On this day in music history: April 30, 1991 - “Cooleyhighharmony”, the debut album by Boyz II Men is released. Produced by Dallas Austin, Charles Farrar and Troy Taylor (aka “The Characters”), it is recorded at Doppler Studios in Atlanta, GA, Studio 4 Recording in Philadelphia, PA and Soundworks Recording Studios in New York City from September 1990 - January 1991. First known as Unique Attraction and formed by Nathan Morris and Marc Nelson in 1985 (the son of singer Phyllis Nelson), the group comes together they are students at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. The original line up also includes George Baldi, Jon Shoats and Marguerite Walker. In 1987, fellow classmate Wanya Morris (no relation to Nathan) also becomes a permanent member. When Baldi, Shoats and Walker graduate, they leave Unique Attraction. Needing replacements, they recruit Shawn Stockman after hearing him in the school choir. While rehearsing their harmonies in the bathroom, Michael McCary walks in and starts singing with them. McCary’s profoundly low bass voice, is the final element to the group’s sound, and he is invited to join. They then decide on a name change, calling themselves Boyz II Men after the New Edition song “Boys To Men”. In 1989, a chance encounter with one of New Edition’s founding members changes the course of their lives. Sneaking backstage at a NE concert in Philadelphia, they meet Michael Bivins and ask to sing for him. The group sing “Can You Stand The Rain” for Bivins, who is immediately impressed. He gives them his number and tells them to keep in touch. Bivins becomes their manager and helps them get a record deal. Boyz II Men are signed to Motown Records in 1990 and are set to begin work on their debut later in the year. Before then, the group have a falling out with Nelson who quits, leaving them as a quartet. Much of the album is produced by Dallas Austin who is also fellow Biv 10 managed group Another Bad Creation. Led by the new jack swing infused “Motownphilly” (#4 R&B, #3 Pop), quickly gains momentum. It’s followed by an a cappella cover of the song “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” (#1 R&B, #2 Pop), originally recorded by G.C. Cameron for the 70’s cult classic film “Cooley High”, of which the album’s title pays tribute to. It spins off three more singles including “Uhh Ahh” (#1 R&B, #16 Pop) and “Please Don’t Go” (#8 R&B, #49 Pop). A revamped version of “Cooleyhighharmony” released internationally initially is issued in the US in 1993, featuring different cover artwork and adding seven more tracks. It is remastered and reissued in 2009 as a two CD Deluxe Edition, featuring the 1993 version on disc one, and the second disc containing remixes and unreleased tracks. “Cooleyhharmony” spends two weeks at number one of the Billboard R&B album chart, peaking at number three on the Top 200, and is certified 9x Platinum in the US by the RIAA.
If there is one album that always reminds me specifically of being 11-12 years old, it’s II by Boyz II Men. If there is one song that reminds me of why I loved them then and why I still love them now, it’s “On Bended Knee.”
Boyz II Men was a life changing group for me. Like, literally the course of my life was altered because of Boyz II Men. When I was in 4th and 5th grade, I wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up. When I hit middle school in 6th grade, we were given the option of choosing one of the three arts classes: Unified Arts (which was a combination of art and home economics), Band, or Choir. Unified arts would’ve made more sense for me on the cartoonist path, but I chose choir specifically because one of my friends told me that we got to sing Boyz II Men songs in choir. This turned out to be completely false but I guess the joke’s on me as I now have a master’s in music and can’t draw for shit. However, we did get to sing an arrangement of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” in 7th grade which, I suppose, began my lifelong love affair with Robert Kelly.
“On Bended Knee” is in the key of Eb and does that classic thing where the I chord turns into a I7 and then a V7/IV by dropping the root at the octave down a half step each time, eventually resolving to the IV chord. It adds this bit of confusion about if the true tonic is Eb or Ab. During the intro, it seems like Ab is the tonic due to the inclusion of the Dbmaj9 and Bbm7 chords, both of which are not in Eb. I suppose you could try and make an argument that the song could be in Ab lydian, but the vocal lines all revolve completely around Eb.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a late ‘80s/'90s R&B ballad without that glissando synth bass sound that occurs twelve seconds in, as well as at other powerful points during the song. The vocal melismas are excellent as the members of Boyz II Men are great singers. The chord progression is awesome as well. But the best part of the song is the last few choruses where they do the standard half step up modulation and you think that’s gonna be it and they’ll just fade out repeating that. But, oh man, you’re in for a treat when they kick it up ANOTHER NOTCH and modulate up ANOTHER half step for a final chorus. The combination of Wanyá Morris’ passionate vocal line, the sliding synth bass, the background vocals, and the second modulation right at that moment makes this a classic.
On this day in music history: December 2, 1995 - “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men hits #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 16 weeks, peaking at #2 for 9 weeks on the R&B singles chart on the same date, also topping the Adult Contemporary chart for 13 weeks on December 30, 1995. Written by Mariah Carey, Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman, Wanya Morris, Michael McCary and Walter Afanasieff, it is the tenth chart topping single for the pop vocalist from Huntington, L.I., NY and the fourth chart topper for the R&B vocal quartet from Philadelphia, PA. While writing songs for her fifth album “Daydream”, singer Mariah Carey receives news that her friend, producer, songwriter and musician David Cole of C + C Music Factory, has died in January of 1995 at the age of only 32. Stunned and saddened by the loss, Carey looks to pay tribute to him and other friends and family she has lost. Having written a chorus and melody, Mariah contacts Nate Morris of Boyz II Men to ask if the group will sing with her on the song she’s writing. They agree, and in the course of talking to each other, discovers that Morris and the rest of the group had been writing a similar song to pay tribute to their road manager Roderick “Khalil” Rountree, who was murdered in a robbery attempt while on their first national tour opening for MC Hammer and Jodeci. Carey and Boyz II Men along with her producer Walter Afanasieff collaborate together to complete what becomes “One Sweet Day”. The vocals are recorded at The Hit Factory in New York City in February 1995, in only three and a half hours. With Boyz II Men on their second major US tour at the time, they are too busy to make a staged music video with Mariah, so cameras are present at the recording session, with the footage being edited together to produce a clip for the song. Issued as the second single from Carey’s album “Daydream” on November 14, 1995, “One Sweet Day” is an immediate smash. Debuting at number one on the Hot 100, it spends an unprecedented four solid months at the top of the chart, making it the longest running chart topping pop single in the history of Billboard Magazine, a record that it still holds today. The song receives a pair of Grammy nominations for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals and Record Of The Year in 1996, with Mariah and Boyz II Men turning in a memorable performance of the song during the awards telecast. “One Sweet Day” is certified 2x Platinum in the US by the RIAA.