1 Comments Old EW article about Maurice Starr (New Edition, New Kids On The Block)

Posted by The Elitaste on 22 Jul 2008

Given the fact that the New Kids On The Block are making a comeback this summer, I thought some might find this article about mastermind behind their initial rise to fame, Maurice Starr.

Published in issue #19 Jun 22, 1990
Starr Maker
Meet the man who brought you New Kids on the Block — Maurice Starr talks about commercial success, finding the next hot thing, and managing his artists careers

By Ron Givens

Four pencil-thin, quasi-pubescent girls shuffle onto the stage of the Strand Theatre in matching outfits: black T-shirts with a pink logo that looks like smeared bubble gum, black Spandex biking shorts, black sneakers. They’ve come to this nearly empty theater in the blue-collar Dorchester section of Boston in late May to audition for a talent show, which explains why they look identical, all the way up to their shoulder-length perms. Three of the girls, wearing metal-frame glasses, line up in a row and the fourth stands in front. A prerecorded music track begins to play, causing a series of metallic beeps like cheap sci-fi sound effects to echo around the Strand. The quartet begins to clap rhythmically and make small side-to-side movements. The girl in front starts to rap. Her recital is wooden. Her words are indecipherable.

Near the back of the theater’s mezzanine, Maurice Starr abruptly stops chatting and leans toward the stage. The 36-year-old promoter of the talent show is somehow enchanted by this amateurish half-rap, half-cheerleader performance. ”That girl in front has something — a little sass,” he says. Unbelievable as this reaction seems, it’s not easily dismissed. That’s because Starr is the man who built this year’s musical sensation, New Kids on the Block, into a group that has sold an astounding 15 million albums, singles, and videocassettes. He’s also the man who discovered an earlier multiplatinum teen phenomenon, New Edition, in 1981. Nevertheless, Starr doesn’t trust his instincts as an entertainment scout. ”I’d be a terrible talent-show judge,” he says. ”I think I can make anybody a star.”

Maybe he can. Starr is the hottest producer in pop music right now, with hits coming from all directions. The current New Kids single, ”Step by Step,” has ripped toward the top of the charts. To do this, it overtook ”Ooh La La (I Can’t Get Over You),” a top 10 tune written and produced by Starr for Perfect Gentlemen, a trio that includes his son, Maurice Jr. Another Starr creation, ”Got to Tell Me Something” by Ana, is moving up the pop chart, and his ”Temptation,” written and produced for the Superiors, is rising on the black singles chart. This kind of success might faze another music mogul. Not Starr. ”Everything I’ve produced in the past two years has been a hit,” he says with matter-of-fact aplomb.

How does he do it? Hooks, hooks, hooks. Starr’s trademark sound is light and bouncy, with cute vocals and sweet melodies. Many critics think he has stooped to conquer the charts, but he’s happy to blend artistic and financial goals. ”I am into commercial success,” Starr freely admits. ”I do what the people like.” His songs grab listeners right away. ”You hear the hook in the first 15 seconds,” he says. ”You hear it once and you want to sing it all the way through.” Even if you aren’t crazy about some of Starr’s more saccharine tunes, you often cannot get them out of your head. ”Maurice has his finger on the pulse of teen America,” says Don Ienner, president of Columbia Records, the New Kids’ label.

As a composer, Starr works his muse to exhaustion. He carries a microcassette recorder everywhere so he can hum or sing a new riff onto tape before he forgets it. Starr writes nearly all the songs on his artists’ records, apparently cranking out material at will: ”I took a plane ride from New York to Boston and wrote 10 songs,” he says. For the just-released New Kids album he came up with about 25 tunes and then had trouble choosing among them. ”They all sounded like hits to me,” says Billboard’s Songwriter of the Year for 1989.

To make sure that Starr the composer is well served, Starr the producer has often called upon Starr the session man to perform. The New Kids album Hangin’ Tough carried this credit: ”All instruments played or programmed by Maurice Starr.” (Except, as another credit noted, for a little synthesizer programming on one tune by New Kid Danny Wood.) Often Starr has sung backup vocals as well. This do-it-all approach may be coming to an end, however, as Starr’s musical empire grows ever larger. Although he’ll probably continue to write most of the material for his artists, Starr is calling on five or six ”ghost producers” to follow his directions in the studio for everything from laying down basic tracks to mixing the finished product. He then comes in for any necessary adjustments at the end.

Less time for music means more time for business. Starr pays almost fanatical attention to every phase of the music industry, creating finely detailed master plans for each of his artists extending up to three years into the future. On yellow legal pads he carries in his briefcase, Starr notes when new singles will be coming out, when promotional calls should be made to radio stations for those singles, when photos need to be taken for album covers, when tours begin and end. No detail is too small. ”This way I know it’s done right,” he says. ”When I’m involved with every phase it seems like the song goes to the top.” Says John Doelp, director of product management at Epic Records, which is releasing albums by three of Starr’s acts: ”Maurice reminds me of a Berry Gordy of the ’60s or the Gamble and Huff of the ’70s, combined with a promoter like P.T. Barnum.”

While sitting in the Strand Theatre, Starr pulls out a legal pad to show what he sketched out earlier that day during a brief flight: his concept for this summer’s New Kids mega-tour, called Magic Summer, which will use routines created by magician Harry Blackstone. Starr has worked out the first 30 minutes of the two-hour show, beginning with the group singing offstage as a tease before a rocket ship delivers them for the performance. He has chosen the first half-dozen songs, decided on a few bits of stage movement, and even written some patter to get the group from one lead singer to the next — ”Hey, Joe, why don’t you do a medley of your hits?”

Moments after Starr reviews his plan for the New Kids show, an assistant walks up with a fax containing a list of songs: It’s the New Kids’ notion of what should be in their concert. After glancing at the sheet, Starr comments, ”You can’t just come out and do things you’ve been doing for two years.” He clearly likes his plan better, but he has to be diplomatic about how to resolve this difference. The New Kids are no longer compliant teens who always follow orders. They have musical ambitions of their own. ”I have to take my hat off to them,” Starr says. ”They’ve learned a lot in the past five years.” Although New Kid Donnie Wahlberg acknowledges Starr’s importance to his group, he thinks the Kids themselves deserve more credit for their success. ”We don’t write all of our songs, but a lot of groups don’t write their own songs,” he says. ”Maurice hasn’t been doing shows for the past 6 1/2 years. Maurice doesn’t sing on the records. There’s a limit to what Maurice is to the band.”

Creative differences caused a split between Starr and New Edition after he produced their debut album in 1983. (The group has continued to put out hit singles, including ”Cool It Now” and ”If It Isn’t Love.”) When asked what he learned from that breakup, Starr replies cryptically, ”To keep the paperwork in order.” He doesn’t manage New Kids, but he is in partnership with Dick Scott, who does. To take care of his other acts, Starr has just formed General Entertainment Management, an all-purpose management and production company. He doesn’t want to produce anyone he doesn’t manage, even though he gets plenty of offers. Starr’s need to be in total control of everything from songwriting to producing to managing has caused people to call him a Svengali. He doesn’t like the term, preferring to refer to himself as ”the man who gets the job done.”

Starr’s power over his roster starts even before groups exist. ”People say that the New Kids were manufactured and that Maurice was the mastermind,” New Kid Joe McIntyre says, ”and that’s true.” Starr controls the nature of his acts by picking singers and musicians according to preconceived music- marketing concepts. Each band has an antecedent. When he discovered New Edition during one of his talent shows in the early ’80s (they came in second), Starr realized they could re-create the approach of the Jackson 5. Starr developed the New Kids to update the Osmonds. For Perfect Gentlemen, the model is the Delfonics; for the Superiors it’s the Temptations. Now there’s Rick Wes, described by some Starr associates as ”the new Elvis.” Starr doesn’t claim that his groups are entirely original. ”These are not new ideas,” he says. But he makes them fresh again, not to mention marketable.

Knowing what sells may be the secret of Starr’s success. Despite the phenomenal popularity of New Edition, Starr says, ”I honestly believe that if they’d been white, (the group) would have been 20 times as big.” After Starr lost New Edition, he decided to put together a group of white kids and switched his recruiting from the predominantly black area of Roxbury, where he lived then, to the racially mixed section of Dorchester next door. Starr never stops looking for new talent. Corey Blakely, one of the three Perfect Gentlemen, was a next-door neighbor’s kid in Roxbury who scooted up to Starr last year on a tricycle. ”Do you want to be a star?” the impresario asked. ”I don’t know,” the boy said. Blakely, now 11 but still a boy of few words, says about his present stardom: ”It’s fun.”

With his profitable track record, Starr could move easily from being an independent producer to forming his own label or record company, but he doesn’t want to risk his independence or money. ”I’m smarter than that,” he says. Smart enough, that is, to be cynical about the business of music. ”I’m not going to, but I could almost call the people in the music business devils,” Starr says. ”The bottom line is that if a person can’t make a dollar off you, they don’t want to talk to you.” He learned this from experience. A native Floridian, Starr (né Larry Johnson) moved to Boston in the early ’70s with his brother Michael to try to make it in a funk-rock band. After that flopped, Larry became Maurice Starr in the early ’80s and recorded two solo albums: Flaming Starr and Spacey Lady. Neither did well. These days, he could record another solo album, but Starr would rather put others in the spotlight. Besides, he asks, ”How can I have my own career and be in 50 other places at the same time?”

Starr maintains such a frantic schedule because, he says, ”I have to do everything I can now. I may not be this hot next year.” He plans to create a home-video instructional tape on ”The Making of a Star,” revealing his techniques. He also has invented a persona, The General, to enliven the promotional appearances he makes for his groups. Inspired by the managers for pro wrestlers, The General wears a well-tailored suit — in one of 10 colors — and a matching peaked cap. The lapels and pockets of the suit jackets are covered with military patches and medals. Starr portrays The General for entertainment value — his as well as the fans’ — but he also contemplates merchandising this character with dolls, T-shirts, and a children’s cartoon show. He might even create a rival persona, The Ninja Guy, for mock managerial battles.

It was The General alone who commanded the stage recently at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City. The occasion was a press-packed coming-out party for Rick Wes, who was about to release his debut album, North, South, East, Wes. Nearly 100 teenage girls, winners of a radio contest, were the designated screamers for brief sets by Wes, Perfect Gentlemen, and the Superiors. Four of the New Kids made cameo appearances on the balcony to ensure a proper level of frenzy. The General’s plan for the event — the simultaneous promotion of four of his acts and himself — worked to perfection. Afterward, Danielle Zucker, 16, who traveled two hours from her hometown of Cherry Hill, N.J., said, ”I love the New Kids and I love Maurice Starr.” Very few people behind the scenes in the music business become famous, but The General might just do it. These days he’s winning all the battles and the war seems well within his grasp.

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