sons tour so much. We worry whether they're eating enough, sleeping enough. And we know they're not."
The Kids' only complaint is that they're treated like, well, kids. Critics accuse them of lip-syncing in concert, which they deny—"The proof's in the sour notes," Scott says—and dismiss them as singing puppets manipulated by Svengali Starr. "People get us wrong," Jordan says. "They think we're white kids from white neighborhoods who liked rock and roll and then here comes some black guy from the ghetto and we're like, 'Gee, how do you sing like Luther Vandross? Teach me how to dance like you black guys.' It wasn't like that. We're city kids. I've been break dancing and listening to rap since I was a little kid."
"We're getting lynched, man," says Donnie. "Why is it such a crime that we're 'only singers'? Did Frank Sinatra write his own songs or play an instrument?"
"Right," says Danny. "Our voices are our instruments. People want to put us down because we're big now. They find out Maurice writes our songs, and so they dog us for that."
There is one other thing the Kids would like changed. "We want to broaden our audience," Donnie says. Specifically, says Jordan, "I wish older girls would come to the shows. You can print that. 'All the older girls, Jordan wants you there!' " Brother Jonathan agrees: "We do get a lot of 4-year-olds."
Not that they never meet fans their own age. "Oh, man," Donnie says, "I got more girls liking me than I ever had in my life. When you have a few million girls who really like you, you don't want to disappoint them. But if I see a girl, and I wanna meet her, I'm gonna meet her."
The Kids claim that they don't wallow in extracurricular activities. "My sister Tracey always tells me before a tour, 'Don't make no babies,' " says Donnie. "She wants women to be respected. She doesn't want me getting girls pregnant all around the country."
Jordan, a dark-eyed, handsome man who sings high tenor, and whose three earrings juxtapose a set of plastic braces, worries about one pesky strain of gossip. "A lot of people think I'm gay," he says with an embarrassed laugh. "They see my earrings, I guess, and they wonder. Well, it's definitely not true. I shouldn't worry about it, but I do, because people must think I'm a wimp or something."
To a Kid, all say that, complicated as aspects of their lives have become, they wouldn't have it any other way. "The weird thing is, I love it," says Jordan. "I could complain about it all day, but when it's gone, I'll be like, 'Where'd it go?' "
And although they know they can't stay Kids forever, they profess not to be worried. Joe, for example, who was weaned on Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole records and entertains his touring buddies with note-perfect impersonations of Old Blue Eyes, says he has seen the future and it works. "When all else fails," he says, "we can always play Vegas."
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