By Terrance Turner
May 30, 2022
“The biggest misconception of me is that I really give a f–k what anybody feels.”
So begins the new A&E documentary on Bobby Brown. The quote embodies the unapologetic, in-your-face attitude of the singer, actor and reality star, but the documentary also shows a softer, more reflective side of the music star. “Lately I’ve been dreaming of my late son and my late daughter,” Brown says in a voiceover, referencing his son Landon and daughter Bobbi Christina.
“My life hasn’t been easy, finding ways to cope with the loss of so many individuals in my life,” he says. “I’m in prayer; I’m in therapy. It’s a new chapter in my life. Sobriety plays a major part. I fight hard everyday not to take that first drink. It’s paying off now, with a woman that totally adores me wants to see the best for me.”
“I’ve finally found happiness,” he said. “The healing part is being able to talk about being able to release it from your soul. Confession is definitely good for the soul. I believe in confessions.”
And he has a lot of them.
Brown grew up in the Orchard Park projects in Roxbury, an inner-city neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts. “I definitely looked up to my parents as role models. They loved each other with everything that they had. My parents made ends meet by any means necessary about those construction worker/gambler my mother was school teacher/dinner seller, drug dealer…she has a lot of hats.”
“Growing up in the ’70s in Boston — it’s the concrete jungle as they call it. But we made our own fun,” says Brown’s friend and bandmate Ricky Bell. But Boston was deeply segregated and sometimes violent. School busing was controversial and sometimes people would throw bottles against the bus.
“I was kicked out of every school that was in Roxbury,” Brown says, “so I had to be bussed. I was diagnosed with being bipolar at that time. I had to wear a helmet because I would bang my head against the wall of the bus. But as I grew up I realized I was hearing music in my head, he says. “Music was my lifeline.”
But there was also alcohol. “There was alcoholism in my household, yes. I had my first drink when I was 7 or 8 years old – just opened up my father’s beers and taking sips; it started that little thing inside of me that starts any alcoholic.”
“Police brutality was a major issue in Orchard Park,” Brown says. “It was a major issue in Roxbury, to be exact. There was an incident that happened where my mom ran downstairs and got into the middle of him trying to arrest these guys that were in front of my house. My mom was struck with a billy club by a police officer. That was definitely something that shocked me and that put me into a distrust and dislike for authority, the police. Didn’t trust them since that day.
My father was working when everything transpired and couldn’t be reached. After my mother was arrested I was sent into temporary custody by social services, which was supposed to be a religious place,” Brown says today. “But it wasn’t a very nice place to be for a child — and one of the priests tried to molest me.”
“There was no penetration or anything. But he touched my privates, and I didn’t like that,” he says. “I punched and kicked and punched some more, punched and kicked until he got away from me. So we ran away from there. I ran away from there as quickly as possible.”
And there were other traumatic incidents, too. Brown says he saw his friend Jimmy be stabbed to death when Bobby was 12 — stabbed in the heart over a bike, at a block party “I’ll never forget the look on his face, looking at me as he took his last breath.”
That moved Brown to get out of Roxbury. He didn’t want to be in the projects anymore. Brown formed a group with his childhood friends Ricky Bell and Michael Bivins. Ronnie DeVoe introduced them to Ralph Tresvant. That introduction led to the creation of New Edition.
The group formed as Brown was starting to make a name for himself at local break-dancing competitions. “I was dancing anywhere and everywhere there was people and music,” he said. “I battled a lot of people from different neighborhoods from my neighborhood.”
The group won a record contract in 1982, after performing at the local Hollywood Talent Night held at Boston’s Strand Theatre by singer/producer Maurice Starr. Though the group finished in second place (and therefore lost out on the $500 prize), Starr liked the group so much he offered them a record contract anyway. New Edition soon began recording their debut album — and the title track, “Candy Girl”, hit No. 1 on the R&B charts in May 1983. (They were rehearsing with choreographer Brook Payne when the group learned that their record “Candy girl” had gone to number one on the charts.)
Already, minor tensions were brewing within the group. “I thought I was the lead singer of New Edition for along time…until I heard Ralph’s voice,” Brown says. “Me and Ricky would fight over the other parts.” Sometimes those conflicts turned into actual scuffles.
But they had bigger problems than who was singing lead. They’d signed a bad contract that provided them little of the proceeds from their hard-earned money — and they had no idea. “The idea of someone ripping us off was the furthest thing from my mind,” Ricky Bell says in an interview. But that’s exactly what happened.
Touring became their livelihood. Brown reveals: “We were basically living off the monies from the tour. I started selling drugs because we weren’t making enough money.” Bell adds: “We practically lived on the road.” But after coming off the road from their nationwide tour, each member of the group got a check for just a dollar and 87 cents.
The group eventually broke away from Starr and signed with MCA Records. They began recording their self-titled second album,which topped the R&B charts and produced two No. 1 charts: “Cool It Now” and “Mr. Telephone Man”. But the success was marred by fights within the group and Brown’s rebellious behavior. AS 1984 turned into 1985, New Edition was starting to come apart at the seams.
The final straw was a concert in Oakland. As the group was ready to take their last bow, Brown launched into five minutes of ad-libs, while the rest of the group stood frozen in place. Finally, he just threw the mic in the air and left, one member recalls: “So the microphone landed between me and Ron, and he just walked off stage.” He came back in a robe and sat on the stage. Then he and member Michael Bivins came to blows during a subsequent number.
Bivins had a brief solo during one song, and he found it co-opted by Brown’s antics. “I waited all night for my little part,” he says — only to have Brown take the mic from him and start beatboxing. Bivins exploded, and he and Brown exchanged blows onstage. Then New Edition ended the concert without taking their final bow.
That was the end of Brown’s time with the group. Under mounting pressure from the record label and management — “it was being told to us at the label [that] he’s about to mess this up for all of us” — the group members voted Brown out of the group (a unanimous vote, one of them recalls). Brown felt betrayed. “I was hurt,” he recalls. “Because I had started the group, I didn’t feel no one had the right to vote me out.”
“We started working on the Don’t Be Cruel album. We needed to work with some new up and coming producers that had a new sound,” Brown says. “So we got with Teddy Riley and LA Reid and Babyface.
“When Bobby first met us,” I don’t think he was feeling us in the beginning,” Babyface says. “We had our glasses on, our suits on. He said, ‘Who are these Jokers?’… I knew Bobby wanted to be harder; he wanted to be relevant. He wanted to be hot.”
“I wanted to become funkier. I wanted my sound to be more in your face,” Brown says. With the grungy, funky bassline of “Don’t be Cruel”, he got his wish. Equally groovy — and lyrically provocative — was the self-penned “My Prerogative.” “‘Prerogative’ is a song that basically speaks to my being — who I am as a person,” Brown says.
Brown wrote the song himself, reflecting on his public image and feeling misunderstood. It brought together the hardness of hip-hop with the smooth melodies of R&B — exemplifying a style that became known as “new jack swing”. The move paid off: in addition to topping the R&B charts, “My Prerogative” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Don’t Be Cruel went multi-platinum and spent six weeks at number one…on the pop charts! Another single, “Every Little Step” won him a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
“When my solo albums went platinum and platinum and platinum and platinum and platinum and just keep going platinum, I did feel vindicated,” Brown says. “I felt f–king great.”
But he still had some scores to settle. By that point, New Edition had replaced Brown with Johnny Gill, a silken-voiced crooner who would soon score a monster solo hit with the new jack swing ditty “Rub You the Right Way”. When I came to New Edition, it was never to be able to replace Bobby, ’cause Bobby’s irreplaceable. At that moment Bob was on fire,” recalls Johnny Gill.
Brown’s success made him feel “vindicated”, he says. But he still resented his former bandmates after being kicked out of the group. And because he and New Edition were still on the same label, they crossed paths constantly. Their proximity increased in late 1988, when Bobby was scheduled as the opener for New Edition’s Heart Break tour. “We ended up on tour together,” Ricky Bell says on the heartbreak tour where he was opening for us. He was blowing up and he was kicking our ass,” Bell says. “Payback.”
Don’t Be Cruel was such a monster hit that by the time the tour ended in February 1989, Brown had become the headliner. “Before that tour was over, Bobby started opening that to end in that same tour he ended up closing it he ended up being the headliner,” says Babyface.
And he made sure his bandmates knew it. “This n—a walks out with a briefcase and he comes out. He got a cigar. He’s taking the microphone like, ‘Yeah, I got this money,’ and then throws the briefcase and throws his cigar,” Bivins says now. “Sometimes we had to step a little harder and go a little faster just to match the same energy,” remembers Ricky Bell.
“I felt that God had giving me everything that I asked for,” Brown says. “Don’t be Cruel’ blew up, man. I felt like I was on the top of the world. Being able to play in places that I couldn’t even pronounce. The crowds, man — the crowds. You can only probably live that one once in your lifetime…”
“Money was ginormous. I was bringing so much money and such a young age, my dad didn’t have to work anymore. My mom didn’t have to work anymore. I’d be driving down the street in the tour bus, see somebody in the car and I’d like the car. I’d pull the car over and buy the car and ride it throughout that city that day and just leave the car at the airport or at the hotel, pay $50-something thousand dollars for a car, and just leave it,” Brown says. Then, looking at the camera, he adds: “Wish I had those cars now.”
AJ Alexander, Brown’s former bodyguard, told a story about being at a mall with the singer, who observed a Black woman going into a glass figurine shop and the shopkeeper treating her poorly. “Bob ended up buying the store and giving it to the lady,” Alexander said in the doc. “He went back the next day and told the guy he was fired. ‘Yo, you fired. You work for her now.'”
Things were working for Bobby Brown — musically, financially, and sexually. There were women everywhere. “I was a sex addict,” he admits. He remembers partying with boxer Mike Tyson the night before a match between Tyson and Buster Douglas. “There were probably about two dozen women in the room,” Brown reveals.
One woman stood out. Brown briefly dated Janet Jackson, whom he’d had a crush on for some time. But the relationship floundered: “She couldn’t be with someone like me,” he says, saying that Janet’s father Joe Jackson didn’t approve of them dating. “Janet was the crush of my life,” he admits. “But I was about to meet the love of my life.”
At the 1989 Soul Train Awards, Brown met Whitney Houston. He was smitten. “It was something about her eyes that made me melt inside,” Brown says. “I asked her, ‘If I asked you to go out with me, would you say yeah?’ She said, ‘Yeah’. We went shopping in Beverly Hills. We had dinner at the Ivy. And then we just chilled the rest of the night.”
The two dated for three years, and they fell for each other…hard. “She was just the kindest, sweetest person that I knew.”
The two got engaged after three years. But the press was skeptical — and so were some family members. “Right before we got married, her dad wanted to see my bank stubs, just to see if I was legit,” Brown reveals. Houston had a pristine “princess” public image, and Brown was known as a raunchy, raw R&B grinder. The two were an odd couple in the eyes of outside observers, and Brown was bothered by the criticism. And there were other complications: before getting married, Brown told Houston that he’d fathered his son Bobby Brown, Jr. (who was born in November 1992).
Brown married Houston on July 18, 1992. Brown was terrified, so scared that he locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t come out. “I was scared, and I didn’t know if she loved me or not.” Ironically, it was Alicia Etheridge (Bobby’s now-wife!) who convinced him to come out and go to the ceremony.
It was a blissful time. “In those days, we weren’t getting high; we were all about business,” he remembers. Brown talked Houston into making her film debut in “The Bodyguard”. The film was an enormous success, and the soundtrack became one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, selling over 45 million copies worldwide. “I was so proud of her,” Brown says.
Amid the massive success of The Bodyguard, Brown and Houston welcomed their daughter Bobbi Kristina in March 1993. They were happy, devoted parents. There wasn’t a lot of heavy drug use in those early years. “In the beginning, it was very light,” Houston told Oprah in a 2009 interview. Brown agrees, saying: “We would take care of our daughter, and then we would party.” They were weekend partiers, he says.
During what Houston called “the Bodyguard years” — 1993, ’94, ’95 — things were more or less under control: Houston was growing as an actress, landing plum roles in the films Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife. But as 1995 turned into 1996, the pair began to unravel. The drug use escalated, and they became tabloid fodder.