NEW YORK – Over the past two decades, New Edition (search) has managed to overcome the kind of obstacles that have sent other groups hurtling into "Whatever Happened To ..." territory.
They aced their transition from preteen bubblegum pop to adult R&B, survived the loss (and subsequent reappearance) of the dynamic Bobby Brown (search), endured lacklustre sales and flourished despite divergent career paths and stretches of inactivity.
Yet their latest comeback attempt may prove the most difficult one yet.
On Tuesday, Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill, Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell and Ronnie DeVoe released "One Love," their eighth album, after an eight-year layoff.
Although signed to P. Diddy's youth-oriented Bad Boy label, they've still got "old-school" stamped all over them. And that's part of the problem, especially in an R&B market dominated by young stars with a hip-hop bent. Already they've struggled -- the album's first single, Hot 2Nite, peaked at just No. 35 on Billboard's Top 100 R&B and Hip-Hop chart.
The Boston-bred group -- once again without Bobby Brown -- is well aware of the challenges. Sitting together in a Washington hotel conference room after a planned concert was scrapped due to technical issues, the men nod their heads in agreement when talking about the ruthlessness of today's market.
"We've been in the business for 20 years or more but we haven't been on radio consistently year after year. The game changes," said Bell.
Bivins is even more blunt: "They send you home early. I think this generation is a little more colder."
And DeVoe says a recent conversation with a young teen about her music favourites confirmed his worst fears.
"She said, 'Let me start with the people I don't like. 50 Cent -- he's played out.' How is 50 Cent played out? He only had one record! (But) it's like that across the board," he lamented.
Still, New Edition has reason to be hopeful. Their last record, 1996's Home Again, also came after an eight-year layoff - and sold more than two million copies. And their recent tour showed they still have an audience: At this summer's Essence Festival, where acts like Prince and Mary J. Blige were billed as the main draw, New Edition got one of the wildest receptions, as thirty-something women shrieked like teenagers and men in baggy jeans swayed to past hits like Can You Stand The Rain, Mr. Telephone Man, and Candy Girl.
"They have such a broad core audience," says producer Jimmy Jam, who along with partner Terry Lewis worked with the group on the new disc, which incorporates a bit of today's hip-hop sound along with the polished R&B grooves that New Edition fans have come to expect. "It really benefits them when they're coming out with a record that they have that fan base to draw upon."
"As far as their showmanship and the energy when they hit the screen and the stage ... they're like, professional," says another "One Love" producer, Stevie J. "Kids are going to get a chance to hear some classic sounds from an older R&B group."
"They have to reinvent themselves," he said. "It's going to happen."
Not that New Edition is exactly ancient: They're all in their mid to late 30s. "The crazy part about it is they're not older than most of the people that are in the game right now, it's just that they started so young," says P. Diddy.
New Edition was the '80s answer to The Jackson Five. With hits like Popcorn Love, they endeared themselves to R&B teenyboppers and helped rejuvenate the teen music scene, spawning imitators like fellow Boston natives New Kids on the Block. But unlike other teen groups, they managed to stick around past puberty, and even withstood personnel changes, including the loss of Brown in the late '80s (he briefly rejoined the group for 1996's Home Again album and tour) and the addition of Gill around the same time.
They also succeeded as separate entities - Tresvant and Gill both had solo successes, and Bell, Bivins and DeVoe had massive hits as a three-man group in the early 90s.
When all forces reunited in 1996 for Home Again, it seemed as if that success would continue unabated. But a contract dispute with their old label, MCA, grounded the act, and their separate careers also faltered.
Tresvant did religious touring plays to make money. DeVoe started a real estate business in Atlanta, Gill continued with his solo career, while Bivins and Bell took time off. But New Edition was never far from their minds.
"I was really doing what we had to do to get here," says Bivins, who also worked as a record executive and is credited with launching the career of Boyz II Men. "(I was) trying to figure out how to get the train moving. Keep putting pieces to the puzzle."
Eventually, they decided they needed to get in front of an audience - with or without a new album. They began touring off and on around 2000, though it was often a far cry from their arena-tour heydays - sometimes they performed in parks, at multiple-act oldiefests, or in smaller venues.
"When we're walking around the malls and just living our everyday personal lives, you hear, 'When are you guys coming back? We miss you guys,"' Tresvant said.
P. Diddy noticed that fan support and offered the group a deal. At the same time, the quintet was able to end their dispute with MCA, clearing the way for their move to Bad Boy.
(The group's own bad boy, Brown, is noticeably absent from this "reunion" disc, but all say the troubled star - who's been arrested on drug charges numerous times in the past decade - is welcome to return whenever he chooses.)
Although the P. Diddy connection has provided some prerelease hype, the group acknowledges the difficulties of capitalizing on it. Bivins said the market is so saturated with rap it's hard for any R&B act to get attention.
"If you look at a (radio) playlist ... out of the top 20 records they're playing, 15 of them are hip-hop. So there's no room for R&B, and it's not just us, it's everybody," he said.
But they still plan on getting on that list - even if it takes them a while to do it.
"We have a record out there now, we have president and a CEO that is passionate about the group," DeVoe said. "We're coming with a second single. You don't like that first one, we gonna shove another one down your throat. You'll like that one, then we're coming with another album."