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New Kids on the Block Week – Day 4: How Hangin’ Tough Hit It Big: An Interview with Charlie Walk

TO CELEBRATE THE RECENT RELEASE OF OUR 33 1/3 ON  HANGIN’ TOUGH, WE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE THIRD INSTALLMENT OF NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK WEEK BY AUTHOR REBECCA WALLWORK!

Something that surprised me in the research for my book on Hangin’ Tough was the notion that the album’s label, Columbia (part of what was then CBS Records), may not have been 100% supportive of the group—even after they hit it big.

Clearly, it took a village of folks at the label to promote and take care of the business of selling New Kids records, but one of the biggest reasons they became so successful was their tireless work on the road. Which was driven by the New Kids then-manager Dick Scott, and others on their team, including John Dukakis (who worked for Bob Woolf, the group’s business manager) and Jerry Ade, their booking agent. It was Ade who told me that the label “did what they had to do but [the New Kids] didn’t get the overwhelming feeling of support and love that the label gave to other artists; ones that never made half the amount of money, or had one-tenth the amount of worldwide recognition that these kids got on on their own.” I asked him if he thought it was because New Kids weren’t cool enough.

“Yeah! 100%” he replied. “They weren’t cool enough for the record company.”

Cool or not, the New Kids sold millions of records for CBS, and on the team promoting them on the ground was none other than Charlie Walk – who is today President of the Republic Group (part of Universal Music Group). As an EVP at Republic, Walk launched Ariana Grande and The Weeknd, and was responsible for the promotion of mega-hits like “Royals” by Lorde and “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift.

But those are just the recent accomplishments. Walk was also president of Epic and had a long career at Sony Music, where he worked his way up to the head of promotions after starting out as a college marketing rep while attending Boston University. It was during that time that Walk worked on promoting a still-green New Kids on the Block.

His recollections of how the group got off the ground make for an astute case study of the music business and of pop appetites in 1988-89. When I called him at his office at Republic in the fall of 2014, he picked up and immediately launched into singing the chorus of “Hangin’ Tough.” I proceeded to ask Walk the question I posed to everyone I interviewed for the book: what made this record such a colossal hit?

Charlie Walk:  I think that it was a perfect storm. Five handpicked soldiers from Boston, all with unique characteristics—combined with the great producer who made the record and picked the guys out. Who kept them in Boston, worked them in Boston. It was all textbook if you look back.  But at that time, what Maurice did along with Dick Scott? It was very, very strategic. Handpicking each kid, handpicking the songs. The way they looked, the way they were presented, their movement.

I remember the humble beginnings. Picking up Donnie Wahlberg at his house and his brothers all being there.  I remember in the beginning when no one cared and we all operated on instinct. I remember being at 9 Lansdowne Street in Boston: every week they would do these shows with mothers and their daughters [in the audience] and soda pop and popcorn. We helped build this brand over a period of time in the region.

Clearly there was a gap in the market. There hadn’t been a boy band that really broke since the Beatles. Here were these white kids with R&B/soul embedded in them. So, the mothers could relate, the little girls could relate and the music was great. You have those three components, combined with great performance and really truly trained, unique individuals that made up the New Kids. Timing is everything and at that particular moment in time there was a thirst and a need. Show me a group with young handsome boys with great songs, I’ll show you a bunch of girls that are always going to want them.

Also, at that time it was a community. They were breaking out of a community. It wasn’t the national platform per se. It was local radio which they broke from. There was no satellite radio and social media and Yahoo! and digital and YouTube. It was local radio and the story spread organically, market by market. They were a local Boston band that broke from Boston.

We watched it all happen over a period of time. From the small clubs of Boston, where they started to play for couple of hundred kids, the moms and the daughters, and then two years later they were doing three nights in a row in stadiums for 80,000 kids every night.

These songs were great songs, clearly. “Please Don’t Go Girl”—great song. It was great pop and they were songs you hadn’t really heard before. It was a unique time. It started the whole boy band movement. Maurice [Starr; the album’s producer] captured a moment and found a new sound, which was really an old sound, and added this R&B approach for a young generation.

I go back to that period many times because if you think the world thought they were ready for New Kids or believed in New Kids… no one did. No one knew what to do with them at the label at that time. It was an unproven thing, a boy band. It wasn’t even called a boy band at the time. Five kids. They defined boy band.

When you have an instinct on something — when you see that a small group, a small sample, is creating a frenzy in a local market place, it usually means that somebody likes it. And it can grow on a wide scale. So you act upon it accordingly. And that’s what we did with New Kids on the Block.

The minute kids in Boston started playing their record, all hell broke loose. From there it was just a process. They became a phenomenon in Boston after building their brand by playing every week at the clubs. Then the radio station hit with the first single and the public reacted in such a massive way. From there it was just a process of spreading that from market to market. And that’s exactly what happened. They established such a great base and loyal following over the years and the residuals of that are forever lasting.

And then New Kids on the Block led to the Backstreet Boys led to ’NSYNC led to One Direction. They coined the phrase “boy band” and the rest is history. That’s in pop culture forever. That’s how big it was. And the residuals of how big they were are clear in their touring stats today.

To me, their story is still surreal and inspiring. They became an American icon. When you are in the moment you don’t realize it. When you are out of the moment you look back and you go, “Wow.” It was a moment of pop culture I’ll never forget.

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