How Cruel Can Fame Be, Bobby Brown? : R&B; singer says his marriage to Whitney Houston has stabilized his life and enabled him to better handle the pressures that accompany star status

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

For years, three topics were inevitable when talking about Bobby Brown: his dynamic talent, Michael Jackson and drugs.

Now, there's four: Whitney Houston.

The couple's wedding last July was possibly the most publicized ever by two pop stars--the recording world's equivalent of Burton and Taylor.

Here is Houston, an immensely gifted singer with magazine-cover good looks who has sold an estimated 17 million albums in the United States, and Brown, the so-called "bad boy" of R&B; whose 1988 "Don't Be Cruel" album has topped the 8 million mark worldwide.

The 23-year-old Brown has been called the next Michael Jackson almost as much as Bruce Springsteen was once called the new Bob Dylan. Both Brown and Jackson are dynamic performers who first gained attention in teen-age R&B; groups--New Edition and the Jackson 5, respectively--before going on to extraordinary solo careers.

But the real comparisons began after "Don't Be Cruel" shook the pop world. The album was a trailblazing collection that mixed traditional R&B; with hip-hop energy: a brash, exciting, young urban sound that was called New Jack Swing. Jackson was reportedly so impressed that he hired part of Brown's production team to work on his "Dangerous" album.

Brown also proved to be a striking performer, moving around the stage with the confidence and sexuality that not only caused young female fans to shriek, but older critics to acknowledge that a new star had arrived.

But all this has been accompanied by questions and the inevitable pressures that usually result from life in the pop spotlight.

Tour cancellations after the album and a one-year delay in the recording of his next album--the just-released "Bobby"--led to concern over just how Brown was handling that pressure. Drug rumors abounded.

Now that the new album is in the stores, reaction is divided. Some critics who feel the album is too conservative are asking if all the Michael Jackson comparisons were premature. Brown may have to prove himself all over again to a skeptical pop world.

But the question that hit hardest to Brown during the Sept. 9 MTV Video Music Awards show involved his marriage--a union that some observers called too good to be true, literally. Cynics suggested everything from a publicity ploy to a lifestyle convenience.

For Brown, the marriage would soften the rebellious image that has grown out of the longstanding drug rumors and the admission that he has fathered three children out of wedlock.

For Houston, 29, it would help combat tabloid stories questioning her lifestyle and asking whether the pin-up queen prefers the companionship of women to men.

The question of the marriage--whether it was a front--was raised during a backstage press conference, and it hit Brown like a slap in the face.

Visibly angered, he defended the marriage and them stormed away from the press tent.

"That was a big shock to me, but I don't pay attention to all of that stuff," Brown says in an interview. "You learn how to deal with ignorant people.

"Whitney and I just try to maintain our relationship as it is and not let the tabloids run our lives. What they say means nothing to the love that we feel for each other. Basically, we just brush it off.

"I didn't think I was ever going to get married until I met Whitney," he says, speaking easily. "After I met her, my whole outlook on a lot of things changed. I think I was with the wrong people to understand what love was about. They didn't understand me . . . they never trusted me.

"They were wondering what I was doing on the road or somewhere. My wife gives me that freedom to be myself. She's very secure and she knows how much I do love her. It makes me feel better to know I have a strong woman beside me."

Bobby Brown may remind many pop fans of a young Michael Jackson in terms of career history, massive ambition and performance dynamics. But he's nothing like Jackson when you meet him.

There's a natural magnetism about many superstar personalities--including Jackson and Prince--that separates them from the mere mortals around them. A Jackson or Prince would probably stand out even if they weren't legitimate celebrities. There's an aura of strong individuality in how they dress, carry themselves and relate to others.

Not so with Brown.

The singer--whose thin, boyish body has given way to a more muscular, adult physique since his "Don't Be Cruel" days--almost catches you by surprise when he walks away from a group of dancers and introduces himself in a North Hollywood rehearsal hall. He's dressed in ordinary workout clothes and there's no one trailing after him to cater to his every whim.

This naturalness continues in the interview. There's no sense of performance--as with Prince, who has been known to conduct interviews in semi-darkness, or Jackson, who used interviews in the late '70s and early '80s to add to the mystery surrounding him.

With Brown, interviews are simply another requirement in the show-business process--like a costume fitting. He sits in a chair patiently, answering the questions politely. But you know he'd rather be back where he feels more comfortable--working on his music.

Despite almost a decade in the pop spotlight, there still is an endearing touch of innocence and spontaneity in Brown. But there's also a complexity, which results in frequent contradictions in his answers. This may be due, in part, to his early start in show business, at age 14, with New Edition.

Young singers or actors are generally coached in what to say to the press--and what not to reveal. It's image-building at its extreme--and a lesson not easily forgotten.

In Brown's case, he sometimes seems torn between maintaining a strong, positive public posture and acknowledging the moments of personal doubt and discouragement.

When asked if he and the other youngsters in New Edition got caught up in pop music's "fast lane" excesses, for instance, Brown at first denied it.

"I think the reason my head kept so close to the ground was I always had my family around me . . . to keep me on my toes, to keep me (away from) the things that turn a great artist into a wiped artist or washed-up artist," he says convincingly. "They kept me away from drugs, alcohol, from running rampant with all kinds of girls. That's what basically kills an artist."

But when reminded of all the published reports about sexual escapades surrounding New Edition during those teen-age days, he amended his answer.

"Well, we did definitely have our share of women, but it wasn't to the point of abusing anything," he says, speaking with equal ease.

Similarly, Brown denied strenuously that the drug rumors bother him personally.

"Those rumors don't really hurt me," he says. "They hurt my mom, my dad, my sisters and brothers. I could care less what anybody who doesn't know me says about me."

Yet, when later asked what is the biggest misconception about him, he again amended the answer.

"That I'm a drug user . . . that's the biggest thing," he says, this time a bit disconsolate. "I wish I didn't have it over my head--that and this thing that I'm a 'bad guy.' I'm not a bad guy at all. I don't think I am. Sometimes I get in my little moods and I get a little angry, but that's true of everyone. I just get on stage and try to bring out all the feeling inside."

The time that he is the most comfortable--and perhaps most open--is speaking about his music.

In "Go Away," a song that he co-wrote for his new "Bobby" album, the Boston native seems to be talking about the gossip and the other pressures of show business. The song includes the lines: I need piece of mind / I'm stressed out today.

When asked about the song, Brown seems to finally express the frustration that has been building during the months of rumors and whispers.

"It's a way of telling those hack writers to leave me alone," he says sharply. "It's my life. I've done no wrong to no one. The song is telling how I feel sometimes that I want to go behind a door and slam it.

"This business demands so much from you, most of your free time. I never get a chance to take my kids anywhere. I know this is something I have to do and I love doing it, but I can't take the bad parts of the business . . . the paparazzi, the tabloids, the press.

"Hopefully somewhere along the line, I won't have to do interviews anymore--just like Michael. Maybe I can just sit down with one or two people and let it go at that."

Brown catches himself--as if surprised by his sudden outburst.

"But don't get me wrong," he says, earnestly. "I love this business. I'm a positive person."

Brown's family lived in Roxbury, Boston's inner-city ghetto. Brown's older brother, Tommy, says it was a relatively pleasant working-class area when the family settled there, but had become a "pretty tough place" by the time Bobby was born in 1969.

At home, Bobby was exposed to a lot of music. His mom, a grade-school teacher, loved soul singers like Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway. His father, a construction worker, leaned toward the blues. The whole family sang every Sunday in church.

But the sound that most caught his ear was funk--the records by groups like Parliament/Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire that used lots of spicy horns. However, Brown didn't think seriously of music at that young age. He spent most of his time just running around with kids in the neighborhood.

"I was rebellious . . . like a lot of kids," he says of that time, sitting in a rehearsal hall office. "We didn't get into anything serious . . . like guns or anything. It was more just getting some of the same stuff other kids had.

"I didn't want to ask my mother or my father because they didn't have a lot of money. I'd just go to the store and take it. If I wanted a sweat suit or a pair of shoes, I'd just go pick them up."

The turning point in Brown's life was the night his best friend was stabbed to death at a party. The boy was James (Jimbo) Flint, to whom Brown dedicated the "Don't Be Cruel" album.

"I think (the stabbing showed me) what could happen to me if I didn't straighten out my life," Brown says. "Before that, I was nonchalant about (the future). They had all kinds of programs to give kids summer jobs, but we were into parties."

His brother Tommy, who now manages him, recalls the change in Bobby, who wasn't even in his teens at the time of the stabbing.

"When his friend passed, you could see Bobby taking his career, his schooling, his whole life more seriously," he says. "As kids, everyone had their dreams, but his loss made him more determined. He started getting serious about music the way other kids in Roxbury might get serious about playing pro basketball. They all wanted to make something of their lives."

Brown was the catalyst for starting New Edition with neighborhood buddies Ralph Tresvant, Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell and Ronnie DeVoe.

The group rehearsed with a determination and discipline rare for their age, entering whatever talent show they could find. One of the shows led to a recording contract in 1983 with tiny Streetwise Records.

After two Top 10 R&B; hits ("Candy Girl" and "Is This the End") with the label in 1983, New Edition moved to powerhouse MCA Records and their records--including "Cool It Now" and "Mr. Telephone"--soon soared up the pop charts. It wasn't long before New Edition became hailed as the new Jackson 5.

But Brown wasn't satisfied. There were various management problems with the group and he wanted to see what he could do on his own. So, he announced in 1986 that he was going solo.

The pop industry was stunned.

Who did he think he was? He hadn't even been the lead singer in New Edition (Tresvant was), so why did he think he could make it on his own? It was around this time that the drug rumors started and the "bad boy" or "rebel" tag was applied to him.

But Brown's brother, Tommy, wasn't surprised.

"You have to remember Bobby had been a solo artist before the group," he explains. "His dream was always more than being part of a five-man team."

About the move, Brown himself says:

"As a kid, I always wanted to be like Michael. That was my dream. In fact, everybody in New Edition had a Jackson in mind when we started out. Michael (Bivins) wanted to be Tito and so on. Me and Ralph always fought over Michael. He'd say he was Michael and I'd go, 'No, I'm Michael.'

"This was long before we ever thought it was possible. We were just kids having fun. But you eventually get over that. By the time I went solo, I wasn't trying to be Michael anymore. I was trying to be Bobby."

The solo career started slowly.

Brown's first solo album, "King of Stage" in 1986, sold respectably, but had nowhere near the impact of New Edition. There were whispers in the industry that Brown--still in his teens--was in over his head.

But Brown insists his confidence wasn't shaken--that he simply wasn't happy with the production on the debut solo album. For the second album, he put together his own team of producers. He settled on some of the hottest names in R&B;: Teddy Riley, L.A. Reid and Babyface.

By the time of "Don't Be Cruel," the industry was taking a second look at Brown. This put an enormous amount of pressure on him--including more cries of the "next Michael Jackson."

But Ernie Singleton, president of the Black Music Division at MCA Records, thinks Brown handled the pressure well.

"I was impressed to see that he had actually crossed over from a big black artist to all of a sudden becoming a big artist in the general marketplace," he said in a recent interview. "I thought that Bobby was very composed and very focused as he dealt with all of that. He actually seemed to have blossomed (in the solo role). It allowed his individuality to come out more and Bobby became much more accessible, more cooperative."

Still, Brown went through a stormy period in the months after "Don't Be Cruel" was released.

Brown is a flashy, charismatic performer who plays on his sex appeal, twisting his hips and pelvis like Elvis Presley (whom Brown cites as another influence). The act was a bit too racy for authorities in Columbus, Ga., where Brown was arrested in 1989 for violation of the city's "lewd" act. He was fined $600.

More importantly, there were canceled shows, which he blamed on exhaustion.

"I performed like every night except Sundays for four months straight (at the start of the tour), losing about five pounds a night on the stage . . . just running up and down, dancing," he says of that period.

"It just tore into me . . . wore me down. I was in the hospital maybe twice. My cholesterol level was way up because I was eating all these fried foods. I came down with the flu at the same time. I had to cancel some shows."

But the cancellations and subsequent delays in the making of the "Bobby" album renewed the old drug speculation.

On the drug charges, MCA's Singleton says: "I have heard stuff like this over the years on numerous occasions, but I can tell you, I have never had an experience with Bobby that painted a drug picture to me and I think I am pretty streetwise. You don't have to be around me when you do it. I can tell when you are whacked. I've also confronted Bobby . . . and he said no."

Brown says the reason "Bobby" came out this summer--almost a year after its original release date--was simple: perfectionism.

"I just didn't feel I had the right tracks," he says. "I wanted to keep recording. People were telling me I'd better hurry up because the public may get tired of waiting. People'd say Hammer was about to drop his album or Michael was about to drop his album.

"I just kept telling them, 'My album isn't ready. I don't want to drop it now. It'd get lost in the mixture of everything else. I want to drop it when it's right.' And fortunately I have a good record company that listens to their artists. They were very supportive."

Now, with the release of "Bobby," critics are asking if Brown is all that "Don't Be Cruel" suggested. Or was he simply in the right place at the right time on the album? Could another singer have done as well if they had worked with the same producers and introduced the New Jack Swing to a mainstream pop audience?

Rolling Stone magazine declared that the new album "lacks the one ingredient that made 'Don't Be Cruel' so exciting: daring." The review added, "Put bluntly, 'Bobby' hews so closely to the sound and structure of (the previous album) that you half expect there to be a II in the title."

Initial sales have also been a bit sluggish.

The album, for instance, entered the pop charts at No. 2 on Sept. 12, but has since dropped to No. 5. But it'll be weeks before anyone can get an accurate assessment of "Bobby" sales.

Al Teller, chairman of the MCA Music Entertainment Group, says he is pleased with the album and expects sales to be huge.

"I think this new album is even better than the last one," he says. "I think he has matured. I think his singing is stronger, the range of his music has broadened."

Brown, too, remains confident as he prepares for his upcoming world tour and, then, perhaps follow wife Houston into movies. (She is starring opposite Kevin Costner in "The Bodyguard," a romantic thriller due in December.)

Meanwhile, Brown--despite the rumors and the frustrations--says he is happier than ever in his personal life.

Brown moved to Los Angeles shortly after starting his solo career because he wanted to be close to MCA Records so he could work with the company on promotion, but he has since moved to Atlanta, partially out of a fear of earthquakes.

He owns a recording studio there and is prepared to launch his own record label, which will be distributed by MCA. His father, who is separated from Brown's mother, lives with him in Atlanta. His mother still lives in Boston.

Brown says he keeps in close touch with his three children--a son 6, a daughter 3 and a son almost a year old. The last two were born to his high school sweetheart. Brown says he wasn't engaged to either woman.

This happiness is quite a contrast from the Brown of the "Don't Be Cruel" period. In a 1989 Rolling Stone interview, he spoke of being "happiness poor."

"I did go through a slump in that period," he says, referring to the quote. "But I think I came out of that OK. Most of the time people put pressure on themselves by isolating themselves from other people.

"But it's hard for me to isolate myself for long. I have to be around people. I love talking to people, joking around with people, learning things. It keeps me down to earth. Right now, I feel so good I don't think anything can spoil my happiness."

Brown says he never worried that the pressures of two demanding careers would cause tension in the marriage. In fact, he says, it made the decision to get married easier.

"The fact you both have money and recognition makes it easier because you don't have to worry about who is after whose money and stuff like that.

"It also means we can talk about music and things we are going through. We probably talk more than any couple out there. We sit in bed and talk. We talk at the breakfast table. We talk working out. We talk and talk about everything. . . . It's a real marriage. We're expecting our first child next year and I'm hoping it's a girl. I've even got a name in mind . . . Bobbi."

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