Musical icon Ricky Bell, 50, was born in Boston and raised as the youngest of 10 children in the Orchard Park Projects. Best known as a founding member of New Edition, he went on to become the lead singer of Bell Biv DeVoe and has also recorded as a solo artist. He is currently touring with former New Edition mates Bobby Brown, Ronnie DeVoe and Michael Bivins as RBRM, and they will appear at the Boch Wang Theatre on Sept. 20.
Jonathan Soroff: As the youngest of 10 kids, what was the first non-hand-me-down you ever owned?
Ricky Bell: [Laughs.] I definitely had a lot of hand-me-downs, but my mom did really well with school shopping and all of that. I had clothes that I could only wear to school. I had to take ’em off when I came home, and if I didn’t, I got a whuppin’. But we’d also get dressed up for Easter, and I had little suits and stuff.
Were you the pampered baby? Yes, I was. In some respects, even though both my parents are gone, it was like that a little even in my adult years. Being treated as the baby, the special kid, the golden child. As a kid, I had six older brothers, and nobody in the projects would mess with me. I got away with a lot.
What would you tell your pre-New Edition self today? I would probably say, “Save more money.” [Laughs.] “You don’t need three cars. You’re only one person. You don’t need to get a pair of those sneakers in every color. Just one or two would be fine.” Another thing would be, as far as being in a group, “Don’t take anything personally. Things happen. We’re all growing.” And basically, you know what? “You are good enough.”
How did you avoid the pitfalls of being a teen idol? You know what’s crazy? For the first few years of our careers, when I was like 15 and 16, we were pretty sheltered. We’d get to a town, and we would basically have to stay at the hotel until it was time to do the show. We had chaperones everywhere we went. Tutors. So that helped. But then again, the other side was that we did smoke weed. We used some drugs here and there, but you gotta remember, this was before TMZ and social media, so no one really knew about that. There weren’t cellphones and people taking pictures of us. So we did some acting out, but quietly.
Weirdest thing about being famous at such a young age? When you got back home, and your brothers and sisters are still treating you like you’re just their kid brother, but all around the world, you’re a star. So taking off that star hat once you got home. It was weird, too, being famous and having a couple of albums out, but still living in the projects. In most people’s eyes, when they saw us on TV or whatever, they thought, “You guys are rich and famous!” Well, we were famous, but we weren’t rich. So that was a little weird.
Person you were most excited to perform for? Honestly, the girls. We were young, and that was the initial spark. The way the girls screamed and reacted. We practiced so much, we could do our routines in our sleep. We knew the choreography, with all the notes. We knew our places. So we would be on stage, eyeing girls in the audience, talking to one another, saying, “That one in the red in the second row is mine.” All you had to do was find that one person that was so into you. That gave you all the motivation you needed.
Favorite New Edition song? That’s a tough question. I’m gonna have to say “One More Day,” produced and written by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. I say that partly because I’m singing lead on it, but I just think the way it was written and produced was so incredible. I sat down with Jimmy Jam, and he really got into my head, and he dug deep, and he got to the soul of what makes me tick. The way the harmonies and the melodies are put together, the tempo, just everything about that song makes it my favorite. To perform in concert, though, my favorite is “Can You Stand the Rain.”
Song you’re sick of performing or one that people request that bugs you? It’s not that. It’s like, when you’re at a party, or a wedding, and they play “Poison,” and everyone looks at you like they want you to do the whole choreography. I’m like, “No.” Sometimes, I have to go to the DJ and say, “Look, man, do not play that song until I leave.”
Who was the bad boy among you? Oh, c’mon, man. That’s easy. You know who that is. That’s Bobby Brown. He’s a badass. It’s weird. We were taught to be cordial, and we had our places on stage, and we only did what we were told. But Bobby was like, “F that. This is what I’m doing.” And the fans seemed to love him for it—even with his antics offstage. Bob would come late to rehearsal or he wouldn’t show up at all. And I’d be like, “Aren’t you worried that you don’t know the routine?” And he was like, “Whatever.” He’d go onstage, and he’d completely fuck up, and the fans just ate it up. [Laughs.] It was, “That’s just Bobby being Bobby. We don’t care.” That he got arrested or used cocaine or crack, it was like he did whatever he wanted to do. It was both a good and a bad situation.
Strangest piece of merchandise your face was ever on? It’s not merchandise, although that stuff was weird. Even weirder was being on somebody’s body. There were tattoos on women’s backs, or even on their breasts, anywhere you can name. I even saw a girl one time, she had us tattooed on her ass. It was crazy.
What song of yours do you think deserved a Grammy? I think “Cool It Now” deserved a Grammy, and I think “Poison” deserved a Grammy.
If you weren’t a singer, what do you think you’d be doing right now? I have no idea, but I think that maybe…I have an older brother named Wayne, who served 31 years in the Marines, and I always looked up to him as a kid. When he went away after high school, my only thought was, “I want to be like him.”
Do you look back at old photos or footage of yourself and say, “What the hell was I thinking with that outfit?” Absolutely, yes. The worst was a photo shoot from when the Poison album came out, and I’m wearing these wild, crazy pants that look like pajamas. The outfit just didn’t match or work at all, and I look back and say, “How did y’all let me get away with this?” It was all wrong. All bad.
So how did you get the nickname Slick? [Laughs.] This is embarrassing, but when we were young, everybody would get girls’ numbers or whatever, and I would sneak behind everybody’s backs and steal their girl or go talk to her.
Weirdest place you’ve ever been where all of a sudden, one of your songs came on? I love that question. Probably in an airport. But what’s weird about it is that most people don’t know that’s my song. Sometimes, I want to say, “Hey, everybody! That’s me!” [Laughs.]
Top three artists in heavy rotation currently on your devices? That would probably be … I listen to a lot of old music, so it’s probably embarrassing for me to say, but I don’t even know who’s new that’s out there. I like Mat Kearney. I love Ben Rector. And who else? I like Bruno Mars a lot.
Favorite piece of equipment? Pro Tools. It’s what everyone uses these days to record. You can do anything with it.
Preferred brand of headphones? I use my Apple earbuds for everything, but listening to music, it would be the Bose.
Favorite venue to play? Madison Square Garden.
Least favorite? Even though the fans always show up to this one, I’m probably gonna say Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. I love D.C., but that place is just so old. It needs a refresh. And it’s like every tour we played there. In other cities, we’d move around. In New York, we played Radio City and the Apollo and the Beacon Theatre, but in D.C., it’s always the same spot.
Best part of touring? Just being onstage. That’s where you get your energy, because the traveling part, the actual physical part, is the most challenging. The 4:30 am in the lobby calls. Packing. Just getting to the airport, or jumping on the tour bus. The up and down. You could be dog-tired, but as soon you get onstage and hear the crowd roaring and feel the lights on your face. That’s absolutely the payoff.
Best swag you ever got at an awards show, music festival or whatever? Oh, man! There are so many, I can’t even remember all of them, but I just got an Alexa. That was probably the latest, and it’s pretty nice.
Musical idol? Well, for different reasons, there’s Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway for their style and soulfulness and just I love the tones of their voice and how they’re always just pitch-perfect. They use every part of their voices effortlessly. But as far as the work ethic and the attention to detail, it would be Michael Jackson. I look at him as the standard, the height of what you can be as a performer. When we met him, we talked with him, and he showed us the room where he would practice. He would just dance for hours. When some people are performing onstage, they’re just kinda loose and doing their thing, but he paid attention to every note. Every word of the song. There was no moment wasted with him. Every single moment had meaning to him.
Person you most want to do a duet with? Phil Collins. Easy. I’m a huge Phil Collins fan. I also love James Taylor. The tone of their voices. I love it. Everything about it.
Weirdest fan encounter you ever had? Back in the day, they were pretty crazy. Everything from dressing up as me to get into my hotel room, or somehow ending up in the dressing room when you were backstage. Crazy, weird stuff like that. I think Ron had the weirdest. There was this girl he went out with, and no matter where we went—and this is before social media or any of that—every hotel we would walk into, he’d walk into the room, and the phone rang, and it was her. To this day, we have no idea how she did that.
Best looking member of Bell Biv DeVoe? Of course, it’s me. [Laughs.] What are you talking about? That’s why.
Does Roxbury still feel like home? It does. No matter what. Every time I land in Boston, even though aesthetically a lot has changed, once I’m in the neighborhood, I’m home. You could take me there with my eyes closed, and I would just know by the feeling that I was back in Roxbury at Orchard Park.