The Number Ones

August 15, 1992

The Number Ones: Boyz II Men’s “End Of The Road”

Stayed at #1:

13 Weeks

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.

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Over the course of the 1990s, the Philadelphia vocal group Boyz II Men spent a grand total of 50 weeks at #1 on the Hot 100. That’s two weeks short of a full year — essentially one entire ’90. In terms of chart-topping longevity, Boyz II Men aren’t quite the champions of that particular decade; their collaborator Mariah Carey has them beat by 10 weeks. But the insane thing about Boyz II Men’s chart dominance is that they got those 50 weeks out of just five songs. When a Boyz II Men single reached #1, it stayed there for a long time.

If you wanted, you could argue that the ’90s, especially the stretch of time after Billboard started using SoundScan to figure out the Hot 100, were the pop-music equivalent of baseball’s steroid era. Every couple of months, someone came along and shattered another record. This says a lot about how the music business operated before and after that SoundScan rule-change. When Billboard depended on record stores calling in their sales totals and radio stations reporting their own spins — a system that allowed the business to freely manipulate the charts — all the parties involved had an interest in keeping things moving. When Billboard used more objective methods to figure out what singles people were buying and what songs were getting radio play, the charts had to come to grips with radio’s tendency to run a song into the earth’s crust.

“End Of The Road,” Boyz II Men’s first #1 hit, crushed records, at least in part, because of those rule changes. In the Hot 100 era, no song had ever spent that long at #1. The previous record-holder was Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” which held down the #1 spot for 10 weeks in 1981 and 1982. In every article about Boyz II Men’s chart feat, though, people brought up a different record-holder. On a pre-Hot 100 Billboard singles chart in 1956, Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” b/w “Hound Dog” had racked up 11 weeks at #1. “End Of The Road” ended that record.

Was “End Of The Road” bigger than “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog”? It’s not really a question worth asking. Between 1956 and 1992, the rules of the game had definitively shifted. We’re talking about two different worlds here. I wasn’t alive when “Don’t Be Cruel” was out, but I was there for “End Of The Road,” and I can tell you definitively that “End Of The Road” was a big fucking deal. Maybe the numbers were inflated, but people really loved that song. People still really love that song.

A year before “End Of The Road,” Boyz II Men had ridden the new jack swing wave to stardom. On a sticker that adorned the cover of their 1990 debut album Poison, Boyz II Men’s mentors Bel Biv DeVoe had laid out the way that they wanted to be understood: “Our music is mentally hip-hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop feel appeal to it.” At first, that’s how Boyz II Men presented themselves, too. They were R&B singers who made streamlined pop songs that borrowed at least some of their approach from rap music. But by the time “End Of The Road” destroyed long-held Billboard records, Boyz II Men had made it clear that they were something else. They were an updated version of the classic Philly-soul vocal group — gnashing, howling maximalist ballad-wailers could pull off the kinds of histrionic runs that Mariah Carey had brought to the pop mainstream with “Vision Of Love.”

Boyz II Men started off in the mid-’80s, when all the members of the group were teenagers. The group began as two kids, Nathan Morris and Marc Nelson, who were close friends and who both went to the Philadelphia High School For The Creative And Performing Arts. The lineup kept shifting around, but all of the kids who joined the group, which started out under the name Unique Attraction, sang in the school’s choir. Unique Attraction sang together all the time. They harmonized in bathrooms, figuring that bathrooms had the best acoustics, and they eventually settled on a stable five-man lineup. Finally, they renamed themselves after “Boys To Men,” a song that New Edition released in 1988.

In 1989, the young members of Boyz II Men snuck backstage at a show that the local radio station Power 99 had sponsored. Nathan Morris, one of the boyz, knew Charlie Mack, the bodyguard who DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince immortalized on a 1988 song. Mack had promised to introduce the group to local rap hero Will Smith, a man who will eventually appear in this column. But Mack wasn’t at the venue when Boyz II Men arrived, so they snuck backstage. There, they came across Bel Biv DeVoe, the trio of former New Edition members that had formed that year, after New Edition’s breakup. (Bel Biv DeVoe’s two highest-charting singles, 1990’s “Poison” and “Do Me!,” both peaked at #3. “Poison” is a 9, and “Do Me” is an 8.) On the spot, Boyz II Men sang New Edition’s 1988 song “Can You Stand The Rain” to these former New Edition members. (“Can You Stand The Rain” peaked at #44.)

Michael Bivins, the Biv of Bel Biv DeVoe, was impressed enough to give Boyz II Men his phone number. Later, he became their manager, and he got them signed to Motown. Bivins’ initial idea was to promote Boyz II Men as part of a new wave of groups that he was presenting. Along with Bel Biv DeVoe and the Atlanta kiddie-rap group Another Bad Creation, Boyz II Men would become a part of what Bivins called the East Coast Family. (ABC’s highest-charting single, 1991’s “Iesha,” peaked at #9. It’s a 6.) Bivins teamed Boyz II Men up with the ascendant producer Dallas Austin, who worked on most of the tracks from their 1991 debut album Cooleyhighharmony. While they were getting ready to record the LP, co-founder Marc Nelson left Boyz II Men, and the group carried on as a quartet. (Later on, Nelson would join Az Yet. Az Yet’s highest-charting single, their 1997 cover of Chicago’s “Hard To Say I’m Sorry,” peaked at #8. It’s a 5.)

Michael Bivins co-wrote Boyz II Men’s debut single “Motownphilly,” telling the group’s whole fairytale origin story on the song’s bridge. “Motownphilly” is one of the most perfect pieces of music that came out of the new jack swing era — a giddy and incandescent mission statement from a group that was immediately ready to take over the world. It worked, too. “Motownphilly” was a smash. (“Motownphilly” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.)

Boyz II Men followed “Motownphilly” with an even bigger hit. GC Cameron, a former member of the Spinners, had sung the original version of the weepy ballad “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” on the soundtrack of the 1975 coming-of-age film Cooley High, a beloved classic in a whole lot of Black households. Cameron’s version of “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” was a minor R&B hit that missed the Hot 100 entirely. Boyz II Men’s cover of the song, hypercharged by those ultra-clean harmonies, sailed all the way to #2. (It’s a 7.)

“Motownphilly” might’ve been the song that introduced Boyz II Men to the world, but “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” really spelled out what would send the group to supernova status. Boyz II Men were a crucial bridge between the Philly soul of the ’70s and the bright, noisy boy-band era of the late ’90s. The group took a ton of obvious inspiration from New Edition, but they were cleaner and churchier — almost nerdy in their pursuit of pristine and pyrotechnic harmony. There was no bad-boy member of Boyz II Men. They made bright, squeaky family entertainment. I got a cassette copy of Cooleyhighharmony for Christmas in 1991, and I remember being disappointed that it didn’t have more fast songs. “Motownphilly” aside, fast songs weren’t really part of the Boyz II Men equation. They were born balladeers.

In the spring of 1992, when Boyz II Men joined MC Hammer’s massive 2 Legit 2 Quit tour, Cooleyhighharmony was already quadruple platinum; it would go on to sell nine million copies in the US alone. That tour was a vast and ambitious trek, and by the time it was over, many of the opening acts — Boyz II Men, TLC, Jodeci — would be stars. During that tour, some big things happened to Boyz II Men. In Chicago, their tour manager Khalil Roundtree was shot and killed in a hotel robbery — a foundational trauma for the group. On a much happier note, Boyz II Men were offered “End Of The Road,” a new song written for the soundtrack of the Eddie Murphy vehicle Boomerang.

Boomerang, man. What a fun movie. In a lot of ways, Boomerang is a pretty standard romantic comedy, with Murphy as an incorrigible playboy asshole who finally learns what it means to be used for sex and then what it means to fall in love. Murphy’s character is awful, but his charm is on full blast, and he ends up way more likable than he should be. But Boomerang is also notable because all of its characters are successful Black businesspeople with great clothes and unbelievable apartments. Underneath all the silliness, there’s a real aspirational sensibility at work. The characters in the film deal with racism, but to them, it’s mostly a petty annoyance. They’re too smart, too sexy, and too charismatic to be held down. You can see why many, many people would want to live in that world. Boomerang was a moderate hit in theaters, but it stayed in heavy rotation on BET for so long that the network eventually adapted it into a TV show.

The Boomerang cast is insane. The film has Halle Berry as the attainable girl-next-door competitor to Robin Givens’ gorgeous maneater. In retrospect, it’s crazy to think of Berry as any kind of attainable, but the movie turned her into a star. It’s also got David Alan Grier, at his In Living Color peak, and ascendant future stars like Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock, and Tisha Campbell giving memorable turns. Murphy made sure to keep that whole cast Black. Plenty of the behind-the-scenes figures were Black too. The director was Reginald Hudlin, fresh off of House Party, while jazz veteran Marcus Miller composed the score, and the R&B super-team of Babyface and LA Reid assembled the soundtrack.

By 1992, Babyface and LA Reid had been making hits for years, though they only had one pop chart-topper, Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” Their Boomerang soundtrack is full of early-’90s R&B stars like Aaron Hall and Johnny Gill — artists sleek enough to fit the film’s extremely early-’90s aesthetic. Toni Braxton, a singer who will eventually appear in this column, got her big break when she made a couple of appearances on the album. Babyface and LA Reid oversaw the whole thing, and they also wrote and produced nearly every song.

Babyface and LA Reid co-wrote “End Of The Road” with Daryl Simmons, a guy who’d been friends with Babyface since middle school and who’d played alongside Babyface in the Indianapolis funk band Manchild in the ’70s. When they came up with their “End Of The Road” lyrics, both Babyface and Simmons were going through divorces, and they put those feelings into the song. Babyface thought about keeping “End Of The Road” for himself, but he ultimately figured that Boyz II Men could take the song further than he could.

Boyz II Men were in the middle of touring when they recorded “End Of The Road,” and they laid down all their vocals in a tight three-hour window. Group member Wanya Morris was losing his voice from being on the road, so he stood apart from the microphone to sing it as loud as he could. On the song, all the members of the group trade off lead vocals, even though the song seems to have a single narrator, a guy who can’t accept the idea that his relationship is over. The song has a slick, slow instrumental that explicitly recalls at least one Philly soul classic. Whether or not the songwriters were conscious of it, the instrumental melody of “End Of The Road” sounds a whole lot like the one on “Love Don’t Love Nobody,” a song that former Number Ones artists the Spinners took to #15 in 1974.

“End Of The Road” is a huge vocal showcase for all four members of Boyz II Men. They all sound like they’re falling to pieces, ripping out their hair and clawing at their skin. The chorus melody is simple and resonant, and its lyrics are almost obsessive in their denial: “It’s unnatural/ You belong to me/ I belong to you.” Because the melody is so elemental and the backing track is so spare, the singers in Boyz II Men all get chances to take off on wild, twisty runs. There is very little holding back on “End Of The Road.” Instead, the singers in Boyz II Men use it as an opportunity to show off — something that they can do without violating the song’s heartbroken melodrama. It’s almost like the song is too sad for any one singer; they have to keep trading off because it’s the only way that they can get the feelings out.

The narrator of “End Of The Road” feels angry and betrayed, but he’s also needy. He’s unwilling to let things die, even though things are already good and dead. On the spoken-word bridge — a total Philly-soul touch — the bass singer Mike McCary finally lays out the song’s whole storyline. McCary is the smoothest and sexiest member of the group, the one who never comes off nerdy, and so it’s almost shocking to hear him admit that this girl has cheated on him but that he’s already forgiven her: “All those times at night when you just hurt me and just ran out with that other fella, baby, I knew about it. I just didn’t care.” It’s almost uncomfortable in its vulnerability. I want to yell at this guy, to tell him that he’s better off and that he needs to find someone who actually wants to be with him. But maybe that central weakness makes the song more relatable — an anthem for the doormats who don’t often get anthems.

The version of “End Of The Road” on the Boomerang soundtrack album is nearly six minutes long, which is way too long. In the four-minute single edit, though, that spoken-word bridge leads right into the a cappella outro, where those voices just cascade over fingersnaps. It’s beautiful — a wounded elegy for a toxic situation. Songs about healthy relationships rarely hit that hard. Over time, “End Of The Road” lost its specificity and became a song about pure nostalgia — the kind of thing that gets played at graduations. People make fun of that phenomenon, but if the feeling of a song transcends its own lyrics, that can be magical.

“End Of The Road” marked a moment of absolute dominance for the team of Babyface and LA Reid. The duo had launched their Arista imprint LaFace in 1989, and they’d signed the Atlanta girl group TLC in 1991. TLC were on that MC Hammer tour with Boyz II Men. When “End Of The Road” was at #1, TLC’s single “Baby-Baby-Baby” — which, like “End Of The Road,” was written and produced by the team of Babyface, Reid, and Daryl Simmons — spent six weeks at #2. (It’s a 7.) On the charts, that tour’s opening acts were handily outshining the headliner. That’s one songwriting and production duo holding the top two spots on the Hot 100 at the same time. That’s dominance.

Babyface and LA Reid will appear in this column again. So will Boyz II Men. “End Of The Road” would’ve been a crowning achievement for any other act, but Boyz II Men were just getting started. “End Of The Road” wouldn’t hold the record for longest-reigning #1 hit for too long. It wouldn’t be Boyz II Men’s biggest hit, either.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: The inevitable 1993 In Living Color parody of “End Of The Road” seizes on the song’s most stalker-y aspects. Taking on the spoken-word bridge, Boomerang star David Alan Grier plays the lead singer of Boyz II Wimps as a pathetic, unhinged ex. Here’s that sketch:

(As lead artist, standout backup singer Jamie Foxx’s highest-charting single is the 2009 T-Pain collab “Blame It,” which peaked at #2. It’s an 8. As a guest singer, Jamie Foxx will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: On a much more benign note, “End Of The Road” also appeared in the 1993 finale of A Different World. Here’s the whole cast singing the song together:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On her 1994 album Just For You, former Number Ones artist Gladys Knight included a 12-minute live track where she told the crowd that she wanted to take music back to a simpler time. She then sang a medley of Philly soul classics, including the Spinners’ “Love Don’t Love Nobody,” before turning it into “End Of The Road.” It’s a hell of a performance. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Me First And The Gimme Gimmes’ 2003 pop-punk version of “End Of The Road” goes full Dead Milkmen on the spoken-word bridge. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from the 2014 film Muppets Most Wanted where gulag prisoners Ray Liotta, Jermaine Clement, Danny Trejo, and Hornswoggle briefly sing “End Of The Road” together:

(Kermit The Frog’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “Rainbow Connection,” peaked at #25.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Patty Smyth and Don Henley’s heart-crushed duet “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough,” a song as melodramatic as anything that Boyz II Men had to offer, peaked at #2 behind “End Of The Road.” It’s an 8.

THE 10S: House Of Pain’s squealing, rambunctious mook-rap opus “Jump Around” — a song allegedly recorded before Kris Kross made the similarly themed “Jump” — peaked at #3 behind “End Of The Road.” Pack it up, pack it in. Let me begin. I can to win. Battle me? That’s a 10.

P.M. Dawn’s gasping reverie “I’d Die Without You,” one of the few songs from the Boomerang soundtrack not written by Babyface and LA Reid, also peaked at #3 behind “End Of The Road.” I tend to dream it when I’m not sleeping. It’s a 10.

En Vogue’s stomping, snorting soul-rock howler “Free Your Mind” — one of the few “racism is bad” message-songs that draws real blood — peaked at #8 behind “End Of The Road.” (Since David Alan Grier can’t stop showing up in this particular column, it’s worth noting that he’s the sampled voice at the beginning of the song.) Why dispute it and waste its time? It’s a 10.

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