At the end of the 1980s, Jive Records asserted itself as the new home for popular hip-hop recording acts. As a result, they turned their attention to signing fresh R&B talent to their ever growing roster.
During this juncture, there was a transition happening with younger R&B groups where various group members were exploring a solo terrain. This left a void in the contemporary R&B marketplace for a youthful singing group.
The opportunity to capitalize on this void was made available and Jive Records seized the opportunity by signing Hi-Five – who released their self-titled debut album, Hi-Five, in 1990.
Hi-Five became the first R&B act to release an album from the record label. Under the tutelage of their hometown producer, William Walton, Hi-Five ultimately became one of the most popular young R&B acts from the early 1990s. Walton clearly saw something in the five young vocalists, ages ranging from 15-16. The group failed to disappoint with their debut offering and left quite the impression on music charts and fans alike.
This album would introduce the group as a clear alternative from the other R&B groups on the music charts. Their style of rhythm and blues was an offspring of New Jack Swing movement sweeping the industry and the songs captured the youthful exuberance of the ensemble.
Each of the 11 songs on the album highlighted the five part harmonies of lead singer Tony Thompson, Marcus Sanders, Toriano Easley, Roderick “Pooh” Clark, and Russell Neal. It would also showcase the production talents of the great Teddy Riley, Eric Foster White, up and coming producers Carl Bourelly, Jean-Paul Bourelly, Bernard Bell and William Walton. All of these elements proved to be fruitful once the album hit stores in 1990.
As the story goes, the group was formed originally as a trio in Waco, Texas, but later formed as a quintet after being denied a recording contract. It would be here where they would obtain the name for their group. Upon receiving a record deal from Jive Records, Hi-Five began their trek to become one of the highest selling groups during the years of 1990 into 1991.
Between the months of February 1990-August 1990, Hi-Five was recorded at various studios in Waco, Texas and New York, New York.
SoulCulture recently sat down with singer Marcus Sanders to discuss the making of his group’s debut album.
Sanders recalls how the group was formed in his hometown.
“The forming of the group began with a guy named William Walton from Waco, Texas,” says Sanders. “He wrote and produced songs for his group that competed against Tony [Thompson] in the earlier talent shows in 1984 and 1985. So Tony and he had history together. He recognized Tony’s talent so when he got his record deal he reached back to Tony. They decided they wanted to put a group together. He chose us from the people we knew and the ones we grew up with. It was definitely centered on Tony’s talent for sure.
“We talked more about forming the group in 1988, but in 1989 we started making moves to actually form the group. This is when we all came to Waco to record our demo. Four of us were already here in Waco though. Toriano grew up with Tony in Oklahoma and sang with him there and that’s how he was chosen to be in the group. Toriano came to Waco to record the demo with the rest of us and we sent it with William Walton when he went to New York. This is how everything started.
“Initially, they put together the group with only three members. To my understanding, I wasn’t one of the original three, but the record company wasn’t feeling their vibe. They came back to Waco to regroup and they added two new members, which was Roderick and myself. This became the final lineup.
“I think the reason they went with three members initially was because it was based off of William Walton’s group, which had three members at the time. The original name for the group was Ador’. They signed to Jive before we did. They recorded an album, but something fell through with his group and we just filled the void. They were the first R&B group Jive Records ever signed, but we were the first R&B group to release a record from Jive.”
Sanders reveals how instrumental William Walton was in forming the group.
“It’s sad that he didn’t get recognized the way he should’ve for bringing the group together,” says Sanders. “William Walton really took the time to develop me as a singer so I spent a lot of time with him learning what he knew from being in the studio. I watched how he got things done and he was an awesome guy. He didn’t even live long. He passed away at the age of 25. He enjoyed some of the success with us until the Lord took him home.”
Sanders talks about the relationship that existed between the group and the producers for the album.
“We worked with a lot of different producers,” says Sanders. “Tony was just such a great vocalist that it seemed like to me they were inspired to work with him and help him get his talent out there. For the most part, I think it went well by giving him lyrics and the producers saying to him to put his melody to the lyrics. Due to us working with so many producers, it opened many avenues for us.
We really didn’t have a direction per se. The thing is, William Walton was writing and producing most of the music at the time. So a lot of it came from his sound so when Tony was able to work with these different producers he learned how to use his voice in different ways. As a group, we adjusted to that. We worked with some great writers like Eric Foster White and Dave from Teddy Riley’s camp. With those types of songs, all you have to do is sound good and you’re going to get it,” he laughs. “When we recorded Teddy’s music, it was like ‘WOW, wait until they hear this.’
The producers gave us the notes and the harmonies and we didn’t try to stray too far away from their instructions. It was a really exciting time for us because we were so young back then. It’s different when you’re actually there living it as opposed to reminiscing about what happened.”
Sanders recounts the studio atmosphere and how much of a factor it played in the group’s success.
“We developed a good vibe in the studio,” says Sanders. I keep mentioning Tony because we were always following his lead. If he was in a good vibe, then we could encourage him and bring the sounds out. There would be times where he wouldn’t be as comfortable in the beginning and you could tell he was unsure of things, but when you do it 30, 40 or 50 times you keep listening – then it’s like I can do this here and take this there and before you know it everyone is bobbing their heads uncontrollably.
Once we developed that chemistry with each other to be able to say ‘Yea, that sounds good, let’s take it here or there,’ we were able to create the songs. First, we would lay down the leads and it depended on Tony’s mood and how focused he was. Sometimes it would take us 18 to 20 hours to record a song and that was normal. It could take longer once we worked on the harmonies and tightened our vocals. Once we got our lead parts down, we would just build from there.
He continues. “I say this from my heart, I always felt like my vocals were the least strong out of the group. I looked up to all of the guys. I watched them develop their own personalities and how they portrayed themselves on stage. We had our own individuality, but we knew how to come together and represent the group when the time came. We spent countless hours working on our vocals in and out of the studio, but that’s what it took to keep us going. We rehearsed all of the time especially when we had our own band. We had a vocal coach with us on the road and we were singing daily.
“Being underage in the beginning we had to have chaperones. So when we recorded out of town we had to have chaperones around at all times. I remember we had to have a parent for each member of the group so the record company was paying for 10 people each time we went somewhere and that got expensive. The hours were pretty strict and contained in the beginning. We would record during the day hours, but there were times where we pull all nighters in the studio as well.”
Sanders remembers how the lead single “I Just Can’t Handle It” became a part of the album.
“I Just Can’t Handle It” was definitely one of Teddy’s tracks,” says Sanders. “It was like a blessing to us because we weren’t expecting anything to come from him. At that time, it was good energy. When Teddy played the track and we heard the lyrics for it, we were like this is what we need. We were really feeling it. When you were around Teddy, you had to give it 100%. His producers and writers had a vision in mind and we just followed their lead and made it work.”
“I Just Can’t Handle It” went on to peak at #10 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart.
The second single to be released from the album would be the classic, “I Like The Way (The Kissing Game).” “I Like The Way (The Kissing Game)” went on to peak at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #43 on the UK Singles Chart, helping to to accelerate sales for Hi-Five after its release.
Sanders tells the way the group felt after Teddy Riley played them the song.
“‘I Like the Way (The Kissing Game)’ was another record produced by Teddy Riley,” says Sanders. “When we heard that song after he played it for us, we were like ‘let’s do this one,’” he laughs. “This was the track that everyone was pushing to be the one that put us over the top and it ended up being that one.”
The third single to be released from the album would be the equally revered, “I Can’t Wait Another Minute,” which went on to peak at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart.
Sanders spoke on how the group thought the record would be unsuccessful initially.
“‘I Can’t Wait Another Minute’ was one of the songs I liked from the album,” says Sanders. “This was another song produced by Eric Foster White. When you’re not used to pop music, you have to challenge yourself to make it work. We honestly didn’t believe that this song would become as big as it became. I remember when the record company wanted to make it a single; we were thinking that we should go with our up tempo songs. Once the record company released the song, we saw the response it got and we were like, ‘OK, now we know what pop radio is.’ If you remember, we did “Just Another Girlfriend” right after this song.”
The final single to be released from the album would be “Just Another Girlfriend,” which went on to peak at #88 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and #41 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart.
Sanders describes the difficulty the group had in recording the song; “‘Just Another Girlfriend’ was produced by Eric Foster White. I remember back then it took us some time to develop and know that pop music sound. We could listen to it, but we weren’t used to hearing different guitar melodies and the overall pop music sound,” he says. “It took us a while to get into it, but once we heard it enough we began to like it and put our style to it.”
Sanders provides insight on how the remaining songs of the album came together.
“The first manager we had named Vincent Bell put us together with a producer named Alvin and he produced “Ragdoll” for us,” says Sanders. “The song fit the description of our age group,” he laughs. “If you listen to the song, you can hear how challenging Tony’s vocals are on the track.”
“‘Too Young’ was one of the songs where we wanted to be older,” he laughs. “The song had a good message. One of the rappers from Mobb Deep [Prodigy] was rapping the verse on that song. He was really young back then.”
“‘Merry-Go-Round’ was one of the songs were we spent all night recording it,” says Sanders. “I vaguely remember that we were having some personal group issues while we recorded this song.”
“‘The Way You Said Goodbye,’ I remember because Toriano got his shine on,” says Sanders. “We were really proud of him. He was getting it in. His sound was extraordinary because he had that Levert type of sound and we didn’t really know how to use it to the best our ability. This song is one of my favorites from the album and I still listen to it.”
“‘Sweetheart,’ was a good tune for sure,” says Sanders. “Tony sang his butt off on the track.”
“‘I Know Love’ was the very first song we recorded as Hi-Five,” says Sanders. “This song was wrote and produced by William Walton. It was a good night that night. It was the first time where we put our energies into creating something real. So to come out with that song, meant a great deal. The people around us were really positive and they believed in us. We pulled it off for sure. This was the song that got us our record deal. It was the only one we had on our demo. After they heard the song, they called us and told us we had a deal.”
Hi-Five peaked at #38 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart and #1 on the Billboard R&B Albums Chart in the early spring of 1991 and sold more than million units worldwide. To this day, it’s regarded as one of the best albums released from an R&B group during the early part of the 1990s.
Their debut record signified that the future of R&B music was in good hands. These five young men from Waco, Texas left an indelible mark on the world with their timeless records and their place in recording history will be cemented for years to come.
Sanders reflects on his time in the group and how great Tony Thompson was as a singer.
“Tony was an awesome guy,” says Sanders. “I remember I attended the talent shows that William and Tony used to compete in. Of course, Tony won both of the talent shows, but William’s group was really, really good. They were good enough to secure a record deal and move away. When Tony won, I recall William being so mad at his group. He was criticizing them and I overheard him and I told him his group was great, but Tony was better.
“I wasn’t saying it to insult him, but just to say Tony was a great talent and he was a hard cat to beat. I think he listened to me because he stopped criticising the group and realized that he may never beat this guy. From that point on, he took a liking to me and he would ask my opinion on things. This was all before Hi-Five became a group. Once I became a member of the group, we really appreciated each other.
“We had good times. You have to remember we were all 15 and 16 years old just living the dream back then. We weren’t thinking about the money, we just wanted to say we were doing it big. I think our era of music was great. We were able to perform shows all over the world in the early ’90s. It was a good thing for us.
“I believe that great music creates its own aura. I really believe Jive will have to look back and acknowledge the milestones of groups and artists from our era soon.”