The boyz are back


Between harmonizing in the school bathrooms and singing melodies en route to South Street after class, a group of teens always found time to do what they loved.

"All we wanted to do was sing all day everyday," Nathan Morris, formerly of 17th and Christian streets, said during a recent phone interview from London.

More than 20 years and 60 million albums later, three of those five young musicians are better known as the R&B group Boyz II Men.

The group released its latest album, "Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville," more than a year ago, which received two Grammy nominations this year — one for Best R&B Album and the other for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for "Ribbons in the Sky." The work featured classics such as "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)," "The Tracks of My Tears" and "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)."

"The concept is love songs, the biggest and the best love songs that have ever been made," Morris, who now resides in West Conshohocken, said prior to a sound check at the band’s June 11 London show.

Saturday night, at Resorts Atlantic City, he’ll get his chance to perform near where this international success story began. Morris and his band mates are looking forward to the homecoming.

"[The Philly fans] always have a different respect for what you do because they come from the same places," he said.

The current tour, which includes stops in Houston and Biloxi, Miss., is scheduled to continue through 2009. The group also is recording an album to commemorate its 20-year anniversary.

Morris, now 38, spent most of his teen years in the neighborhood and attended the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, 901 S. Broad St., where he met the future members of Boyz II Men.

The Grammy Award-winning group wants to be remembered for its vocal ability, Morris said.

"That’s more important to us because that’s all we wanted to do," he said.

The baritone, who started out in Southwest Philly, attended Meredith School, 725 S. Fifth St., before enrolling at CAPA.

Morris started singing in church from the time he was 7, but really found his niche while attending CAPA. The 1989 grad started the group — now dubbed as the most commercially successful R&B group of all time by the Recording Industry Association of America — while a student there with classmate Marc Nelson, who left the group before the release of the first album.

"We decided to find something to do to pass our time for the most part," Morris said.

Formerly called Unique Attraction, he and Nelson had a constantly changing lineup after picking up underclassmen as senior members graduated. The group was typically a quintet with three additional guys and even a female at one point. Wanya Morris, now 35, was added and soon was Shawn Stockman, now 36. They were planning to stick to the quartet when Michael McCary, now 37, walked into the boy’s bathroom at school where the rest of the guys were practicing their harmonies.

"Mike got in as a fluke," Morris said. "While he was in the stall, he added a bass note to what we were singing and made the room sound."

The five teens would venture to South Street or Walnut-Locust Station to sing for an audience and commonly get performance gigs from bystanders, Morris said.

The big break came at a Power 99 concert in which former New Edition star, Michael Bivens was performing with his new group, Bell Biv DeVoe. The boys from Philly were supposed to meet a friend at the event, but while waiting, they started singing outside. Suddenly, they were singing for Bivens, who later called them up and brought them out to Los Angeles to sign a record deal that resulted the debut album "Cooleyhighharmony," which sold more than nine million copies in the U.S. and landed the group its first Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

It skyrocketed Boyz II Men to the top of the charts with "Motown Philly" that Morris and Stockman penned. Backdrops in the video included South Street and Geno’s Steaks, 1219 S Ninth St., as the then-quartet sang about their beginnings in Philly. The follow-up single, "It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday," was shot in South Philly, said Morris, who added they tried to keep most of their video shoots in the city early in their career.

Between touring, the boys recorded "End of the Road" for the Eddie Murphy flick, "Boomerang" and the single went on to break Elvis Presley’s 1956 record for the 11-week Billboard Hot 100 chart topping "Don’t Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog" by holding the No. 1 spot for 13 weeks and winning the group another Grammy.

The group’s 1994 sophomore album "II" sold more than 12 million copies and earned it another Grammy for Best R&B Album. "I’ll Make Love To You," which also won an award and remained atop the charts for 14 weeks until the group’s second single, "On Bended Knee" replaced it.

"We just wanted to figure out what we could do vocally that nobody else could do," Morris said.

Collaborating with Mariah Carey on her 1995 album "Daydream" earned both artists two Grammys and a No. 1 song for 16 weeks with "One Sweet Day." The boys released "Evolution" in ’97 and "Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya" in ’00 — selling more than three million and one million copies respectively — before "Legacy: The Greatest Hits Collection" in ’01. "Full Circle" followed and McCary left the group after recording the album due to scoliosis. While they weren’t expecting the move, Morris was able to fill the void as he sang baritone and bass in high school.

Even after McCary stepped down, the remaining trio has been able to stay together as they know their place in the group whether it’s in the studio or on the business side of things. They all respect each other for what the other brings to the group, he said.

"Everybody understands their role and that’s what a lot of guys [in other groups] don’t get today," he said.

They’re even in the process of opening a performing arts school in the city although no location or grade level has been determined yet, Morris said.

The group hasn’t lost touch of its musical roots — only now for a much bigger audience.

"We just sang because it was fun," Morris said of the group’s roots. "That’s the reason why we’re still doing it 20 years later."