A bike with a bow
by Robert Mitchell
“Without God, there is nothing. Christ means everything.”
Before going on to superstardom with the R&B/pop group New Edition, Ronnie DeVoe grew up poor in the housing projects of Boston’s South End. One of the constant positive influences in his life was a nearby Boys Club operated by The Salvation Army.
“It was the first place I learned how to play ping–pong and pool,” Ronnie told SACONNECTS. “The arts and crafts and a lot of the things they had in place allowed for a good atmosphere for kids to flourish in. It was home away from home at an early age for me.”
While his single mother, Florence, worked as a hospital administrator, Ronnie and his siblings, younger twin brothers Robert and Roland, would attend summer and after–school programs at the Boys Club (now the Boston South End Corps). Ronnie said he was at the Boys Club “from as far back as I can remember,” guessing he was no more than 4 when he started.
The Boys Club kept Ronnie and his brothers safe and off the cocaine–infested streets of the Roxbury neighborhood they called home. They also knew they would always get a good meal.
“That was the thing that fed us sometimes when there wasn’t as much on the table,” said Ronnie, whose parents divorced when he was 3.
When Ronnie was 6, The Salvation Army provided him and his brothers with new bikes for Christmas. Ronnie still recalls finding a red bike, complete with a huge bow, that morning near the tree in the family’s small apartment.
“It was way past amazing,” Ronnie said. “It just brought the biggest smile to my face. The little things mean a lot when you’re in situations like that.
“We saw other kids in the projects who had bikes. Not everyone had them, but I just looked up to the people who did have them and every now and then I would pull on their coattail to see if I could get a ride. Then, suddenly, I had one sitting in front of me that I could ride whenever I wanted. As a 6 year old, that was one of the happiest Christmases that I can remember.”
Early days with The Salvation Army
Long after that Christmas morning, Ronnie continued going to the Boys Club. He remembers the love he received from the staff members and called them “saints in the background,” as his mother toiled to make ends meet.
“They didn’t let me get out of line,” Ronnie recalls. “They would put me in my place, but at the same time, they would give me a hug and celebrate my achievements. It was great to be around people who cared about me outside of my parents.
“My brothers and I reaped the benefits of people like that in The Salvation Army.”
As Ronnie grew up, music became a big part of his life. His mother as well as his uncle, Brooke Payne, always had the sounds of Motown playing in the house from such stars as The Temptations, The Stylistics, and Blue Magic. As for Ronnie, he leaned toward The Jackson 5 and local talent in Boston.
Brooke Payne, the brother of Salvation Army officer Shari Payne, was a local choreographer for several musical acts and Ronnie had a front–row seat to watch him work.
“He always had different groups come by the house and they would perform in my grandmother’s living room,” Ronnie said. “He was always teaching teens how to sing and how to hold the microphone and how to capture a crowd and how to dress the part.
“I kind of grew up seeing that all the time. It was just something that I always wanted to be a part of. I was like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to be a part of one of his groups one of these days.’ I thought that would be amazing.”
Ronnie’s big shot came one day when he and his brothers formed a group and made up a routine based on a song by The Whispers, an R&B group.
“We performed it for my uncle and I want to say at that moment, he probably understood that I had a little bit of talent,” Ronnie said.
At the time, Brooke Payne was involved with an up–and–coming group called New Edition, which had formed in 1978.
“The guys from New Edition approached him to teach them routines and manage them,” Ronnie said. “He showed them how to be stars in the city of Boston because every group my uncle touched turned into stars.”
A ‘new edition’ of the Jackson 5
At the time, New Edition had only four members and record producer Maurice Starr wanted a five–man group because he loved the Jackson 5. In fact, the name New Edition refers to a “new edition” similar to the famous Jacksons. As New Edition struggled to find that elusive fifth member, Ronnie’s uncle taught him a Jackson 5 routine and asked him to try out in front of the band in 1980. He was only 12.
“I had heard of them,” Ronnie said. “I met the guys in New Edition and performed the song at Bobby Brown’s house and basically from that moment on I was connected to New Edition.”
New Edition’s original lineup was Bobby Brown, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ralph Tresvant, and DeVoe.
Ronnie said New Edition won so many local talent contests and became so popular in Boston, the group would often perform as special guests rather than compete.
In 1983, “after just growing and learning how to perform in front of people,” Ronnie said Starr signed the group to his Streetwise record label and New Edition’s debut album, “Candy Girl,” was a huge success. The group went on to be one of the biggest boy band acts of the 1980s with such hits as “Can You Stand the Rain,” “Mr. Telephone Man,” “If It Isn’t Love,” “Cool It Now,” and “Candy Girl.”
“We had prepared for the moment because of all the work we had put in,” Ronnie said. “We had rehearsed at The Salvation Army Boys Club a lot because our operation got bigger than my grandmother’s family room in the projects with the coffee table pushed to the side.
“Since 1983, the light has shined on us, and we’ve been rocking and rolling ever since.”
One of the group’s percussionists over the years was Zoro the Drummer, who also received a bike from The Salvation Army for Christmas when he was young. Ronnie said while fans tend to focus on the vocalists who front a group and not the band, Zoro had great timing and was a crowd–pleasing exception.
“He was the first drummer we had that really was able to establish a personality of his own,” Ronnie said.
Four decades of music
The group broke up in 1989 and DeVoe and some New Edition members founded the R&B and hip–hop group Bell Biv DeVoe, which produced the song “Poison,” one of the most popular tunes of the ’90s. New Edition reunited in 1996 and DeVoe has performed with both groups through the years with a variety of musicians and members.
New Edition marks its 40th anniversary next year and Ronnie said the band likes to “give back to the New Edition 4 Lifers and those who have supported us.” In March, while New Edition was performing in Cincinnati, Ronnie stopped by The Salvation Army Center Hill Community Center to meet with local children and donate bikes, helmets, backpacks, and school supplies. He also brought gifts, including laundry carts, for the seniors who live in Salvation Army senior housing near the corps.
DeVoe’s aunt, Salvation Army Major Shari Payne, is the chaplain for the Army’s Booth Residence and Catherine Booth Residence and is the assistant corps officer at the Center Hill Community Center.
“You get older in life, and you value your purpose a little bit more,” Ronnie explained. “My mom always says, ‘You’re blessed to be a blessing to others.’ I find myself just wanting to be a blessing more to others.
“How better than to bless those who don’t have it and to allow them to have that same feeling I had that Christmas morning? I knew the bikes would be good for exercise and all the above, so that side of me just felt like it’s cool to see smiles and joy on people’s faces.”
Ronnie said his aunt was always a source of encouragement and support for him growing up and would often “share Scriptures” and engage in “conversations to steer me in the right direction” toward God.
“She was my rock as far as my spirituality goes,” he says.
Ronnie said his spirituality and music do intersect, but maybe not like a Yolanda Adams or BeBe and CeCe Winans.
“There’s integrity in it, but it’s not gospel,” Ronnie said. “It’s more what we do with our notoriety and influence and celebrity. It’s not about using our gifts for our greatest gains; it’s how do we spread and share the love?”
His other passions
Today, Ronnie is 54 and living in Atlanta with his wife, Shamari, and twin 5–year–old sons, Ronald III and Roman. They have been open about past marital problems, but credits God with turning them around.
“We believe God is definitely sitting at the center of everything we do,” Ronnie said of his family. “God is good. I can see Him in so many different areas of my life. It’s only right to hold on to God’s energy and God’s love and I stay connected to God as much as possible.
“Without God, there is nothing,” he added. “Christ means everything.”
Ronnie credits God for allowing him to do what he loves for four decades.
“It’s just a blessing,” he said. “Not everyone is able to do what they love to do for an extended period. It’s just not an everyday story for the most part. People are out there trying to make ends meet and run a rat race that’s not fulfilling, and they don’t get to use their gifts and talents. For me to be able to do it for 40 years, I’m just humbled and thankful to God that I’m in the position that I am.”
He may be rich and famous, but Ronnie hasn’t forgotten his roots from the projects and has embraced another passion and way to help people. He became a RE/MAX agent in 2002 to learn the real estate business from the ground up and started his own company, DeVoe Broker Associates, in Atlanta in 2006, to help others obtain home ownership. Twenty years later, the firm is still going strong.
“Coming from the projects and having things like The Salvation Army pouring positivity and love into me opened my mind to get to another level in life and to be able to purchase my mom and family a house when I was 17,” he said. “That’s where generational wealth started for most people. A definite passion of mine is to see that other people can go through that same process and I like to help them get there.”
Over the years during his breaks in touring, Ronnie and his wife have appeared on the Bravo series “Real Housewives of Atlanta” and VH1’s “Couples Retreat.” He said the plan is to continue touring for the foreseeable future.
“No plans to slow down,” Ronnie said. “We’ll take breaks here and there. We have a gift and we have been blessed to entertain people and take them away from some of the pressures they may be going through in life, but for that hour and a half or two hours that people see us perform, it brings them back to a time that makes them happy. Why stop something that is a blessing to others?
“When I see the faces of those New Edition 4 Lifers out in that audience, and all that amazing energy coming my way, it’s the thing that keeps me young.”
Read more from the latest issue of SAconnects.