New Kids on the Spot : Charges Fly Over Whose Voices Prevail
Gregory McPherson, the University of Massachusetts music teacher whose lip-sync allegations last week caused an uproar in the world of teen sensations New Kids on the Block, says that it’s ironic that the vocal group is going on “The Arsenio Hall Show” tonight to defend its honor.
It was just over three years ago that McPherson, now 33, got a call from the New Kids’ Boston-based management asking him to assemble a band to back the Kids prior to an appearance on Hall’s highly rated TV show, preceding a concert tour.
Live bands are a prerequisite on the Hall show. Until then, according to McPherson, the group had been bolstered by pre-recorded vocal and instrumental tracks on the road.
McPherson, in a phone interview Tuesday, said that in the days before the February, 1989, TV appearance, “Dick Scott (the group’s co-manager with Maurice Starr) was walking around the studio shaking like a leaf on a tree.
“Everybody was so nervous about how rough the Kids sounded. (Scott) kept asking me how we could enhance their voices for the television appearance. I told him our only alternative was to buy this expensive synthesizer to digitally reproduce their voices and use it on the air. So they bought the synth immediately and had it flown in from California the next day.”
But even with the synthesizer, which meant viewers would hear an exact duplication of the vocals from the record rather than the “live” vocals, McPherson said the New Kids had problems during their 1989 Hall debut.
Due to a computer malfunction, McPherson said, the synthesized vocal phrases repeated several times in a key spot in the song causing the Kids--whose live vocals he says were mixed quieter than the singing samples--to appear to be mouthing the words out-of-sync.
“It was embarrassing for everybody, to say the least,” McPherson said. “When we got back to Boston everybody (in the industry) was calling and asking us what the heck happened.”
But Starr and representatives from Hall’s show dispute McPherson’s account of the 1989 performance. Starr maintains that the Kids--who interrupted their Australian tour this week to fly to Los Angeles to perform on Hall’s show to refute McPherson’s lip-sync charges--have always done their own lead vocals on both record and on stage.
“Read my lips,” said Starr in a phone interview from Boston. “These guys are not Milli Vanilli. The New Kids sing. They sang live on Arsenio three years ago and they’ll do it again Wednesday.”
The New Kids lip-sync flap erupted Jan. 24 when McPherson, a former professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, whom the group employed as a director and producer for a year beginning December, 1988, sued the Kids’ managers for creative infringement and breach of contract in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston.
McPherson--who is seeking compensation and credit for alleged contributions on several New Kids projects--claims that the photogenic quintet not only beefed up their singing in concerts with tapes, but also on record utilizing “masked” voice-overs by Starr and his brother Michael Johnson.
According to McPherson, the Berklee College musicians he hired to play in the New Kids’ back-up band were also frequently required--at least until June, 1990--to pantomime to pre-recorded instrumental tapes in concert. In addition, he alleges that much of the singing on the 1990 New Kids “Hangin’ Tough Live” concert video is not live, but a reproduction put together by Starr and his brother in the studio.
“You know how Rich Little can impersonate so many different celebrities?” McPherson, 33, asked. “That’s exactly what Maurice does, except he mimics singers’ voices. He’s like a musical ventriloquist. It’s amazing to watch him do it. He’s so exceptionally talented he can sound like five different guys.
“I’m not saying the Kids don’t sing on the records, mind you. Maurice always had them lay down vocal tracks. But I personally saw him sing over them later and fix them up.”
Starr, 38, a Boston production whiz who has worked with numerous vocal groups including the New Edition, acknowledged that the Kids have occasionally employed “limited” use of “background” vocal tapes during concert dance numbers, but denied other charges.
“I never once sang voice-overs on any New Kids songs,” said Starr, whose real name is Larry Johnson. “These allegations are simply not true.”
Starr sees the McPherson suit as yet another in a series of claims filed by “jealous” former associates--including Brookline entrepreneur Jeffrey Furst and James Martorano, identified in the Boston Globe as a convicted loan shark and reputed mobster--whom he suggests are trying to cash in on his success with the New Kids. A Boston federal bankruptcy judge dismissed the claim last March filed by Furst and his partner Martorano, seeking 50% of Starr’s New Kids’ earnings.
The New Kids--Jordan Knight, Jonathan Knight, Joe McIntyre, Donnie Wahlberg and Danny Wood--have sold more than 18 million albums in the United States since 1986. Last fall, they were listed as the nation’s highest-paid entertainers, according to Forbes magazine, which estimated their earnings at $115 million in 1990 and 1991.
Richard Mendelson, owner of Boston’s Syncro Sound Studio who worked as engineer for the New Kids from December, 1989, through June, 1990, defends Starr’s position.
“It’s true that Maurice came up with a marketing concept and shoved it down people’s throats until everybody’s teen-age girl and her baby sister had to own a New Kids’ bubblegum card and pillowcase and what all,” Mendelson said Tuesday. “Maurice may be a marketing genius, but he is not singing on these songs. Whether you love them or hate them, that’s the New Kids singing.”
But McPherson is not the only one in the New Kids camp calling the teen sensation a partial shell act.
Florida composer James Cappra claims that Starr told him the lead singer on “Angel,” a 1986 Kids recording co-written by Capra, was not Joe McIntyre, but Starr himself.
“Maurice told me many times that the Kids’ vocal tracks were so bad that he had to do them over himself--’Angel’ included,” Cappra said. “And it’s not like the Kids didn’t know what was going on either. They were completely aware of it.”
Bernard Thomas, an official of the New Jersey-based Sugarhill Records, who says he was in the studio with Starr during the recording of the New Kids’ 1990 “Step by Step” album, agrees.”
“Maurice Starr is the New Kids on the Block,” Thomas said. “The Kids do sing but the voice you hear on the hits is Maurice. I’ve seen him sing over in the studio.”
John Wright, tour production manager for the New Kids from September, 1987, to June, 1990, also supports McPherson’s claim that taped vocal and instrumental “enhancement” tracks were frequently utilized by the Kids on the road. He recalled one performance in June, 1989, at Disneyland when the 8-track tape machine broke down.
“The tape got all twisted up while the Kids were doing their introduction to the next ballad and I accidentally cued it up to the wrong song,” Wright said. “Right at the point where this ballad was supposed to start, a dance track kicked in. It was real touch and go for a moment with the audience there, but the Kids pulled it off.”
Still, Wright says he wonders whether McPherson’s allegations make much difference today.
“As far as I know, the Kids stopped using ‘enhancement’ tapes in 1990,” Wright said. “And even when they did use them, it was always for background support. These guys may not be the best singers in the world, but their fans have always got their money’s worth.”
The question for Columbia Records, the company that releases the New Kids records, is how fans will react to the controversy.
The New Kids lip-sync allegations come just three weeks before a circuit court judge in Chicago is expected to grant final approval to an unprecedented settlement to resolve a class-action fraud lawsuit filed against lip-sync act Milli Vanilli and their record company. Rebate provisions offered to disgrun tled Milli fans in the agreement could potentially cost Arista Records and its parent company, Bertelsmann Music Group, millions of dollars.
Sony Music, the Japanese conglomerate that owns Columbia Records, is already embroiled in one lip-sync dispute. Singer Martha Wash sued Sony for fraud in Los Angeles, claiming that C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” features an unauthorized sample of her singing.
Is Sony or Columbia worried about legal fallout from the New Kids charges?
“We are not concerned about the authenticity of the vocals,” a spokeswoman for Columbia Records said Tuesday. “The legitimate participants in the recording process vigorously denied these copycat allegations. Perhaps McPherson is using these allegations to advance his personal agenda since he sued the New Kids for breach of contract and may be trying to pressure them into a settlement.”
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