New Kids on the Block: From Puberty to Platinum

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And to think it all might never have happened if New Kids on the Block had stuck with Maurice Starr's original name for the group – Nynuk, as in Nanook of the North. Though the name could very well have helped the group break big in Alaska, the Kids still shudder whenever it is uttered.

Of course, Starr (whose own real last name is Johnson) has had his share of much better ideas when it comes to the Kids, including his initial stroke of music-marketing genius – marrying his own streetwise blend of pop music with a group of five talented, good-looking white kids who can sing and dance. The result was a commercial if somewhat familiar package: Imagine a white New Edition or the Osmonds with real grooves.

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In fact, Starr, 35, and his brothers (including Michael Jonzun, a recording artist who now remixes many New Kids singles) had moved from their native Florida to Boston's tough Roxbury neighborhood in the Seventies and become local celebrities. Starr made his first big national splash in 1983, when the tiny independent label Streetwise managed at great cost to break New Edition, a group of five young guys from the low-income Roxbury area who gave us such tasty Jackson 5-inspired radio treats as "Candy Girl" and "Popcorn Love."

"Maurice was always into making very commercial, very derivative music," says Arthur Baker, the famed producer who ran Streetwise. "But the records were always really good. Maurice had a great sense of turning chords around and creating classic pop records out of other classic pop records. The stuff worked, and it wasn't close enough for him to get sued."

Unfortunately for Starr and Streetwise, soon after the hits started coming, New Edition decided to jump from the small label to MCA. What followed was an ugly, extended lawsuit regarding the legitimacy of Starr's contract with the band (especially complicated since all the group members were still minors) and the ownership of the New Edition name.

Largely because the contract satisfied Massachusetts's but not New York's legal standards, Starr lost the case and was, by many accounts, devastated. It was, Starr confesses, "a legal education," and associates indicate he has been careful not to repeat it with New Kids. (New Edition, meanwhile, has gone on to score numerous hits for MCA, although in the last year the group has been overshadowed by the tremendous solo success of former member Bobby Brown.)

Dick Scott says having New Kids become even bigger than New Edition was "the sweetest revenge" possible for Starr, but Starr himself isn't anxious to put it that way.

"I have no revenge in my heart for New Edition," says Starr as he sits backstage in Worcester, the sound of the crowd cheering for his Kids in the background. "Sometimes it was tough for me to listen to New Edition on the radio, especially when they were Number One and New Kids weren't on the charts, when the Kids were Number Zero. But it's much easier now."

It wasn't long after losing New Edition, and having Streetwise collapse in the wake, that Starr and Mary Alford (who went on to become one of the Kids' managers through their first album) met Donnie Wahlberg. Wahlberg then recruited some other musically inclined friends from Dorchester, a middle-class Boston neighborhood not far from Roxbury, and thus New Kids on the Block (or at least Nynuk) was born.

They were not, stresses Donnie, a group of wimpy, spoiled showbiz kids, but rather a bunch of average young guys – all of them come from families with six or more siblings – who know their way around the streets. When a recent People magazine article descibed the Kids as "excruciatingly wholesome," Donnie says he got a mocking call from one of his brothers who was in jail at the time. (On the other hand, Jordan and Jon's father is a clergyman.)

Of course, even Kids have to pay dues, and for the group, that meant doing its share of unglamorous gigs (many of them singing to taped backing tracks at tiny clubs and social halls, as well as special appearances at Starr's Broadway Talent Shows in Boston) and having its 1986 debut album for Columbia Records die a quick death after it was rejected by black radio. "I think the first record failing was good for us," says Donnie. "We tasted failure and maybe learned how to avoid it."

Last year, Starr and the ever-maturing New Kids on the Block – particularly the trio of Donnie, Jordan and Danny, who call themselves the Crickets – came up with Hangin' Tough, the ascent of which has caused even the Kids' first album, like everything else they touch, to turn to gold.

Star says the Kids are now even bigger than he imagined they'd be, and he's certain they'll go even further – together. "After New Edition, I said I'd never trust another artist in my life," says Starr as another scream from the crowd is heard backstage, "But these guys I trust. I love these kids."

Dear Jordan:
Hi, What's up? You become smarter looking still more. It exciting. I really feel, I love you long time. You never chenger you attuitude even though you become big musician.

—Letter from a fan

Maurice starr is obviously not the only one who loves these Kids. And he's certainly not typical of New Kids on the Block fans – call them Kidophiles or Blockheads for short – most of whom are significantly younger, whiter and more feminine than he is. The above mash note, for instance, came from one-third of a trio of Japanese girls who fell in love with the Kids during the group's recent tout of the girls' homeland. They turned up for a show at the Washington State Fair, in Puyallup, Washington, on September 11th and have been showing up at every hotel and gig since. The girls have spent their time, and no doubt lots of their parents' money, showering the Kids with gifts, crying when they get a hug from a group member and figuring out how to get from gig to gig and hotel to hotel before they regretfully have to head home in a few weeks.

All around them, the Kids encounter a particularly contagious strain of pubescent idolatry – all of it focused on five young men who've barely pulled themselves out of their own adolescence while making their mark in the music biz. If the Kids do not fully appreciate the surreal nature of the madness that surrounds them, neither do they seem to have let it go to their heads.

Donnie attributes some of this level-headedness to the Kids' relatively humble origins. "My family had a bad reputation when I was growing up," he says. "I was a pretty wild kid myself. But people can't put me down by saying, 'You used to steal. You were a bad kid when you were young.' I never said I wasn't. But I'm good now. We're clean, but we're clean by choice. We grew up with this stuff in our faces. Now I'm being positive, trying to educate kids."

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