In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The Super Bowl Halftime Show wasn’t always appointment viewing. The NFL always booked entertainers for the Halftime Show, but those entertainers weren’t always A-listers. For decades, the Super Bowl Halftime Show would just be a college marching band, or Up With People, or a college marching band with Up With People. In 1992, the Super Bowl had Gloria Estefan, a genuine pop star, singing at the Halftime Show. But she was in there with two Olympic figure skaters, the men’s hockey team from the 1980 Miracle game, and the University Of Minnesota marching band. If you switched the channel from CBS to Fox that year, you would see something different.
That year, Fox had In Living Color, the hit sketch show that had debuted a year and a half earlier, running a special live Super Bowl episode. Every skit had something to do with football — Fire Marshall Bill blowing up the Goodyear Blimp, that kind of thing. A little clock in the corner counted down to when the game would start again so that nobody would miss anything. At the end of the special episode, Color Me Badd, the Oklahoma City R&B boy band who happened to have the #1 single in America that week, sang their debut single “I Wanna Sex You Up,” which had come out on the New Jack City soundtrack the previous spring. (“I Wanna Sex You Up” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.)
The stunt worked. Almost 29 million people flipped over to Fox to watch In Living Color, and many of those people never turned the channel back to the Super Bowl; the game’s second-half ratings plummeted. A year later, the NFL, determined not to let anyone plunder their audience again, booked Michael Jackson to play the Halftime Show. That Halftime Show, like all the ones that came after, was a hyped-up spectacle and a crucial point of interest for the whole broadcast. Color Me Badd never reached the level of Super Bowl Halftime performers themselves, but they did participate in a fun little insurgent moment where it became clear that culture was starting to change.
In a way, that’s a nice little summation for the role that Color Me Badd played when they were on top. Color Me Badd weren’t exactly an edgy group; they were friendly and approachable, with the same kind of dreamboat camaraderie that had turned the New Kids On The Block into stars a couple of years earlier. Their harmonies had a clear decades-old precedent in doo-wop. But Color Me Badd also sang about sex in plain, if clumsy, terms. They didn’t rap, but they worked with rap producers, singing over sampled breakbeats. They were a multi-racial group, and their success seemed to point toward a world — one that has sadly never truly arrived — where racial lines between genres weren’t so oppressive. Color Me Badd’s success didn’t last, but it did foreshadow the sort of R&B that would truly take over the Hot 100 over the next few years. Their music is very of its time, but it’s aged nicely, in a charmingly nostalgic sort of way.
The week that Color Me Badd sang on that In Living Color special, their debut album CMB went double platinum, on its way to triple, and their third single was the #1 song in America. After jumping out of obscurity with “I Wanna Sex You Up,” still their best-known song, Color Me Badd had made it to #1 with their second single “I Adore Mi Amor.” Then, a few short months later, they were back on top with “All 4 Love,” their second consecutive chart-topper. You can’t always pinpoint a pop group’s peak, but with Color Me Badd, the night of that In Living Color performance was pretty clearly the top of the mountain.
“All 4 Love” is a fairly forgotten song, and that’s a shame, since it’s a low-key banger. Color Me Badd recorded the track with Howie Tee, a rap producer who was born in the UK but mostly raised in Jamaica and Brooklyn. By 1991, Howie Tee had been making rap records for years. He’d started out in 1985, teaming up with UTFO member Kangol Kid to produce playfully uptempo tracks like “Nothing Serious (Just Buggin’)” for the New York group Whistle.
In the late ’80s, rap’s first creative golden era, Howie Tee was right in the mix, producing some extremely catchy tracks that never really crossed over to the pop charts. Howie Tee had a hand in making classics like Special Ed’s “I Got It Made” and Chubb Rock’s “Treat ‘Em Right.” (On the Hot 100, “Treat ‘Em Right” peaked at #95.) Howie also worked on Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up.” Bel Biv DeVoe collaborator Dr. Freeze was that track’s lead producer, but Howie helped out in the studio and got a co-producer credit. After the success of “I Wanna Sex You Up,” Color Me Badd had to record their debut album quickly, and Howie Tee was one of their collaborators.
Howie Tee co-wrote “All 4 Love” with all four members of Color Me Badd. At that point, Howie had really only worked with rappers, and he produced “All 4 Love” the way he’d produce a rap song. Originally, Howie had built the track on a sample of Nancy Wilson’s 1970 cover of the Blood, Sweat & Tears song “Spinning Wheel.” In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Howie says, “First, I sampled it, and once I had the loop going, I played things over it so that the sample could disappear.” This was a good idea. In 1990, Blood, Sweat & Tears’ David Clayton-Thomas had sued Milli Vanilli, claiming that their single “All Or Nothing” was a ripoff of “Spinning Wheel.” It seems fair to say that Clayton-Thomas would’ve kept his lawyers on deck if Color Me Badd had gone to #1 with a “Spinning Wheel” sample. (Blood, Sweat & Tears’ original 1968 version of “Spinning Wheel” peaked at #2. It’s a 6. Milli Vanilli’s “All Or Nothing” peaked at #4. It’s another 6.)
Of course, when Howie Tee says that he played things over that sample, he presumably means that he played other samples over that sample. The final version of “All 4 Love” is not a sample-free work. The song’s drum track is built on Charlie Watts’ cowbell-heavy intro from the Rolling Stones’ 1969 chart-topper “Honky Tonk Woman,” which had already become a heavy-circulation rap breakbeat. But most of the “All 4 Love” groove came from “Patch My Heart,” a fairly obscure 1966 single that Steve Cropper and former Number Ones artist Isaac Hayes wrote for the Mad Lads, an R&B vocal group from Memphis. (The Mad Lads’ highest-charting single, 1966’s “I Want Someone,” peaked at #74.) Later on, Hayes and Cropper got songwriting credits for “All 4 Love,” which seems fair to me. That beat really is just a slightly chopped-up version of the “Patch My Heart” groove.
Of course, sampling is its own kind of art. In that early-’90s moment, Howie Tee was a master at finding catchy pieces of old soul songs, chopping those pieces up, and building new things out of them. And if you’re looking for things to sample, then you really can’t go wrong with an obscure ’60s Volt Records single written by Isaac Hayes and Steve Cropper. I love that “All 4 Love” sample. It’s bright and giddy and funky, and it makes a great match for those Color Me Badd harmonies. Color Me Badd used to describe their sound as “hip-hop doo-wop,” and the “All 4 Love” beat is that fusion turned fully literal. Once they had the beat, the four members of Color Me Badd wrote “All 4 Love” in a few hours, and they took their time nailing those harmonies in the studio.
“All 4 Love” is a lightweight little valentine of a track. On paper, the lyrics are goofy to the point of corniness: “Knight in shining armor, I will be your fairy tale/ I wanna take care of you, girl, I’ll serve you well.” But their harmonies really do sound great, and there’s a great dizzy energy to the way the song rolls out. Near the end of the track, there’s a spoken-word bit where Bryan Abrams delivers some utterly ridiculous sweet nothings with a straight face: “See, every day in my life without you would be like a hundred years/ The distance between us? An ocean of tears.” It’s so stupid, and yet it works.
The “All 4 Love” video matches the song’s level of silliness. It depicts the Color Me Badd boys romancing a group of women at what looks like a slumber party, taking turns singing lead and hitting synchronized dances. (That first-verse bit where they all snap out of the running man to get down on one knee? That’s the good stuff.) A few years later, boy-band moves like those would make some other people very, very rich. For Color Me Badd, they were good enough to push a fun uptempo R&B track to #1 in the week that Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” finally ran out of steam.
“All 4 Love” turned out to be Color Me Badd’s last top-10 hit. Two more singles from the CMB album, “Thinkin’ Back” and the Howie Tee-produced “Slow Motion,” made the top 20. Later in 1992, Color Me Badd also worked with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on “Forever Love,” a track from the soundtrack for the Damon Wayans vehicle Mo’ Money, and that song peaked at #15. But by the time Color Me Badd got around to releasing their 1993 sophomore album Time And Chance, time had moved on, and chance no longer favored them. That album’s title-track single begins with Ossie Davis reading a Bible verse. Ice Cube directed the song’s video, which is about crooked cops framing Color Me Badd for drug possession. Despite all that fun bullshit, the song peaked at #23. Time And Chance went gold — not bad, but also not great for the follow-up to a triple-platinum debut.
Color Me Badd stuck around for two more albums. Neither of those albums went gold, but both of them had singles that charted. 1996’s Now & Forever had “The Earth, The Sun, The Rain,” which peaked at #21, and 1998’s Awakening had “Remember When,” which made it to #44. So Color Me Badd lasted long enough to see the awakening of the next boy-band boom, but they didn’t really get to take advantage of it. By the time they released that last album, Sam Watters, the Color Me Badd member who looked sort of like Kenny G, had left the group. Watters and Color Me Badd collaborator Louis Biancaniello had formed a songwriting and production duo, and they’d started making tracks for teen-pop artists like Jessica Simpson. (Amazingly, Watters will appear in this column again as a songwriter.) After Watters’ departure, Kevin Thornton also left Color Me Badd to become a minister, and the group effectively ended.
In 2010, Color Me Badd members Bryan Abrams and Mark Calderon got back together and started playing shows. Those two, along with Kevin Thornton, were in and out of Color Me Badd for a few years — sometimes with new members, sometimes with just two or three of those original singers. They played a few nostalgia tours and sang on a couple of Insane Clown Posse records. In 2018, Abrams and Calderon were doing a Color Me Badd show together at a casino in Tyre, New York when Abrams drunkenly pushed Calderon offstage while reportedly yelling, “I’m motherfuckin’ Color Me Badd!”
Calderon was treated for whiplash, and Abrams was charged with misdemeanor assault. After that fracas, Calderon told Billboard that he wasn’t really interested in working with his old high-school friend anymore. These days, Mark Calderon is the only original member left in Color Me Badd. That’s not exactly a storybook ending, but not every story needs a storybook ending. Color Me Badd’s run on top was short, but it was fun. “All 4 Love” might not be remembered as a canonical ’90s classic, but that song has some real spark to it. If I’d been one of the people who sang on “All 4 Love,” there is a very good chance that decades later, I would be yelling at people that I’m motherfuckin’ Color Me Badd.
BONUS BEATS: In the 2006 Saturday Night Live Digital Short “Dick In A Box,” Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake play early-’90s R&B singers who are almost definitely supposed to evoke Color Me Badd specifically. (The facial hair is the real giveaway.) The song was an early YouTube classic, and I once watched Samberg and Timberlake strap on the fake beards to sing it at Madison Square Garden. Annoyingly, “Dick In A Box” is not on YouTube — you have to go here to watch it — but Samberg and Timberlake brought those characters back for the 2009 follow-up “Motherlover.” Here it is:
(Samberg’s group the Lonely Island, the creative force behind “Dick In A Box” and “Motherlover,” peaked at #30 with the 2010 Akon collab “I Just Had Sex.” Justin Timberlake will eventually appear in this column.)
THE 10S: U2’s euphorically funky Madchester bite “Mysterious Ways” peaked at #9 behind “All 4 Love.” Let its pale light in to fill up your room. It’s a 10.