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Young, Gifted and Sounding Black : New Kids on the Block are the Osmonds with soul, sings their creator

June 04, 1989|DENNIS HUNT

"There's never been anything like it in the history of the record business," boasted Maurice Starr, the Svengali behind the red-hot teen singing group, New Kids on the Block. "Nothing like it ever anywhere."

The jabberings of a hustler?

Sure, there's a bit of Muhammad Ali in Starr, a 34-year-old Florida native. But he does know his teen groups. Starr discovered New Edition and masterminded their early success.

In New Kids, he has something to brag about again. New Kids, who perform tonight at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim and return to the Universal Amphitheatre with Tiffany on June 25, are unique in some ways. This Boston outfit is certainly the biggest white teen group since the Osmonds were big stars in the late '60s and early '70s.

But what makes New Kids really different from any other successful white teen vocal group is their style. It's black-- very black.

"These are white kids who are black," Starr insisted. "They have white skins but they're black. They have soul. They sing black. That's how I taught them to sing."

New Kids' second album, "Hangin' Tough" on Columbia Records, has sold more than 2 million copies. It includes three Top 10 singles, "Please Don't Go Girl," "The Right Stuff" and the current "I'll Be Loving You (Forever)." This is the first teen vocal group to have three Top 10 singles from one album.

Something else, Starr noted, distinguishes New Kids.

"They have me as a manager," he said, letting out a triumphant howl.

"A hit teen white group managed by a black man, a black man who also writes, produces and arranges their albums--who also created the group. That just doesn't happen in this business."

Starr, though, didn't want to acknowledge exceptions--like black manager Russell Simmons' guiding the white rappers, the Beastie Boys. "If it's been done before, the black manager didn't last," Starr said. "He was probably replaced by a white manager."

The Beasties' new managers are white--Andy Slater and Howard Kaufman.

The success of New Kids, he insisted, vindicates black managers, who generally get a bad rap. "Black managers are always (being characterized) as crooked and incompetent," he said.

"When black stars get big, they hire white managers. Look at Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and all the rest. Some of these black artists may have black managers when they start out but when they get to a certain level, they hire white managers. That's the way it's always been."

"When I first met Maurice I was very impressed," said Donny Wahlberg, 19, of New Kids, in a separate interview. "He was a down-to-earth guy. Not somebody in a three-piece suit, but a regular guy."

They met in 1984, when Starr and another manager, Mary Alford--who's no longer associated with the group--were looking to form a young white singing group. The first recruit was Wahlberg, who, in turn, brought in his pals.

The other New Kids are Danny Wood, 18, Joe McIntyre, 16, and the Knight brothers, Jordan, 18, and Jon, 19. McIntyre replaced an original member who dropped out before the first album was recorded.

Wahlberg knew about Starr because of New Edition, the black bubble-gum group Starr discovered in 1983 and developed into a hit-making outfit--much like he's done with New Kids. After one album, though, Starr's relationship with New Edition turned sour, ending in a barrage of lawsuits. New Edition, of course, is still prospering, and former member Bobby Brown is becoming a superstar.

"What I had in mind for New Edition was making them the new Jackson 5," Starr recalled. "With New Kids I wanted to re-create the Osmonds. . . . The Osmonds had talent but they didn't have soul and they didn't have enough good material. The New Kids are different from the Osmonds. They have talent and soul and good material--good black material."

When Starr began working with New Kids, they were unpolished performers. "I wasn't even a performer when I met Maurice," Wahlberg said. "I was about 15. I'd been rapping and dancing. Three of the guys had done some singing. But none of us were experienced. He found me because he had spread the word in the neighborhood that he was looking for white kids to form a group. I was interested."

Said Starr, "I was looking for kids with looks, charisma and determination, kids with average talent, kids with soul. I needed kids who knew the black culture and white kids who were hip enough to hang with blacks."

Wahlberg, who grew up with the other group members, explained why they're so knowledgeable about black culture.

"We grew up with black kids," he said. "In first grade I was being bused to a school in an all-black area. We were all bused to black schools, all except Joe, the youngest guy in the group. He didn't go to a black school but he still knows the black culture. Contrary to what the white racists think about busing, it was the greatest thing to happen to us."

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