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The former Color Me Badd members have never told their whole story in one place, until now


Rob Collins September 30th, 2010

“This sucks,” Beavis said to Butt-head.

mark-bryanMark Calderon and Bryan Abrams
The MTV cartoon character was commenting on Color Me Badd, a band from Oklahoma City’s Northwest Classen High School hitting it big with “I Wanna Sex You Up” in 1991. Wearing brightly colored suits and gyrating to rehearsed choreography, the pop supernova exploded with two follow-up No. 1 singles, a triple-platinum debut album and nine Top 40 hits before disbanding in 1998.

“This is that group with George Michael and Kenny G and Snow,” Butt-head said.

Thrust into the pop-culture spotlight, the quartet’s members each had a celebrity lookalike: Mark Calderon, who serenaded the “Beverly Hills, 90210” crew at the Peach Pit, was a dead ringer for ex-Wham! singer George Michael. Sam Watters, dogged by Kenny G comparisons, is haunted by the sax-y similarity to this day. Kevin Thornton, the Milli Vanilli lookalike, battled sex addiction and suicidal thoughts before Jesus told him to quit the group. And Bryan Abrams’ mug makes the most post-Badd headlines, although they’re from the police blotter.

If you dismiss the Grammy-nominated act as another pop-culture cast-off, consider this: The unforgettable single lampooned by “Beavis and Butt-head” lives on, recently appearing in the Adam Sandler film “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.”

“I think the only reason we didn’t make it long-term was because we kind of imploded from the inside,” said Watters, now a successful record producer married to former “American Idol” finalist Tamyra Gray. “It’s a real challenge to maintain that kind of thing. We were together for 14 years. Like anything else in life, when you’re moving up and you’re moving forward, everything is good because it’s relative to where you were before. But whenever you explode all of a sudden like that, and the next seven years are slowing going back in the other direction, that takes its toll.”

Kevin Thornton

PRIMARY COLOR
It started with a sing-off. Calderon had heard about Abrams’ vocal prowess in Northwest Classen’s Cry-Slurs choir and challenged him.

“He just completely blew me away,” said Calderon, who joined the choir that included bass vocalist Thornton.

The boys thought they could one-up the success of New Edition and New Kids on the Block, Calderon said, so they perfected performing a then-popular Levi’s commercial.

“A lot of people in the 1980s weren’t really hip to the doo-wop sound, so it was sort of a new thing,” he said. “We knew how to blend our voices well, so it really caught on.”

The band formed during the “new jack swing” genre popularized by Bobby Brown, Guy and Keith Sweat. Thornton, who was a year older than his three bandmates in the class of 1988, said the group coined their music “hip-hop doo-wop.”

The foursome originally formed as Take One in 1985, but changed to CMB to avoid an identity crisis with an a cappella band named Take 6, Calderon said.

 “Remington Park was open, and there was this horse called Color Me Bad,” he said. “Sam actually found the name looking through the newspaper. That gave us an idea.”

Now, they just needed a break.

‘KOOL’ PLACES
When members of CMB heard of a Kool & the Gang party appearance for students with perfect attendance, they skipped school. Instead of asking for autographs, they started singing, Calderon said.

 “The dream that we had was to contact any of the big artists that would come through Oklahoma City,” he said. “We actually got to meet a ton of artists that came through town: Huey Lewis and the News — we actually sang with them up in their room at the Waterford Hotel — Ronnie Milsap, Sheila E. was another, the list goes on and on. Either they were going to blow us off or they were going to invite us and let us hang out with them. One way or another, we were going to get their attention.”

Another big break came in 1989. Abrams and Thornton both worked at the Penn Square Mall multiplex, where the band sang an impromptu audition for heavy metal heroes Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora after spotting the group’s tour jacket.

“We went and sat in back of Jon Bon Jovi while he watched a boring movie,” Watters said. “Bryan was always the best salesman out of all of us. He said, ‘John, can we sing a song for you?’”

Abrams said his trademark pitch would be “just 60 seconds of your time, man.”

“Bon Jovi said, ‘All right, let me hear what you guys got.’ And we started singing ‘Daddy’s Home,’ and I could see his eyes as we were singing: ‘Wow, these guys can really sing.’ He asked us, ‘How would you guys like to open up in front of 20,000 people tomorrow night?’ And we’re like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ So they let us open on stage, and that’s pretty much how everything went,” Calderon said.

SEXY TIME
The band members kept in touch with management contacts, and the Badd boys moved to New York when they turned 18, Calderon said.

Giant Records executive Cassandra Mills heard a tape of “I Adore Mi Amore,” a song co-written by Hamza Lee, Watters said.



“He was a guy we did talent shows at Douglass High School with, and we came back and started doing songs with him,” said Watters, whose father was a professional cellist and taught at Oklahoma City University. “We were working with these ‘big producers’ in New York that our managers were hooking us up with and other people’s songs, but the song we wrote with the guy from the Douglass talent show that got us signed ended up becoming a No. 1 (R&B) song.”

“I Wanna Sex You Up” was never intended to be a single, Abrams said, but after the “New Jack City” soundtrack dropped, radio played the song incessantly.

“When the record company saw everything that was happening with that song, I remember them calling us up and saying, ‘Hey, we need that album, like, in a week,’” Calderon said. “At that time, we only had about four or five (songs) already finished, so they flew us out to L.A., and we got into the studio. It’s funny, because we had heard so many other acts like Bell Biv DeVoe and Christopher Williams, and I think Keith Sweat had all turned down that track. We were able to jump on it.”

While Abrams said the two or three weeks spent recording made the debut “C.M.B.” album feel unfinished, Watters said that process proved advantageous with five hit singles. The record sold 6 million copies worldwide. CMB’s first hit went No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, followed by two chart-topping singles: the dreamy “I Adore Mi Amore” and the gleeful “All for Love.”

“It just didn’t give us enough time to really overthink anything,” said Watters, who has since worked with Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson and Jessica Simpson. “We just went for it, and it worked.

“Not having any experience, it’s really hard to understand what you need to do to fit into a niche and how you need to evolve. You have four guys and four pretty separate opinions. I don’t think we really had the best management in terms of helping us with direction, either. With the first album, that really worked to our advantage because we hit with a song and it did well. So we just worked with the same people we did that with, turned it around pretty fast and had a pretty cohesive album.”

Since CMB was a mixed-culture group, the music industry didn’t know how to market the diversity, Calderon said.

“We weren’t an all-white group or an all-black group,” he said. “Plus, on top of that, we sounded R&B whenever we’d sing, so that threw them off even more. It didn’t sound like a bunch of white guys singing. Our sound didn’t match our faces.”

CMB, which earned 1992 Grammy nominations, won Best R&B/Soul Single and Song of the Year at the Soul Train Music Awards that year.

SOPHOMORE SLUMP
Instead of riding the crest of success, CMB lost momentum with its second album of new music, and the finger-pointing ensued.

Abrams loved recording the ambitious “Time and Chance” album, which allowed CMB to flaunt more of an R&B influence. Producers David Foster, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and DJ Pooh brought a variety of sounds, but Abrams thought Mills wanted the record “to be a little too R&B.”

“We had all the money in the world, and we could use any producer we wanted,” Calderon said. “It was just an album with a bunch of different producers and a lot of different sounds. I thought it was a lot of good music, but it just didn’t work, man.”

Watters said “Time and Chance” lacked cohesiveness and alienated fans by charting a different course. The 1993 album peaked at No. 56.

“It wouldn’t have mattered if we would’ve put that first song out that was an absolute hit,” he said. “And the first song we put out, ‘Time and Chance,’ was so far away from that — it’s almost laughable in that way, especially the music video. Ice Cube directed it, and it was in South Central or wherever we did it. It was just awful. We all had to pay the price, slowly, through life, after that, and just watch everything kind of disintegrate.”

Thornton said he regrets releasing the title track as the first single, as opposed to dropping “Choose” first. Both barely cracked the Top 25.

“That’s where we did kind of follow a trend,” Thornton said. “What was hitting at that time was Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. When we made the choice for the single, and it didn’t have the success that blew up right out the box, all of a sudden they throw in the next single still without a lot of promotion.”

Meanwhile, Nirvana and Pearl Jam were starting to dominate the charts.

“Music was just all over the place,” Abrams said. “You listened to the radio, and you’d hear a pop song and a grunge song and then (rap). It was kind of tough.”

Thornton, who had a huge temper, also said management didn’t have the band’s best interests in mind.

“We were really deceived, and it was a heartbreaking time for us,” he said. “Once I found out about it and presented it to the guys, it was just a real bad situation. The guys didn’t really see it at that particular time, so I really felt alone.”

Instead of turning to substance abuse, Thornton said he fed his sex addiction.

“You could place a table full of drugs or bottles of alcohol right in front of me, and that wouldn’t even faze me, but if you put a stripper on that table, I’m sweating bullets,” said Thornton, who endured suicidal thoughts and depression. “If I wanted to celebrate, I would do it with sex. If I was feeling down, I wanted to recover by utilizing sex. I would try to justify those actions.”

COLOR-BLIND
The pop stars were floundering. The group’s 1996 album, “Now and Forever,” boasted producers Narada Michael Walden, Boyz II Men’s Nathan Morris and Babyface, but sales diminished.

“By the third album, then the record company’s basically saying, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. We’re going to take over. We’re gonna pick the songs,’” Thornton said.

Although “The Earth, the Sun, the Rain” single charted at No. 21, the second release, “Sexual Capacity,” missed the Hot 100, despite being featured in the Demi Moore movie “Striptease.”

“When you haven’t produced or had the big song or written the big record, the record company decides to take over,” Calderon said. “They end up choosing the single and what songs they want you to do once you don’t have the golden ear anymore.”

CMB left Giant — and parent company Warner Music Group — and landed at Epic Records, where R&B President Ron Sweeney saw hidden value, Watters said.

“There was a lot of disunity in the group,” Thornton said. “We weren’t completely in accord; it was just about survival at that point. We had radio people telling us, ‘Don’t release a ballad,’ because you had Backstreet Boys — they were a big thing. This was right before ’N Sync took over, and it was real ballad-y.”

RUDE ‘AWAKENING’
Switching to Epic — and Sony Music Entertainment — CMB released “Awakening” in 1998. After recording wrapped, Calderon said Sony head Tommy Mottola approached their table at Mr. Chow restaurant in New York and started singing CMB’s “Remember When,” which would become CMB’s next single.

Abrams and Calderon hated the choice.

“Tommy had just gone through a really painful breakup with Mariah (Carey), and he loved that song so much that he went ahead and OK’d it, but when it came to start spending money on it, he didn’t feel like we were gonna be able to hit,” Watters said. “Tommy said, ‘You guys hit too big, and then watched success go away. You’re not going to get it back.’ Yeah, he might have been right about that.”

That’s when Abrams started losing it.

“My drinking started getting heavier, and I just really started kind of getting depressed,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to be some huge megastar, but there was jealousy with us and Boyz II Men, or envy watching them do what they were doing.”

Calderon said the band’s biggest mistake was buying a house and living together on Long Island for so long.

“Bryan’s alcoholic problem really started taking a toll on the group,” he said. “The other guys just weren’t feeling it.”

After CMB left Sony, manager Johnny Wright (’N Sync, Britney Spears, Jonas Brothers) wanted to sign the group.

“The day before we were getting ready to sign the contract, Kevin (Thornton) came over to my house that night and said he got a calling from the Lord, and he wanted to get out of the group and wanted to follow where God was calling him,” Calderon said. “I was like, ‘Well, all right! When the Lord calls, you gotta go!’ Come on, you’re not going to argue with God.”

Thornton, who was newly married and living in Texas, felt torn. As he listened to a Gospel minister preach about the music industry, he heard Jesus speak to him.

“He tells me this: ‘Now is the time,’” Thornton said. “God said to me, ‘Whatever you give up for me, I will increase you double.’ All of a sudden, I even tried to negotiate with the Lord. ‘What about my wife? I’m one month shy of being married one year. She’s never lived in a house; she’s always lived in apartments.’ I had just built a house from the ground-up off the golf course, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep that.”

Thornton said God claimed that remaining in the industry would make him rich, but he would “lose everything.”

“Then I heard my name audibly,” he said. “So I’m tripping out, just arguing with the Lord. (The minister) said, ‘Kevin, forget about the contracts.’ How did he know that very night I was supposed to go over to Mark’s house and go over the contracts?”

Thornton, who released the solo album “Conversions” in 2008, said a Holy Spirit “loophole” allowed him to leave the group.

“Sam had called the next day, and he wanted to continue writing and producing,” Calderon said. “And that’s pretty much how the group broke up. From there, it was just Bryan and I, and when I told Johnny Wright that two of the members had broken up, he pretty much said, ‘Ah, well, I pretty much wanna forget about this whole thing.’”

FADE TO BLACK
Since CMB’s final show in 1998, the act was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.

Watters, who was never comfortable in the spotlight, does not plan on reuniting.

“I never say never, but probably not — no,” he said. “I became a producer and songwriter and found some real success doing that.”

Calderon, who is raising his family in Cincinnati, recently performed with Abrams in Hawaii.

“We had a great time,” said Calderon, adding that he wishes CMB had been invited to the 2007 Oklahoma Centennial Concert. “Kevin didn’t want to perform with us (in Hawaii).”

Thornton operates Kevin Thornton Ministries and recently accepted the youth pastor position at Without Walls Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

Abrams, who released the 2001 solo album “Welcome to Me,” said the recent Hawaii show with Calderon “went great.” Now living in the metro and scheduling solo gigs, Abrams also appeared on VH1’s “Mission: Man Band” reality series. He has three songs on Kool & the Gang’s new record and sings lead on all three tracks.

When Watters was producing Anastacia following the success of her debut 2000 single “I’m Outta Love,” he convinced her to record a similar song, “One Day in Your Life,” to sustain her success. He explained how CMB failed to capitalize on the momentum of “I Wanna Sex You Up.”

“This is momentum,” Watters told her. “If you keep the momentum, that previous success is going to help you, and you’re going to feel it behind you pushing you forward like you can’t believe. And if you mess this up, you lose the momentum. You won’t be able to get it back.

“That’s really what happened to us. If we didn’t hit so big on our first album — coming out with ‘Time and Chance’ and it not doing well — it might not have destroyed us so much.”

A RAINBOW OF REFERENCES

Here are some kaleidoscopic pop-culture encounters with Color Me Badd.

‘Beverly Hills’ Badd
Facial hair was in full effect when CMB crooned for Jennie Garth, Tori Spelling, Shannen Doherty and Brian Austin Green at the Peach Pit in a “Beverly Hills, 90210” episode.

CMB hit it off with the cast … mostly. Mark Calderon said Garth was incredible-looking, and band members killed time with Green at Disneyland.

“It was funny, because Luke Perry walked in the set upset because all these paparazzi people were starting to go through his trash to find anything on him,” CMB’s Mark Calderon said. “I remember, he came in with pig and everything, and he was upset. … He’s a country boy. He had a baby pig with him. I don’t know (why). He just did.”

And what about Brenda?

“I remember Shannen Doherty living up to her reputation for not being such a nice person,” CMB’s Sam Watters said. “She was absolutely awful.”

Blame it on the rain
CMB’s Bryan Abrams said Kevin Thornton hated being compared to the lip-synching Milli Vanilli: “He was like, ‘No, it’s Terence Trent (D’Arby)!’ And we were like, ‘No, Milli Vanilli!’”

Kenny powers
Before cutting his curly locks, Sam Watters endured comments likening him to smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G: “I remember Kenny G coming back to me at a concert and saying, ‘My brother!’ and me thinking, ‘Oh, now I gotta cut my hair!’”

Rubbing elbows
CMB members still became starstruck at awards shows, whether it was performing for James Brown, Janet Jackson and Kenny Loggins, or doing makeup backstage with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS.

But not all stars were spotted. Up for honors at the 1992 Grammy Awards, CMB sat across the aisle from fellow Best New Artist nominee Boyz II Men.

“When they called (winner) Marc Cohn’s name, we both looked at each other and kind of waved our hands like, ‘Who’s Marc Cohn?’ — sort of looking at each other in disbelief,” Calderon said. “But ‘Walking in Memphis’ was a great song.” —Rob Collins

BADD BOY
Bryan Abrams’ arrest record is well-known. Besides drunk driving charges and a domestic abuse charge in 2007, Honolulu police arrested Abrams, 40, on suspicion of harassment last July.

On Aug. 16, Oklahoma City police arrested Abrams and charged him with domestic abuse. According to police, his “speech was extremely slurred.”

“Every kind of trouble I’ve ever gotten into that’s ever reached the tabloids — or even some that didn’t — were alcohol-related,” Abrams said. “That is one thing I will not deny. I’m a binge drinker, and I fight and battle with it all the time. One day, I hope I can put it behind me because I’m still trying to, seeking help and counseling with that. It is a self-medicating kind of thing.”

Abrams said he is bipolar and currently taking the antidepressant Cymbalta, which is helping.

“I have the manic phases, which are awesome to me, and that’s when I do most of my writing,” said Abrams, who will only sleep three or four hours a night for months. “Then I have my crashes. Then I’ll need 10 hours of sleep and still be tired the whole next day and not know why and have to drink three cups of coffee just to function for a while.”

Although former bandmate Sam Watters has lost touch, he hopes to repair the friendship.

“I’ve been through some really trying times with him, and you end up getting close to somebody and loving them,” Watters said. “I’m just definitely rooting for him.”

Mark Calderon said Abrams needs to deal with alcoholism and psychiatric issues.

“I would hope that if there’s anybody that could help his situation, which we’ve tried, I wish they would reach out for him, because we love him we and don’t want him to hurt himself or hurt someone else,” Calderon said.

On Sept. 24, Abrams said he will enter long-term treatment out of state this week and plans for outpatient treatment upon return to Oklahoma. —Rob Collins

 
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