'90s R&B Group Hi-Five Talks Comeback, Losing Tony Thompson, and New Music

With a new EP and lineup, the fellas are on a mission to reclaim the charts and capture the hearts of fans, old and new.

The legendary 90s R&B group Hi-Five, known for such classics as “I Like the Way (The Kissing Game),” is back! With a new EP and lineup, the fellas are on a mission to reclaim the charts and capture the hearts of fans, old and new. ESSENCE caught up with them on a muggy September night in the Bronx, where more than 500 fans have packed New York City’s Dreiser Auditorium to see them headline the 2014 End of Summer Soul Jam.

Storming the stage, they break into their 1992 smash “She’s Playing Hard to Get” and move with an enthusiasm reminiscent of when they first hit the music scene as teens. Yet they are experienced men now, having undergone tragedy and daunting learning curves. 

TV One’s Unsung aired Hi-Five’s story in August. The month before, former member Russell Neal was charged with murder in the death of his wife in Houston. It’s the latest unfortunate event the group has endured. Made up of Texas teens the late Tony Thompson, Toriano Easley, Marcus Sanders, Roderick “Pooh” Clark and Neal, the group debuted its self-titled album in 1990. Famed producer Teddy Riley’s new jack swing tracks helped Hi-Five score a Billboard R&B top ten with “I Just Can’t Handle It” and then soar with its Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop number one, “The Kissing Game.” Other top tens and indelibles followed, but so did lineup changes (after the first single’s release, Bronx-bred Treston Irby replaced Easely, who was arrested and later sent to prison for manslaughter); life-altering injuries (a tour bus crash left Clark paralyzed); internal strife (Terrence Murphy and Shannon Gill replaced the injured Clark and Neal, who quit due to money squabbles); and a business deal that led to the group’s disbanding in 1994 as Thompson went solo. 

During their run, though, the boys charmed young and old, thanks to their classic tunes—and lead singer Tony Thompson’s effortless tenor. Sweet and angelic, rich and commanding, it could tell a story the way only few can. “Tony fashioned a musical style of his own,” says Riley. “He wanted to make songs people would remember.” The dimple-faced heartthrob’s melodic opening flourishes, timeless clear tone and soulful inflections were his signature and Hi-Five’s musical stamp. Even though everyone in a group plays his part, there’s one thing these fellas will tell you: Tony Thompson will always be the heart of Hi-Five. 

Hearts were broken in June 2007. On the heels of the group’s reconciling, Thompson lost his battle with addiction and died of an overdose. “I just put music to the side [after that],” says Gill. It wasn’t until 2009—when Irby, an innocent bystander outside a Connecticut nightclub, was shot five times—that the vision to carry on the Hi-Five legacy became clear. “I did some soul-searching to figure why God had left me here and said, ‘It has to be the music thing. We have to continue.’ ” 

To honor Thompson’s last wish, they say, Irby, Sanders and Gill started rebuilding, and updating the brand’s sound through Irby’s independent label, Bronx Most Wanted. According to Sanders they approached other members to reunite. Terrence Murphy says he declined, instead opting to team up with Torriano Easely on a project with Hi-Five’s original managers, Vincent Bell and Robert Ford. Helping to bridge the past and the future are cousins and New York natives Faruq Evans and Billy Covington. Evans—a singer-songwriter who came on board for the group’s 2012 single, “Favorite Girl,” which reached 36 on the Billboard Adult R&B charts—has a pleasing warm tenor. Covington—a multitalented behind-the-scenes industry vet who joined this past year—brings a beautiful brightness and heartfelt urgency with his. Their vocals, together with Irby’s feathery baritone, may just be the blueprint to move Hi-Five forward. 

Back in the Bronx, the combo entertains as the cousins trade verses and seamlessly work the stage with Irby on the much-loved “I Can’t Wait Another Minute." After another favorite, “Unconditional Love,” the guys belt "It's Nothing,” a tastefully naughty throwback about the ways a relationship is kept interesting that showcases Hi-Five’s trademark delivery. Co-written by Covington, it’s the first single from Hi-Five: The EP, released in August. 

The five-song ode to the ladies is quality music. The new-school spin includes the bass-heavy R&B/hip-hop “Drop” (featuring rapper Chris Rivers, son of the late Big Pun) and the pulsating, new-agey “This Love,” which encapsulates the feelings of being with The One. In addition to “It’s Nothing,” old-schoolers may enjoy “Kit Kat,” a seductive, Latin-flavored ballad sure to induce chocolate cravings, and the poppy “Different Kiss.” A clever play on the group’s best-known hit, “Kiss” answers Beyoncé’s call to put a ring on it and conveys a male vulnerability rarely expressed in the genre these days.

The group closes every concert with “The Kissing Game” and a moving slide show of Thompson. Before leaving, they take a playful selfie with the crowd.

Afterward, we find them pumped up. “I just like to see the fans appreciating us and accepting us back, because I know the transition [with Tony being gone] has been difficult for everybody,” says Sanders. “But, I think, especially after Unsung, a lot of people understand where we’re coming from now.” 

Evans and Covington have blended easily into the band of brothers, who’ve all settled into their parts: Irby is hype man and motivator. Evans is the “goofy one,” he says, making faces. Gill’s animated performances prove he’s the wild one. Covington, aka The Handyman, helps in all facets and, whenever he takes off his sunglasses, adds serious eye candy to a group known for its good looks. The levelheaded Sanders, who’s been there from the start, is the glue. “He’s my brother’s keeper,” says Gill.

Both Evans and Covington place Thompson among the R&B greats. So was it intimidating for them to join? “I’ve always thought of myself as the sixth member of Hi-Five,” says Covington, having grown up a fan himself. Still, Covington says he was nervous until he began seeing more and more positive tweets from folks. The gist, he says, was that although Hi-Five “is not exactly what it was, it’s what it is now, and it’s still worth supporting because it’s still good music.”

The group says the response to “It’s Nothing” has been fantastic. “Twitter has been going nuts,” adds Evans. So does that mean an album is on the way? Covington says they’re looking at a spring 2015 release. 

Until then, they’ll be savoring this year, which, all things considered, has been a bright spot for these successful hard-luck cats. Their resiliency is also a force behind the Hi-Five music legacy. “In 2014, we want you to say, ‘Wow, Hi-Five came back and gave us something to remember,’ ” says Sanders. “We never give up—it’s a blessing we’re breathing,” says Gill. Adds Evans, “We’re going to finish strong. We’re not going to let the music retire us. We’re going to retire the music.” 

We like the way that sounds. 

We asked Teddy Riley, Faith Evans, Vince Herbert and Joe, who have worked with the group, to give us their favorite Hi-Five songs.

TEDDY RILEY: “On top of ‘I Like the Way (The Kissing Game) [cowritten by Riley],’ ‘I Can’t Wait Another Minute.’ It demonstrated the group’s harmonic growth and was big with the ladies,” says Riley.

VINCE HERBERT: “Besides my song ‘Fly Away [cowritten with Kiyamma Griffin and featured in Menace II Society],’ ‘The Kissing Game,’” says Herbert. “Mindless Behavior [which he manages] covered it because it was an incredible record. I worked with Hi-Five at the beginning of my [career]. If they make the right songs, it’s going to be great for R&B.”

FAITH EVANS: “ ‘The Kissing Game.’ Strong hook and solid vocals,” says Evans, who got her start contributing background vocals to Hi-Five’s “She Said.”

JOE: “Hi-Five kept the door for young vocalists open,” says the acclaimed singer–songwriter, who lists “The Kissing Game” and “Never Should Have Let You Go,” which he produced for Sister Act 2, as his favorites.

Hi-Five: The EP is out now.

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