Exclusive: Boyz II Men Get Vocal About Doo-Wop, A Cappella And Las Vegas Residencies

Boyz II Men
Rony Shram

Boyz II Men

Vocal prowess has always been Boyz II Men’s forté. In fact, the harmony-rich “One Sweet Day” -- billed to Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men -- continues to reign as the longest-running No. 1 single in history on the Billboard Hot 100 at 16 weeks. Another of the group’s five Hot 100 chart-toppers, “I’ll Make Love to You,” is tied for the second-longest run on that tally.
Now Boyz II Men’s Nathan Morris, Wanya Morris and Shawn Stockman are harmonizing on a new project: the story of doo-wop. The trio is simultaneously recording an album for release later this year through its MSM Music Group label and executive producing a documentary chronicling doo-wop’s colorful journey from the streets to mainstream radio.
During a recent sit-down at Los Angeles’ East West Studios, Nathan Morris and Stockman (sans Wanya) dropped a few hints about the acts and producers involved (Claude McKnight of Take 6, Jimmy Merchant of Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, Lamont Dozier). To helm the documentary half of the package, the trio has partnered with Tango Films’ Tim Headington (Young Victoria), Hatcreek Films’ Brent Wilson (The Last Reunion) and Footnote Films’ Theresa Page.

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Billboard: Why is it important to tell the doo-wop story?
Nathan: It’s the backbone of all urban music. This is the stuff that guys did when they didn’t have instruments. They’d stand around on street corners and use their voices to put harmonies together; make sounds with their lips to create the drums and other instruments. Move forward to today: it’s pretty watered down to where there are people singing just one or two lines and now that’s a song. You kind of forget that vocals were what was supposed to carry a song years ago. This documentary will let people see where it all came from and why it’s important to put the vocal part back into what we listen to today.
Shawn: And doo-wop isn’t just a one-genre type of music. For example, I saw actor Jimmy Smits when we were promoting our last album. He told me, “I love you guys because you remind me of a doo-wop group I was in back in New York.” He’s Latino and was in a doo-wop group. Doo-wop cross-pollinates every nationality: white, black, Latino; it’s across the board. There’s something about harmony; something about a couple of guys or girls getting together and singing a few notes. It’s magical and feels good to do it.

What doo-wop influences have inspired Boyz II Men?
Shawn: One of my favorite songs at a very young age was The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You.” It was such an impressionable record because of the harmonies they used. Even the Temptations and O’Jays dabbled in doo-wop. It was all around us, especially being in Philadelphia. You couldn’t help but hear it from the Stylistics, the Dells and Blue Magic to Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.
Given the popularity of the Pitch Perfect films and groups like Pentatonix and Naturally 7, it seems people are valuing the artistry of a cappella.
Nathan: A cappella is in the air. These groups doing it now are today’s pioneers. Hopefully, we can get enough of a movement going to where it will be played on the radio again. It’s funny. When we did “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” we fought with our record label at the time [Motown] because nobody believed anybody would play it on the radio.
Shawn: Pentatonix, who I’m proud to say I helped discover as a judge on the television show The Sing-Off, has since earned a platinum album and won a Grammy. They caught fire through their due diligence with social media, dropping videos once a week of them singing amazingly. People ate it up. It’s a new day. People are talking about it now and the movement is becoming stronger as more influential artists become involved.

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Jennifer Lopez is the latest artist to announce a Las Vegas residency. What’s Boyz II Men’s secret after two years at the Mirage?
Nathan: We’re in the process of renegotiating our deal. It’s fun but it’s not easy. No, let me rephrase that. It’s easy if you don’t sing every night. That’s not a tag on anybody. But trying to sing every single song every single night is very difficult to do. That’s one of the reasons why we only do selected weekends now. We may eventually add a fourth night, but I don’t think we can go any more than that. We have so many songs and Wanya sings into the stratosphere on every song. It’s just not humanly possible to do that every single night. We’re not old, but it takes a toll. If it’s a choice between three incredible shows versus five mediocre shows, we’d rather do the three.