Where It All Started: 25th Anniversary Retrospective Of Bobby Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel” & New Edition’s “Heart Break”

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June is Black Music Month and this is a landmark day for Black music as a whole. On June 20, 1988 MCA Records released both Bobby Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and New Edition’s “Heart Break”  on the same day. These two albums forever changed not only R&B/Soul but the entire landscape of the music industry simultaneously. In order to understand why this is significant we must start at the beginning, with the day Bobby Brown was voted out of New Edition in December 1985 amidst mounting pressure from New Edition’s management & production team and the fallout surrounding it all.

At the top of 1986 Bobby Brown was glad to shed himself of New Edition’s squeaky clean image and choose  producers and songwriters other than Vincent Brantley, Rick Timas and Michael Sembello of Jump & Shoot Productions, whom their management instantly installed as their musical team.

While recording their self-titled LP in 1984 (shortly after they won the case that secured their freedom from Streetwise Records) the group discovered they weren’t signed directly to MCA, but rather to Jump & Shoot Productions via a production deal arranged by their management (AMI).

New Edition released album after album in hopes of amassing enough money to buy their way out of their management & production contracts with Steven Machat and his partners Rick Smith and Bill Dern of AMI/Jump & Shoot. They hoped to become free agents then negotiate a new deal directly with MCA Records. However, before that could happen, they had to endure one more album with Jump & Shoot while Bobby Brown signed a solo deal with MCA and began to seek out a new creative team for his upcoming solo project.

In early 1986 New Edition recorded a cover of the 50’s Doo Wop hit “Earth Angel” for the soundtrack to the sequel to “Karate Kid.” It was initially seen as a one-off song before they began working on what would hopefully be their final record making music they weren’t proud of. “Karate Kid II” opened in theaters in North America on June 20, 1986 and became an instant hit. Peter Cetera made the film’s main theme “For The Glory Of Love” which was a massive hit but New Edition’s cover of “Earth Angel” became a crossover hit, slightly missing Billboard’s Top 20 on the Pop charts (stalled at #21). Unfortunately, the success of that song gave New Edition’s producers the idea to make their next LP a concept album full of covers of Doo Wop songs.

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To put this dubious idea into proper context, Janet Jackson was crushing the R&B/Soul and Pop charts with her new album “Control” as was Cameo with their album “Word Up!”. The Minneapolis sound and a new brand of R&B that would soon be branded New Jack Swing was gaining favor thanks to Prince, Ready For The World plus the production of Cameo’s Larry Blackmon and Flyte Tyme’s Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. This was not the time to go retro in the face of all this musical progression.

Nevertheless, New Edition released “Under The Blue Moon” in October 1986 and the album barely managed to go Gold when their previous albums all exceeded Platinum and each had multiple hit singles. Outside of “Earth Angel” none of their singles fared well on the charts while the aesthetic of R&B was in flux. Ralph Tresvant became increasingly disillusioned with the group and began to consider going solo as 1986 soon gave way to 1987.

Meanwhile, Bobby Brown began recording his debut solo album for MCA Records. “King Of Stage” was released in December 1986 behind the lead single, “Girlfriend.”  This ballad became Bobby Brown’s first solo hit, eventually peaking at #57 on the Billboard Pop charts but reaching #1 on the Billboard Soul/R&B charts. His second single, the up-tempo dance number “Girl Next Door,” was a minor hit (#31 R&B/Soul) but his album failed to even go Gold. While Bobby Brown was a winner at the 1987 Boston Music Awards, he knew he had a long way to go before he was satisfied.

Mike Bivins had the foresight to ensure the future of New Edition following them finally getting out of their old deal with Jump & Shoot Productions after their management team AMI’s firm disbanded, senior partner Steve Machat stepped down and the group opted to not continue to be managed by junior partners Rick Smith or Bill Dern. They celebrated their newfound freedom by installing Brooke Payne as interim manager and signing directly to MCA Records in Spring 1987. Ralph was considering a solo project like Bobby so Mike brought in Johnny Gill both to fill Bobby’s vacant spot and to potentially become the group’s new lead singer in the event Ralph bolted.

Next, the guys and their longtime choreographer/personal manager Brooke Payne agreed to bring in Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis to craft the sound of what was going to become their breakout album and shed their old boyhood image once and for all. Ralph Tresvant ultimately opted against pursuing a solo project due to encouragement from Mike Bivins and New Edition once again became a quintet. In June 1987, just one year removed from the abomination that was “Earth Angel” and the havoc it wreaked on their young careers, New Edition began work on their “Heart Break” LP.

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