THE PATHS OF THE FOUR Dorchester boys who would become the New Kids on the Block — brothers Jon and Jordan Knight, Donnie Wahlberg, and Danny Wood — crossed at Roxbury’s Trotter Elementary School in the 1970s and early 1980s, although they were spread across different classes. (The fifth member, Joe McIntyre, was from Jamaica Plain.) Danny has fond memories of his time at Trotter. “Outside of school it was a very controversial time, because busing started when Donnie and I went into first grade. We were surrounded by chaos, but in school it was amazing. We didn’t feel all that. Everyone was open to being around everyone else.” For Donnie, being bused outside to Roxbury was a gift of sorts. “We lived in a racially diverse neighborhood, but on my street, it was mainly all white kids. In the white neighborhoods, we weren’t really allowed to dream. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m gonna be famous one day.’ That would get you punched in the face. But in school, it was OK to talk like that and think like that.”
MARLENE PUTMAN says of her son Jordan, “I remember him going downtown and around the corner with his cardboard and break dancing. He would go into the subways and sing when he was really young. There were times I was concerned for his safety, but he was so darn charmed, he just got around the city smoothly. He was a young teenager and thought he knew everything. But he was fine. And his sense of confidence just allowed me to relax.”
MEANWHILE, Donnie and Danny were busy building up a repertoire of their own. According to Donnie, “Me and Danny used to do rap performances and shows. I would write rap routines for Danny and me. In ninth grade, Danny and I used to go to the Catholic school dances every Friday night. We would be the two hip-hop guys, and they’d be like, ‘Where did these guys come from?’ In those neighborhoods, the guys didn’t dare do anything like that. That wasn’t cool. But me and Danny came in and turned the place upside down. There’d be a big circle, and we’d be break dancing in the middle of it, and all the girls loved us. One time my brother Paul was in culinary school. I saw his white double-breasted jacket and was like, ‘Yo! Can me and Danny borrow one of those each?’ And we made outfits. We had white gloves and the white culinary jackets.”
AS THE GUYS were immersed in high school, over in Roxbury, producer Larry Johnson — more widely known as Maurice Starr — had just been ousted from pop group New Edition and had turned his attention to other projects. One of his ideas was to work with a group of kids like New Edition, only this time he envisioned a white band. In an effort to identify just the right kids, Maurice called in talent agent Mary Alford, who was previously involved with R & B acts such as Rick James. In July 1984, then 14-year-old Donnie had caught the attention of Mary through his frequent performances around Dorchester. She persuaded him to audition for Maurice.
AFTER PERFORMING for Maurice, Donnie and his brother Mark were immediately asked to join, while Donnie’s two friends were dismissed. And, thus, the music group Nynuk (a meaningless name Maurice pulled out of thin air) was officially born. Though the Wahlberg brothers started taking singing lessons at the house of Soni Jonzun, one of Maurice’s brothers, and recording songs, it wasn’t exactly the most organized endeavor. Maurice slipped in and out of the picture. Donnie remembers: “We’d go every weekend to Maurice’s house, and he would never show up. [Maurice] was just out screwing around playing basketball.” In time, Mark started to drift away. Maurice and Donnie pressed forward, writing and recording songs. After laying down four tracks, one day Maurice turned to Donnie and said, “You gotta find some other guys now.” With this, Donnie began the process of rebuilding, using his schoolmates and neighborhood circle as a talent pool.
NYNUK HAD ONE of its first major lessons in dealing with adversity onstage while playing a show at the Franklin Park Kite Festival hosted by a local radio station. Thousands of rowdy fans packed the park as a series of bands played. In attendance that day, Donnie’s mom, Alma Wahlberg, remembers, “I almost had a heart attack. It was just a lot of people. A lot of people.”
As Nynuk came onstage, audience members started throwing some of the 45 records that had been handed out that day. “Somebody threw a record, and it cut Danny,” Alma says. “The bodyguards are grabbing the kids off the stage and making them go in the car. Donnie kept saying, ‘No! No! We’re here. We’re going on.’ ”Continued...