We couldn't get enough of them. Their songs were our soundtrack, and we laughed, danced, cried and loved along with them. They flashed across our radio and TV burning brightly — but where have they been lately? As you'll find out in our new regular feature Where Ya Been?, sometimes the stories behind your favorite songs are more interesting than the hits themselves.
Who: Sammie (born Sammie Bush)
Biggest hit: "I Like It"
Claim to fame: Helped pave the way for the current wave of teen male R&B crooners.
Why do I know that name?: It's been a while since we heard from preteen R&B sensation Sammie. The pint-size singer exploded on the scene in the late '90s as a 12-year-old after paying his dues singing in his Miami church from the age of 4. When a grade-school music teacher noticed his chops, he was transferred to a performing arts magnet school and joined up with two older boys in a vocal group, the Wonder 3. Before long, they were auditioning for "It's Showtime at the Apollo," but Sammie was the only one the program wanted. He debuted on the "Apollo Kids" segment in 1998 and won the finals for his rendition of Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" the following year. The "Apollo" win put Sammie on the radar of Atlanta-based hitmaker Dallas Austin (Boyz II Men, TLC), who co-wrote and executive produced the singer's 2000 debut, From the Bottom to the Top, which was recorded the summer after he completed sixth grade. The album drew comparisons to both Wonder and the young Michael Jackson, and Sammie said the attention was, well, amazing. "It was a lot of fun [being a star at 12]," recalled Sammie, now 18, of his string of hits that included "I Like It" and "Crazy Things I Do." "At such a young age, to travel the world and have girls scream over you — it's very different from what most 12-year-olds are accustomed to."
Reading, writing and reeling it back in: After another hit, the title track to the forgettable Keanu Reeves flick "Hardball" — a song that featured fellow half-pints Bow Wow, Lil Wayne and Lil' Zane — Sammie voluntarily pulled the plug on his career in an attempt to salvage something of a more typical high school experience. "It just popped up," said Sammie of his decision to quit the biz and go back to finish school. "I never anticipated stopping, but I thought about it and it felt like the best thing to do. I always knew I'd come back, though. People see me and think I'm still that 12-year-old kid and they're surprised at how big I got to be."
High school confidential: When Sammie started ninth grade and "Hardball" was in theaters, he was so mobbed by autograph seekers in the halls of his high school that he needed a security escort to get from class to class. "But by the end of my sophomore year, it faded away and people started treating me like a regular guy," he recalled. He also played on the school's basketball team and was crowned homecoming king.
Call it a comeback: By junior year, Sammie had joined choir to get his voice — which had dropped noticeably lower — back into shape. After consulting with his mom, he decided to begin the second act of his career. When Hurricane Frances hit Florida in 2004, his family evacuated to Atlanta, which is how he ended up at a birthday party for Austin. "He was in shock at how big I had gotten and he said right away, 'I want to sign you,' " Sammie said of the producer, with whom he had kept in touch over the years. He is now signed to Austin's recently relaunched Rowdy Records and just filmed the first video from his upcoming second album, Sammie, for the Jazze Pha-produced "You Should Be My Girl," featuring Sean Paul from the Youngbloodz. He's also signed on for his first film role, alongside fellow young crooner Ne-Yo, in "Steppin'." "It's not scary, but I'm more anxious now," said Sammie, who co-wrote many of the songs on his adult, R&B-flavored new album. "I'm working out in the gym all the time because these young boys out here with those ab muscles ... it's a lot of hard work, but I'm not a new artist, I just have to re-establish myself."
The moral: Staying in school can be cool. "If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, 'Sammie, what happened?,' I wouldn't have to sing for my income," the singer joked. "A lot of people do get forgotten, but if it's a hit, it's a hit forever. I do 'I Like It' and everyone sings along like it was yesterday."
Who: Third Eye Blind
Biggest hit: "Semi-Charmed Life"
Claim to fame: The only Top 40 group we can think of whose first hit mixed "doot doot doot"s with lyrics about oral sex and snorting crystal meth.
Third Eye Blind: Where Ya Been?
Why do I know that name?: Formed in the early 1990s by San Francisco singer/songwriter Stephan Jenkins, Third Eye Blind were one of the least likely pop groups of the decade. The band landed a recording contract with Elektra Records after hitting the label's radar with a widely circulated demo and an opening slot for Oasis in their hometown in 1996. When their self-titled debut was released the next year, it spawned the huge hit "Semi-Charmed Life," which, despite its head-bobbing chorus and seemingly sunny lyrics about beaches and young love, is one of the darker songs to ever top the charts — a distinction Jenkins relishes to this day. "Someone described them once as 'pretty little songs with dirty little words,' and I like that," Jenkins said. "Our label couldn't understand that a band could have some songs that were catchy but its message was dark. They couldn't understand that we were more about the Velvet Underground than the Beatles."
Second time's a charm ... After selling more than 6 million copies of their debut (bolstered by hits like "Life," "Jumper," "How's It Going to Be" and "Graduate"), Third Eye Blind returned in 1999 with the darker, more experimental Blue, which would sell nearly 2 million copies but spawned fewer hits.
... But third time wasn't: By the time the band released 2003's Out of the Vein, Elektra was in the midst of being absorbed into Atlantic Records and Jenkins contends the group was not a priority. "I worked really hard on Out of the Vein," he said of the band's least successful outing, which has sold around 250,000 copies. "Elektra was imploding as we were making it, so we didn't make a video and didn't do a marketing campaign, but as far as critics go, it was my best-reviewed album." Discouraged by the record's failure, Jenkins said he pulled back and did some soul-searching. "If you take the first three albums, they were of a piece," he explained. "They were lyrically about making a good shield, putting up a really good front and all the triumph and damage that that incurred." While lying low, Jenkins produced girlfriend Vanessa Carlton's 2004 album, Harmonium, and began writing songs for a solo record. Once he heard what the rest of his band — Arion Salazar (bass), Brad Hargreaves (drums) and Tony Fredianelli (guitar) — was up to in the studio, he scrapped those plans and got to work on the group's fourth release.
Going it alone: "This album is about what happens when you take all those layers you have and you let go of them," he said of the record the group began in early 2005. "That process, lyrically, has been really hard for me." Admitting to a touch of writer's block, Jenkins — who has co-produced all of the band's albums — said lyrics have been holding things up so far, but he doesn't worry that people have forgotten about 3EB. He noted that a fan-run Web site recently racked up 36,000 hits in a single month, a British magazine named Blue one of the most underrated albums of the past decade — and despite not having a new album to push, in May 3EB played to their biggest crowd ever as a headliner in Philadelphia. "We finally got our cred and people got what we were doing," Jenkins said. A career retrospective is due in July on Rhino Records, but Jenkins said he doesn't plan to shop the new album to a label. "Why would we?" he asked. "What will that do for us? I don't think we can equal what we did before [saleswise], but I think we can reach a lot of people with our music and our albums can be defining the culture." Current plans call for the as-yet-untitled disc to be released in 2007.
The moral: If, as Jenkins terms his group, a "very badly marketed" band can sell nearly 10 million albums, just think of what Third Eye Blind could do if Jenkins were calling all the shots.
Ever wonder what happened to Crazy Town? How about Snow? Ace of Base? Tell us which faded stars you'd like us to check up on, and you just might find them in a future edition of "Where Ya Been?" Send us your suggestions and we'll get digging...