Full name, Bobby Baresford Brown; born in Boston, Mass. Member of group New Edition, 1980-86; solo performer, 1986--; released first solo LP, 1987; second solo LP, Don't Be Cruel, hit Number 1 on the charts, 1989; had four Top 5 singles, "Don't Be Cruel," "Roni," "My Prerogative," "Every Little Step"; appeared on soundtrack and in film Ghostbusters II. Addresses: Record company-- MCA Records, 70 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, Calif. 91608.
"When Bobby Brown moves, fans swoon," writes Steve Dougherty in People. "And critics shift into hyperpraise. Even the far-from-funky New York Times cheered a 'bravado [Brown] performance that harks back to the glory days' of 60s music." Brown is the latest in an impressive string of pop superstars who danced their way to the top of the music world in the 1980s. Such 1980s music phenoms as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, and Paula Abdul all infused their pounding rhythms and up-tempo lyrics with plenty of acrobatic dance steps in their performances. Indeed, in these days of elaborate tour productions and slick music videos, a performer's ability to dance, set new fashion standards, and make a good appearance on camera are nearly as essential as the actual music in determining their success in the increasingly competitive pop market.
And all of this has certainly not been lost on Brown, who, though still in his early twenties, has already discovered what he believes to be the key to a lasting show-business career--diversification. "I'm not just a singer, or a dancer, or a performer," Brown told Rolling Stone 's Rob Tannenbaum. "I want to be a lot of different things. People don't know what Bobby Brown is. I want to be mysterious. I don't want people to be able to label me. I just wanna be Bobby, the Man Who Does Everything." Brown took one large step in attaining that status with his second solo album, Don't Be Cruel, a 1988 release that has sold more than six million copies and spawned the Top 5 singles "My Prerogative," "Roni," and "Don't Be Cruel." The album reached Number 1 on the Billboard charts in 1989, making Brown, then just nineteen, the first teenager to record a Number 1 album since Ricky Nelson in 1957 and Stevie Wonder in 1963. The key to Brown's music, says Rolling Stone 's Tannenbaum, lies in Brown's ability to adapt "the traditional techniques of soul to the coarser language of rap ... it's obvious that Brown has displaced his elders on the pop charts not just because his songs adapt hip-hop beats but also because he has revived the aggressive sexuality that rap drew from James Brown."
This hybrid sound, which has been called "the new funk," or "new jack swing," was developed simultaneously in the late 1980s by New York producer Teddy Riley and the L.A. team of Antonio Reid and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds. The purpose of the new sound was to make the hard edges of rap a little softer for a wider teen audience. And the smooth, charismatic Brown has proven to be the perfect vehicle for the dawn of the new funk.
When Brown became a bona fide superstar with the success of Don't Be Cruel, he was already considered a veteran performer despite his youth. Many music fans would recognize him as a member of the early 1980s teen group New Edition, but Brown's career had its informal debut when he was just three years old. It was then that his mother set him down onstage during a James Brown concert at Boston's Sugar Shack--and his two-minute, impromptu boogie brought down the house. "I just strutted around to the music," Brown told People. "Ever since, I liked being onstage."
Brown grew up in Roxbury, a rough section of Boston, and though he admits his mischief in those days sometimes placed him on the wrong side of the law, he insists that his main weakness was for expensive clothes and jewelry that would set him apart. "There were two kinds of fellas at my school--the stoners and the kind who liked women and wore sharp clothes and put lotion on their hands and said nice things to the ladies," Brown told People. "I was the second kind. I lo-o-o-ove women ... They've got so much more to offer emotionally."
But a tragic incident helped transform Brown from a petty thief and pretty-boy to the serious young musician he has become. When he was just eleven, Brown watched as his best friend was fatally stabbed in a knife fight. It was then that he made the determination to get out of the life he was leading. Together with several friends, Brown formed a singing group that started out doing harmony covers of Larry Graham and Donny Hathaway records. By 1980, when Brown was just twelve, the group became formally known as New Edition, and the boys had their first major break when the producer Maurice Starr heard them performing in a talent competition.
In 1981 the band signed a recording contract with MCA and, under Starr's direction, began producing singles that sounded strangely similar to such successful teen groups as the Jackson Five and the Osmonds. Starr has even admitted that New Edition's first hit single, "Candy Girl," was modeled after the Jackson Five songs "ABC" and "I Want You Back." Regardless, Starr and MCA both knew they had a hot act on their hands, and for the next five years New Edition performed before throngs of screaming teenage girls across America.
The New Edition experience was for Brown, in progression, a dream, an experience, a business, and finally a hassle. He quit the group in 1986 when infighting among the band members had grown intense, and when Brown grew suspicious that he was being swindled by MCA and Starr. There were also rumors that the band was using drugs, rumors which Brown claims were fanned by the rejected managers. "People at MCA thought we was into drugs," Brown told Rolling Stone. "That wasn't us. We were a bunch of brats, but we wasn't into drugs, we wasn't into liquor. We was into girls."
Embarking on his solo career, Brown decided that he wanted to keep his career closer to home, so he put his affairs into the hands of his brother, Tommy, and his mother. Starr, on the other hand, told Rolling Stone, "I was gonna make New Edition the biggest group in the world. When we parted, I said, 'Let me show them how smart I am--I'm coming back with a white teen group.'" Sure enough, Starr did return with the immensely successful, all-white group New Kids on the Block in the late 1980s.
But Brown knows he has moved beyond the teeny-bopper circuit. His heroes have always been the greats--like Michael Jackson, Elvis, and James Brown--and for good measure he would like to develop himself as an actor, a la Madonna, Prince, and Eddie Murphy. When the producers of the film Ghostbusters II came knocking on the door of MCA records in search of a distributor for the film's soundtrack album, Brown was MCA's hottest act. MCA was awarded the contract on the stipulation that Brown appear prominently on the album, a project the singer was only too happy to undertake. There was some risk, however, in that the record would have to stand up to comparison with the first Ghostbusters soundtrack, which featured Ray Parker's gigantic single "Ghostbusters." Realizing that his participation was the key to the deal, Brown shrewdly agreed to sing on the album on the condition that he be given a role in the film. The result was Brown's surprisingly effective cameo appearance in the film as the obnoxious butler of the mayor of New York. "Acting is just a frame of mind," Brown told Rolling Stone with a characteristic shrug. "If you know how to block the camera off from being there, it's easy to act like another person. It's very easy." And for now, Brown is acting like the new edition of the ultimate pop superstar.
by David Collins
Bobby Brown's Career
- Selective Works
- King of Stage MCA, 1987.
- Don't Be Cruel MCA, 1988.
- Ghostbusters II Motion Picture Soundtrack 1990.
February 27, 2004: Brown was sentenced to 60 days incarceration in Georgia for a parole violation. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/Music/02/28/bobby.brown.reut/index.html, March 1, 2004.
- Rolling Stone, September 7, 1989.