After sweeping the European charts, it took almost two years for the Florida vocal group Backstreet Boys to bring its teen-friendly music and arena-ready choreographed moves back to its home country. Selling over 55 million records worldwide in three years, the group embodied the late-'90s pop explosion.
High school friends A.J. McLean and Howie Dorough met Nick Carter at local acting auditions in Orlando. Shortly thereafter, they hooked up with Kentucky native Kevin Richardson, who was singing in shows at Disney World; Richardson got his cousin Brian Littrell, with whom he used to sing back home, to relocate to Florida, and the five named themselves Backstreet Boys, using the name of an Orlando flea market. They were spotted by manager Lou Pearlman, who handed the group's daily care over to former New Kids on the Block road manager Johnny Wright and his wife, Donna. They started performing around local malls, theme parks, and schools, with Carter, Littrell, and McLean emerging as the main lead singers.
Backstreet Boys signed to Jive Records in 1994, but their first Jive single, "We've Got It Goin' On" (#69, 1995), flopped in an American market still in grunge's waning grip. The song did a lot better everywhere else in the world, though, hitting #1 in Germany, for instance; the Boys' self-titled debut, released in the spring of 1996 everywhere but the U.S., sold over 11 million copies worldwide.
The Florida group finally made its full-length American debut with the 14-million-selling Backstreet Boys (#4, 1997), whose bulk was made up of the band's foreign release including a cover of P.M. Dawn's "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" with a smattering of extra tracks. The group's label and managing company focused their marketing campaign on teen and preteen girls, distributing free tapes at cheerleading camps and placing them in JC Penney makeup cases. This time the strategy worked, and, with the extra help of a musical climate more open to bubblegum R&B, the group rocketed to the top of the pop charts with several singles, including the 2-million-selling "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)" (#2, 1997), "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" (#4, 1998), and "I'll Never Break Your Heart" (#35, 1998). The group was also nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist. In May 1998 it filed a lawsuit for back touring and recording revenues against Pearlman and the two associates he'd hired. (The suit was eventually settled out of court with Pearlman receiving one-sixth of the band's earnings.) The band was also angry that Pearlman had been working with the nascent boy band 'N Sync. At about the same time, Littrell had open-heart surgery to correct a congenital defect.
Recorded mostly in Stockholm, 1999's Millennium confirmed Backstreet Boys as the reigning boy band. Featuring some songs cowritten by the singers, the album debuted at #1, selling a record-breaking 1,134,000 copies the week of its release. It generated the hit singles "All I Have to Give" (#5, 1999), "I Want It That Way" (#6, 1999), and "Larger Than Life" (#25, 1999), and was nominated for five Grammys, including Best Album. The Millennium Tour sold out all its dates in less than a day, confirming the Backstreet Boys' phenomenal popularity. Also that year the group entered into a promotional campaign for Burger King, which distributed miniature plastic figures of each Boy.
With the group's top position endangered by the rise of rival boy band 'N Sync, it returned with the single "Shape of My Heart" (#9, 2000) and the album Black & Blue (#1, 2000), which included two songs written by the Boys themselves. Black & Blue sold 5 million copies worldwide in its first week but topped the chart for only two weeks —an accomplishment for anybody, but a letdown for the Boys, and not nearly as successful as 'N Sync's simultaneous release. The Boys postponed their summer 2001 North American tour so that McLean could enter a treatment program for depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).