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POP MUSIC : Has Success Killed New Edition? : Group members say there’ll be a reunion album, but their red-hot solo careers make others doubt it

<i> Dennis Hunt is a Times pop music writer. </i>

It doesn’t look like Ralph Tresvant will have to hang his head in shame after all.

In the weeks before his new solo album was released, Tresvant--the latest member of the pop group New Edition to make his own record--said he’d be so embarrassed if the album wasn’t a hit that he’d be ashamed to show his face.

After all, the other five present or past members of New Edition have had hits away from the R&B; vocal group. Big hits: nearly 6 million in the case of Bobby Brown, 2 million for Johnny Gill and another 2 million for the group Bell Biv DeVoe, which consists of Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe.

Tresvant’s album, “Ralph Tresvant” on MCA Records, has slowed down a bit after a quick start last month, but it should reach the 1 million mark, which is more than respectable for a debut. One of the album’s tracks, “Sensitivity,” was also a Top 10 single.

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If the album’s success is a relief to Tresvant, it may only add to the anxiety of New Edition fans: Will there ever be another New Edition album?

Not since the Beatles have the individual members of a successful group sold so many records as solo artists. But though the band appears to be drifting apart, New Edition has never officially announced they were breaking up, and, in fact, have repeatedly said they will make another album--and tour again.

But many industry observers don’t think there will be a reunion. They can’t picture all six of the singers--especially the red-hot Bobby Brown--taking time from more lucrative solo careers to spend a year or so making an album and then touring with New Edition.

MCA executive Louil Silas Jr., who has served as executive producer on New Edition albums and the solo projects, pointed out that such a reunion would be foolish financially for Brown.

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“Bobby will have his own album out next year--probably June,” Silas said. “He’ll be touring to promote that. It doesn’t make sense--economic sense--that he’d tour with New Edition. Why tour and split money six ways when you can do a big tour on your own and keep all the money?”

Another executive--Ernie Singleton, president of MCA’s black music division--has doubts about the project for another reason. He wonders if Brown and the current members would be compatible in the studio.

“‘It would be nice if Brown is part of the New Edition project, but I’m not so sure it will happen,” he said. “Bobby has been away from the group for years. It’s very different now. He’s grown in so many ways as an artist. He may not fit into that New Edition mix now.”

So, what are the New Edition members saying?

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In a series of separate Calendar interviews, all--including Brown--insist there will be a New Edition reunion album. They said one main reason they on did the MTV awards show in September was to put to rest any rumors of personal conflicts or that they can’t work together. One of the key motivations for the reunion: R-e-s-p-e-c-t. The group can’t wait to enjoy the last laugh on those who were ridiculing the group back in the mid ‘80s, when it was into bubble-gum soul.

“The group hasn’t got its due in terms of respect in the business,” Brown insisted. “People said we couldn’t sing and we didn’t have any talent. We were supposedly these teen-aged puppets who just did what we were told. We didn’t have any respect. We haven’t forgotten that.”

“It’s time for us to get back together and prove to everybody that they were wrong about us. They’ll see we’re both a hit group and hit solo artists. We’ll do a little gloating and rub their noses in it a little. We’re entitled.”

It’s not hard to see why New Edition got so little respect in the mid-'80s. The individual singers--now in their early 20s--may have all matured into talented solo artists, but as teen-agers they were squeaky-voiced singers who could barely carry a tune.

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Initially another Jackson Five clone, New Edition surfaced out of the Boston area in 1983 with the hit single, “Candy Girl,” followed by kiddie-soul favorites like “Jealous Girl,” “Count Me Out” and “Mr. Telephone Man.”

The group--whose line-up originally consisted of Brown, Bivins, Bell, DeVoe and Tresvant--was the brainchild of Maurice Starr, then an unknown producer/writer. It turned out that he has a knack for developing fledgling male teen vocal groups into stars. His even more successful find: New Kids on the Block.

New Edition started as a group of junior-high buddies from Boston’s tough Roxbury district, then was spotted by Starr in a talent show he was promoting. Starr made the demo tapes that helped the group get its deal with MCA.

“People think Maurice managed us, but he never did,” Tresvant explained. “He helped get us our first break. He was a producer and a songwriter. He did our first album (‘New Edition’)--and that was it.” Starr and New Edition severed ties in 1983, and Tresvant insists he wasn’t really missed. It was tougher for the group to figure out how to get along without Bobby Brown, who left in 1986.

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The young singer found the group stifling creatively--and he thought he could make more money going solo. “I needed to be a solo artist,” Brown recalled. “I had some important goals I wanted to pursue, musically. I didn’t think I could do it in the group. I wasn’t happy or satisfied then. I wasn’t making as much money as I thought I could be making. Some things were going on in the group that I didn’t agree with.”

MCA executive Silas, in a separate interview, elaborated on the reasons for Brown’s departure: “That clean-cut, boy-next-door image that New Edition had didn’t suit him. He wanted to do his own music and have his own image.”

Regarding the rumors of conflicts within the group when he left, Brown said: “That’s all tales and gossip. We weren’t fighting. We stayed in contact. We’re friends. If we weren’t friends and there was bad feeling I wouldn’t be thinking of working with them again.”

New Edition might have flopped after Brown left if the members hadn’t chosen his successor wisely. Two years ago, they settled on Gill, a balladeer who had recorded solo albums on Atlantic Records and was in the middle of recording one for Motown. Then 22 and the group’s eldest member, Gill debuted on the New Edition’s “Heart Break” album.

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That album was different from the group’s first three albums, which are all variations of spunky kiddie-funk. On “Heart Break,” working for the first time with Gill and the producing/composing team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis--the group was able to finally record a grown-up album. Breaking the two-million mark in sales, “Heart Break” entrenched New Edition in the pop-soul market.

But they were not so dedicated to New Edition that any of them would pass up an opportunity to record a solo album.

Gill and Tresvant did solo albums for traditional reasons--simply to explore musical possibilities outside the group. They insisted they weren’t motivated by musical differences or group conflicts.

But all that talk about loving each other may not extend to Bell Biv DeVoe. The trio was not quite as content as Gill and Tresvant. Background figures until now, the threesome expressed some dissatisfaction at being constantly overlooked. If New Edition does split up, they’ll probably be the first members to bail out.

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“We’re not going to be in the background anymore,” Bivins insisted defiantly.

Bell added: “Bobby and Ralph--and later on Johnny--got all the leads and the good vocal parts. Producers who did New Edition albums wouldn’t think of us for the main parts. They’d forget about us. They can’t do that anymore.”

Producers/composers Jam and Lewis, who had produced New Edition’s “Heart Break” album, suggested the three team up on a project outside New Edition. But, Bell said, they might have ignored that suggestion if they’d had a chance to contribute more to the group’s albums.

“If things had been more balanced on the other albums, we might not be here now talking about our solo album,” Bell said. “Everybody should walk away from an album feeling like they were really part of (it). We didn’t walk away from all the New Edition albums with that feeling.”

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Musically, there’s a good reason for these five members not to do another New Edition album. Quite simply, they’re better apart. Even the last New Edition album was clearly inferior to the solo efforts.

Brown certainly blossomed outside the confines of the bubble-gum music the group used to thrive on. His “Don’t Be Cruel,” with L.A. Reid and Babyface as principal producer/writers, is one of the best soul albums of the last few years.

Though hardly a great singer, Brown benefited from some high-quality material--particularly “My Prerogative"--couched in pounding dance beats and boasting a sexy, street-wise attitude. The production was so slick that it made up for his vocal deficiencies.

As good as it is, though, Brown’s effort doesn’t top Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” album, the work of a posse of producers, including Public Enemy’s Hank Shocklee. This album boldly juxtaposes jazz, hip-hop and soul, often strung together with inspired sampling. You’d expect these guys to do a safe, run-of-the-mill soul album, not one that stretches the limits of the genre.

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Gill’s album is more straightforward, mostly a collection of R&B; ballads falling somewhere between the styles of Luther Vandross and ‘70s Teddy Pendergrass. By far the best young R&B; balladeer in the business, he’s a sincere, expressive crooner. Gill is easily the best singer in the group.

Musically, Tresvant’s album falls somewhere between Bell Biv DeVoe’s and Gill’s. His traditional R&B; sound--romantic and fairly hip but without a strong street-feel--is probably closest to what New Edition sounds like. Added to Tresvant’s manager, Larkin Arnold: “He does both ballads and street-sounding funk and hip-hop. People who like New Edition are more likely to like Ralph’s album.”

So what if New Edition proves all the doubters wrong and goes ahead--as they promise--with another group album?

It’s easy to imagine those sessions turning into a war of egos. After basking in the solo spotlight, will any of them be satisfied working within the confines of a group, where they’ll each will be limited to a few solos and limited by the popish New Edition-style?

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Tresvant’s manager Arnold, discounted the possibility of an ego conflict: “These guys really like each other. They won’t have any problem working together on that next album. The level of mutual respect is very high. They’re creative people who are professionals. They’re not petty. There will be enough major roles to keep everyone satisfied.”

Another real hurdle: scheduling conflicts. Late next year, when they’re supposed to be starting a group album, is just about the time when Gill and BBD would be thinking about recording their next solo albums.

Said MCA executive Singleton: “There’s a big strategic problem here. You have to do what’s best for solo careers while considering what to do about the group project. You don’t want solo albums and singles to overlap with the group project. Which is more important--solo career or group? It’s a tough question. Different people will give you different answers.”

Other factors could also intervene. For one thing, Gill and Bell Biv DeVoe have just begun a five-month, 80-city tour, opening for Keith Sweat. Also, Brown said he plans a tour after this album comes out in early summer, very likely with Tresvant as opening act.

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What happens on these tours--success or failure--will help decide the fate of that New Edition project--and maybe New Edition. After these tours, maybe they won’t want to be bothered with a group project for another year or so.

“Sure, things could change after these tours,” Brown acknowledged. “I don’t think they will change, but they could.”

Figuring out a new New Edition sound might be biggest chore of all. That ancient excuse for group breakups--musical differences--just might be New Edition’s undoing.

Emphasizing that the new musical concept must satisfy everyone, Bell noted: “We’ll have to agree on a musical direction for the group when we go into the studio. It may be a little strange going back to the group after doing solo album and having that freedom. But we can handle it.”

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Tresvant suggested: “When we go into the studio, we’ll just update that New Edition sound--using it as a base to go forward.”

Yes, but who’s going to be in charge of the updating?

“All of us,” said Brown. “We’re grown up enough to do it together--with the writers and producers.”

Tresvant seemed convinced that plain old camaraderie would see them through those potentially difficult sessions.

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“It sounds corny, but we do enjoy working together,” he said. “There’s still a lot that we can contribute musically as New Edition. We have our squabbles, just like every other group. But we’ve been friends so long, we know each other. There’s a New Edition bond that transcends everything. We’re married to each other. The bond will transcend the solo albums and anything else. Some people don’t think so. They say things happen that can change people. It will be heartbreaking if things change for us for the worse. I’d hate to be wrong about this. It would tear me up.”


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