THE PATHS OF THE FOUR Dorchester boys who would become the New Kids on the Block — brothers Jon and Jordan Knight, Donnie Wahlberg, and Danny Wood — crossed at Roxbury’s Trotter Elementary School in the 1970s and early 1980s, although they were spread across different classes. (The fifth member, Joe McIntyre, was from Jamaica Plain.) Danny has fond memories of his time at Trotter. “Outside of school it was a very controversial time, because busing started when Donnie and I went into first grade. We were surrounded by chaos, but in school it was amazing. We didn’t feel all that. Everyone was open to being around everyone else.” For Donnie, being bused outside to Roxbury was a gift of sorts. “We lived in a racially diverse neighborhood, but on my street, it was mainly all white kids. In the white neighborhoods, we weren’t really allowed to dream. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m gonna be famous one day.’ That would get you punched in the face. But in school, it was OK to talk like that and think like that.”
MARLENE PUTMAN says of her son Jordan, “I remember him going downtown and around the corner with his cardboard and break dancing. He would go into the subways and sing when he was really young. There were times I was concerned for his safety, but he was so darn charmed, he just got around the city smoothly. He was a young teenager and thought he knew everything. But he was fine. And his sense of confidence just allowed me to relax.”
MEANWHILE, Donnie and Danny were busy building up a repertoire of their own. According to Donnie, “Me and Danny used to do rap performances and shows. I would write rap routines for Danny and me. In ninth grade, Danny and I used to go to the Catholic school dances every Friday night. We would be the two hip-hop guys, and they’d be like, ‘Where did these guys come from?’ In those neighborhoods, the guys didn’t dare do anything like that. That wasn’t cool. But me and Danny came in and turned the place upside down. There’d be a big circle, and we’d be break dancing in the middle of it, and all the girls loved us. One time my brother Paul was in culinary school. I saw his white double-breasted jacket and was like, ‘Yo! Can me and Danny borrow one of those each?’ And we made outfits. We had white gloves and the white culinary jackets.”
AS THE GUYS were immersed in high school, over in Roxbury, producer Larry Johnson — more widely known as Maurice Starr — had just been ousted from pop group New Edition and had turned his attention to other projects. One of his ideas was to work with a group of kids like New Edition, only this time he envisioned a white band. In an effort to identify just the right kids, Maurice called in talent agent Mary Alford, who was previously involved with R & B acts such as Rick James. In July 1984, then 14-year-old Donnie had caught the attention of Mary through his frequent performances around Dorchester. She persuaded him to audition for Maurice.
AFTER PERFORMING for Maurice, Donnie and his brother Mark were immediately asked to join, while Donnie’s two friends were dismissed. And, thus, the music group Nynuk (a meaningless name Maurice pulled out of thin air) was officially born. Though the Wahlberg brothers started taking singing lessons at the house of Soni Jonzun, one of Maurice’s brothers, and recording songs, it wasn’t exactly the most organized endeavor. Maurice slipped in and out of the picture. Donnie remembers: “We’d go every weekend to Maurice’s house, and he would never show up. [Maurice] was just out screwing around playing basketball.” In time, Mark started to drift away. Maurice and Donnie pressed forward, writing and recording songs. After laying down four tracks, one day Maurice turned to Donnie and said, “You gotta find some other guys now.” With this, Donnie began the process of rebuilding, using his schoolmates and neighborhood circle as a talent pool.
NYNUK HAD ONE of its first major lessons in dealing with adversity onstage while playing a show at the Franklin Park Kite Festival hosted by a local radio station. Thousands of rowdy fans packed the park as a series of bands played. In attendance that day, Donnie’s mom, Alma Wahlberg, remembers, “I almost had a heart attack. It was just a lot of people. A lot of people.”
As Nynuk came onstage, audience members started throwing some of the 45 records that had been handed out that day. “Somebody threw a record, and it cut Danny,” Alma says. “The bodyguards are grabbing the kids off the stage and making them go in the car. Donnie kept saying, ‘No! No! We’re here. We’re going on.’ ”
What compelled the band to get back onstage? Donnie says: “The records was flying. The security guards dragged us offstage, and the song kept playing. The crowd was laughing because the song kept playing and the voices were on the tape and we were singing. The mikes were on. There was, like, 10,000 people. But my classmate Cristin, who I’d been going to school with since first grade, was standing dead center in the front row looking at me. And Danny knew her, too. The minute they pulled me offstage, all I thought was ‘Cristin’s gonna tell everyone in school what happened. I can’t let this happen.’ And I ducked under the security guard and I ran back onstage, and I looked back and said, ‘Come on!’ and all the other guys came back onstage.”
Alma remembers watching the crowd turn around once the guys reemerged and continued performing. “They all started clapping and yelling for them. . . . As scared as I was, that was the right thing to do, and I knew it.”
Donnie says: “In those times, when race relations were so tense in Boston, you couldn’t drop another white kid in Franklin Park at the Kite Festival and expect them to perform in front of 10,000 black people. They would’ve ran. We were like, ‘This is awesome.’ We loved it. We thrived on it. . . . Going back onstage was simply about us believing in ourselves and wanting to stand our ground.”
SOME OF THE BAND’S shows in the mid-’80s occurred at unlikely places, from retirement homes to a prison where one of Donnie’s brothers was incarcerated. The group was clever enough to adapt to each audience by pulling tricks out of its sleeves, such as tossing cigarettes to the inmates. “I just knew prisoners loved cigarettes, and I also figured it’s the only way we wouldn’t get humiliated,” Donnie says. “When we threw those packs of cigarettes out, that’s it. We were heroes. The whole prison was going crazy. Any movie you’ve seen with a prison or, like, Marilyn Monroe singing at the USO, it was like that. Except we were boys singing at a man’s prison.”
IN 1987, Danny, Donnie, and Jordan all worked summer jobs in downtown Boston. Donnie remembers: “Danny and me worked in the Shawmut Bank building, and Jordan worked right across the street in the mailroom in some other bank building. We’d take the subway into work in the morning, we’d meet for lunch, and then we’d probably go to Maurice’s house at night after that. From the summer of ’87 on, we were together all the time. We were with Maurice or we’d go ride around and play basketball together. We’d go try to pick up girls together. Everything we did all day was related to the group.”
“PLEASE DON’T GO GIRL” was released as the lead single to the group’s second album, Hangin’ Tough, on April 16, 1988. The song was distributed to black stations, utilizing the same marketing strategy put in place for the 1986 debut album, New Kids on the Block, which reflected the band’s new name.
In conjunction with the single, the band recorded a low-budget music video, which was released to BET (Black Entertainment Television). The video featured a very young-looking Joe, with the four other guys in tow, holding a yellow flower and imploring a significantly older woman not to leave him. The video was recorded on a frigid winter day, which is apparent by the group’s red faces. “It was downright freezing that day; it was really bad,” Jordan says. “That video was so whack. But you gotta start somewhere.” Maurice fronted the $9,000 needed to film the video — a lot of money for him to come up with.
ASK ALMOST ANY MEMBER of NKOTB about his standout memory of those earlier days, and he will cite the group’s first Apollo Theater appearance in the spring of 1988. Located in Harlem, the landmark theater attracted a primarily black audience that was infamous for being unforgiving, frequently driving performers offstage. Of the anticipation leading up to it, Donnie says: “We weren’t terrified that we were white and no one was going to like us because we were white. We kinda figured when these five white kids walk out onstage they’re gonna think we’ll sing like a barbershop quartet. Then we’d start dancing and going crazy. I think by that point, we were aware that it was an asset. But there in the Apollo Theater, it was like ‘We can’t fail. We can’t be booed. This could be the end of us.’ ”
Looking back on their performance of “Please Don’t Go Girl” and “The Right Stuff” that night, Jon says, “I think that was the scariest show I ever did. It was just nerve-racking.” Back then, before boy bands and crossover music, NKOTB was a novelty for the Apollo crowd. As a testament to the audience’s wonderment, Jon remembers that in the middle of the performance “they started shouting, ‘Go, white boys! Go, white boys!’ It was just like ‘What the hell is happening?’ ” Danny recalls that night as a big turning point: “The moment for me when I knew it was going to happen was when we did the Apollo and got a standing ovation. That was pretty big.”
Joe’s proud father, Tom McIntyre, remembers watching the boys perform that night. “I was there with my daughter Judy, and Alma and Marlene. We were the only Irish people there. There was a break, and I went downstairs and smoked my cigar. I said to myself as I was smoking my cigar, ‘Jesus, if these guys at Amrheins could see me now.’ . . . The Apollo is the first thing they did with any kind of notoriety. They knocked ’em dead. It was marvelous.”
ON THE EVENING OF JULY 19, 1988, the five guys (along with a slim road crew) gathered outside Maurice’s house, ready to board their bus and embark on their first national tour, as pop singer Tiffany’s opening act. While Jordan and Donnie had recently finished high school, Joe was still only 15 and in between his freshman and sophomore years. As the guys boarded the bus, a small group of family, friends, and “fans” bid them farewell. “I was crying,” Jordan says. “I think it was mainly over my girlfriend. All our friends were there, and they were hugging us. We were going off on tour. There were three girls waving us off — they were fans-slash-friends-slash-neighborhood girls.”
Tom McIntyre remembers seeing off his son and the other New Kids. “They left in a bus that would be lucky to get to Copley Square,” he says, “let alone wherever they were going.” Jon and Jordan’s mother, Marlene Putnam, recalls that night as a moment of stirrings that bigger things were afoot. “The boys went on the tour bus with care packages from the parents,” she says. “We were there to say goodbye, and the bus rode off. Off they went to become famous. They were going off, as far as we were concerned, to be an opening act for Tiffany. Wasn’t this great? But that was really their first big bus ride off into stardom.”