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 this regular feature, sometimes the stories behind your favorite songs are more interesting than the hits themselves.
Who: Sugar Ray
Biggest hit: "Fly"
Why do I know that name?: For a minute in the late 1990s, Sugar Ray were one of the biggest pop/rock acts around. The combination of teen-magazine pin-up frontman Mark McGrath and a mash-up sound that borrowed from reggae, pop, new wave and white-boy funk propelled the Orange County, California, group to several platinum albums thanks to indelible radio hits like its breakthrough, "Fly," as well as "When It's Over," "Every Morning" and "Falls Apart." The band, which started out as a cheesy funk-metal act, hit its groove on 1997's Floored with the inescapable "Fly." Sugar Ray followed it up with 1999's 14:59, a nod to their signature self-deprecating attitude about their talent via Andy Warhol's maxim about everyone being famous for 15 minutes. Along with acts like Third Eye Blind, Everclear and Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray were among the leaders of what McGrath, now a co-host of "Extra," called the "class of '99." Ironically, it was their very success that he said caused their rapid downfall. "We all started out in the alternative world and then got huge crossover appeal in the late '90s," said McGrath. So, while Sugar Ray got love from pop radio, some of the tastemaker alt-rock stations that supported them early on turned their backs. "It was a poison pill," the perpetually upbeat, scratchy-voiced McGrath lamented. "Out there in the pop world we were selling millions, but you take a bite of that poisoned apple and that's who you are now. There's no going back once you start playing radio shows with Jessica Simpson."
Don't get me wrong, I loved it: Not that McGrath is complaining. The rocket ride to the top was great. "It's something I recommend to everyone," he said. After 2001's self-titled album spawned another couple of pop-radio hits, McGrath said he began to see the writing on the wall. By 2003, the band realized it had to adapt to a changing musical landscape, so Sugar Ray did what people are still doing today: They reached out to the Neptunes for some fresh beats. "Once you've had a hit, then you have to sustain that, but the cycle of music turns every day," McGrath said. Though they got together to try and jam on a song left over from the first N.E.R.D. record, the tune was a mess and the group knew it couldn't really back up the new direction. After 2003's In the Pursuit of Leisure tanked (selling 150,000 copies after the previous album clocked a million), the band realized it had reached the bottom of its creative well.
Pull the plug: "I said, 'I love you guys, I love playing with you, we all have all our body parts, so let's stop and smell the roses,' " McGrath said. With three members entering fatherhood and McGrath getting the surprise call for the "Extra" gig (after some good notices hosting a few VH1 specials), the band went on indefinite hiatus. Sugar Ray currently play 50-75 shows a year and McGrath joked, "If you can smell funnel cake, we're playing there." After a decade-long association, they were dropped from their contract with Atlantic Records earlier this year, and unless another major comes calling, McGrath said it's unlikely they'll go the indie route and start over again, so a new album seems unlikely. "I'd love to be on tour now playing sheds and selling out the world because music is my passion. But the one thing that would bum me out is walking through an airport and having some guy say, 'When's the new Sugar Ray album coming out?' when it was released a month ago." As for the rest of the guys, McGrath said guitarist Rodney Sheppard is jamming with reggae bands and teaching guitar; bassist Murphy Karges is working on his golf game and his charitable endeavors; and drummer Stan Frazier is part of a production/songwriting team credited with helping develop Ashlee Simpson's early demos — the team is currently prepping the debut from the band the Dirty Heads. And, after being taken under the wing of DJ AM, Craig "DJ Homicide" Bullock has been busy playing club shows from coast to coast between Sugar Ray gigs.
The moral: "We partied too hard, had business arguments, there were money issues, firing of managers — we've gone through it all, and to be able to sit here and pick up the phone and call any of these guys after 18 years, that's the biggest bonus," McGrath said. "I say I've done two jobs — being a singer and a host — that I can't really do. So I should be an inspiration for everyone."
Who: Lou Bega
Biggest hit: "Mambo No. 5"
Why do I know that name?: It was one of the most unlikely, and catchiest, pop hits of the new millennium. A frothy Latin confection cooked up by the son of a Sicilian mother and Ugandan father who was born in Munich, Germany, and spent time in Miami as a teenager. A remake of a 1950s instrumental by famed Cuban band leader Pérez Prado, "Mambo No. 5" rocketed Lou Bega to international renown after a decade trying to break into the music game as a teenage singer. "They think probably I'm dead," a cheery Bega, 31, said recently from his home in Germany about his millions of worldwide fans as he prepared to go on tour in support of his latest album, Lounatic. "I've read that on the Internet a few times." It's been an interesting few years for Bega, who spent more than 700 days on the road in support of his multiplatinum 1999 album A Little Bit of Mambo, which featured the name-dropping "Mambo No. 5." Since his star faded in the U.S. in 2001 following the end of "Mambo"-mania, Bega said he's been traveling with his Cuban band to places where he didn't have time to play during the height of his fame, countries like Kazakhstan (seriously, before Borat, even), Australia, South Africa, the Philippines and Russia.
Even your grandma knew it: "Mambo" became so massive, it charted high in Europe and the U.S. and became a crowd-pumping anthem at sporting events across the globe. "I never expected 'Mambo' to be that big, not at all," said Bega. "When I wrote it, I knew it would change something in my life. You have that gut feeling when you do something creatively that feels like that, but you never would dream a dream like that." Six years after the song exploded, Bega said he's constantly reminded of the song's impact, such as at a recent show where young people, their parents and grandparents were all dancing and singing along to lyrics like, "A little bit of Monica in my life/ A little bit of Erica by my side/ A little bit of Rita is all I need/ A little bit of Tina is what I see."
Pinch me: "There were a couple of moments when it was hard to believe," Bega said of the peak of his popularity in 2000, citing his appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." "For us, in Europe, you see all these Hollywood stars on there and it's something very unreal. So for some dude from Munich, Germany, to sit on Jay Leno's couch ... I had to pinch myself." Bega, who released his first album in 1991 when he was still a teenager, said he wasn't surprised when his hastily recorded 2001 follow-up, Ladies and Gentlemen, flopped in the U.S. And, unlike many one-hit-wonders, he isn't offended by the tag or precious about the song he readily admits he recorded with a knowing, cheesy wink. But he's hoping the strong overseas sales of Lounatic might earn him another shot in America. "It's hard to reach all the generations at once," he said. "But you can't have a plan. I didn't have a plan the first time out and I think the new stuff works just fine."
The moral: One hit + millions in sales + the right attitude = Hello, Kazakhstan!
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 ...
Past "Where Ya Been" Artist Profiles:
- "Where Ya Been?: The Electronica Years: Prodigy, Tricky, Goldie"
- "Where Ya Been? Lilith Fair Edition: Sarah McLachlan, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb"
- "Where Ya Been? '90s Hip-Hop Edition: Onyx, MC Lyte, Rob Base, Young Black Teenagers"
- "Where Ya Been? Grunge Edition: Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney"