Michael and Prince were my childhood heroes, but the guys from New Edition were perhaps more impactful because they were within striking distance of my age. For me, and I’d imagine for quite a few black boys and teens, their existence was aspirational. Michael and Prince were pretty extra-terrestrials. Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky, Mike, Ralph and Johnny were the fellas from up the street. They had an attainable cool.
New Edition became known as a cute teen group that I can’t imagine anyone took seriously, because groups that are considered prefabricated and teen-leaning generally don’t last once their fans grow up. What the fellas did right, and what turned them from a teen sensation into legends, is that they grew up with their fans.
N.E. took a lesson from a contemporary of theirs, Janet Jackson. The singer/actress-who shares a birth day and year with N.E. lead singer Ralph Tresvant-transformed her career with 1986′s Control, an album that was produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Over the course of one album cycle, Janet transformed herself from Michael’s cute little sister to a badass queen of pop radio and music video.
New Edition found themselves in need of a similar reinvention right around the time Janet was lighting up the charts. Founding member Bobby Brown was ejected from the group’s lineup, and Tresvant (Brown’s best friend) was considering breaking out to make a solo record. As an insurance plan, the other three members of New Edition (later to be known as Bell Biv DeVoe…more on them later) hired Washington D.C.’s Johnny Gill as a potential replacement for Tresvant. Gill boasted a chesty baritone that drew comparisons to Teddy Pendergrass and felt older than his tender age. By the time he joined N.E. in 1987, he’d enjoyed a few minor hits on his own, but his addition to the group raised his profile while giving the fellas an instantly grown-up appeal.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were brought in to save a group on the edge of ruin, and they did a commendable job. 1988′s Heart Break is a seminal New Jack Swing album, even if it was overshadowed by the mind-blowing success of former member Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel LP. “Can You Stand The Rain”, released as the album’s third single, is one of only two songs to boast a lead vocal from Johnny, and stands as the best-loved song from New Edition’s “adult” era. The song is dope. The video is dope. Even the single cover is dope.
Jam & Lewis created a sensitive, mellow groove. They wrote lyrics that were mature and universal; asking a time-honored question: do you love me enough to withstand the trials and tribulations of a relationship? Everyone loves sunny days, but can you stand the rain? Johnny brings a world-weary presence to the song, acting as a counterpoint to Ralph’s boyish voice in the pre-chorus. Ricky Bell adds a falsetto breakdown in the middle, and the rest is magic.
“Can You Stand The Rain” stood out from the songs on Heart Break pretty much immediately. Along with the album’s last track, “Boys To Men”, “Rain” got burn on urban radio months before it was a single. When released as a stand-alone track, it became New Edition’s fourth #1 and their first in nearly four years. Because pop radio was still operating under something of an apartheid regime, “Rain” narrowly missed the pop top 40.
When “Can You Stand The Rain” topped the charts, I was 12, and highly sensitive. There was something in the lyric and performance that hit me in my heart. I spent a lot of time in my teenage years (and adult years) listening to this song with a tear in my eye. Most recently, I played it towards the end of my radio show and got the chills all over again. It says a lot about a song if it provides such a visceral emotional reaction thirty years after its release, doesn’t it?
“Can You Stand The Rain” is the song that turned N.E. into my generation’s Temptations.