Fans of Waco singing group Hi-Five, which had several chart-topping singles and two gold albums during their heyday in the 1990s, can revisit memories and the band’s tragedy-marred history at 7 p.m. Wednesday on cable channel TV One’s series “Unsung.”
The one-hour program follows the formation, rise, disbanding and recent rebirth of Hi-Five, the hip-hop/pop quintet responsible for No. 1 hits like “I Like the Way — The Kissing Game” and “I Can’t Wait Another Minute” and which provided a social soundtrack for tens of thousands of teenage and young adult fans.
Led by vocalist Tony Thompson, Jr., Hi-Five recorded three albums, two of which went gold with more than 500,000 copies sold, and were the first Waco musical group since Hank Thompson with a national No. 1 song.
Narrated by actor Gary Anthony Williams, the episode recognizes Hi-Five for its popularity among young listeners in the early 1990s. It also casts light on behind-the-scenes issues such as record label problems, a falling-out between members and drug abuse by lead singer Tony Thompson Jr.
It’s fairly current, too, with a mention of member Russell Neal being charged with his wife’s slaying last month at their Houston apartment.
“Unsung” features on-camera comments from more than a dozen people. These include original members Marcus Sanders and Russell Neal, later members Treston Irby and Shannon Gill, and Toriano Easley, an original member who left in 1990 after being convicted of attempted murder.
The documentary traces the group’s origins, when Waco singer and producer William Walton tapped local talent, led by young Tony Thompson, a wunderkind whose voice was wowing area churches, for Bell’s concept of a Texas boy band styled after New Edition.
Friendships and connections filled out the group — deeper-voiced Easley; dancer Russell Neal; Roderick “Pooh” Clark; and Marcus Sanders. After an Oklahoma shooting put Easley in prison, Bronx-based Treston Irby filled his slot.
The young group proved the right vehicle for music by Walton, then 1990s superstar producer Teddy Riley, and Hi-Five — pitched as a group from “rural,” small-town Texas — soon was the name to watch on music charts.
But the fame Hi-Five enjoyed didn’t translate into financial well-being as record deals with Jive Records, then Giant Records proved one-sided.
The rise of Jive Records singer R. Kelly, who worked with the Waco group on their third album, soon eclipsed the young quintet.
A 1992 traffic accident left Clark paralyzed from the neck down and as Giant groomed Thompson for a solo career, personal problems with drug use started to unravel the lead singer’s career. The remaining Hi-Five members disbanded in 1994.
Thompson tried a comeback with a new Hi-Five in 2005, but three original members filed a lawsuit on his use of the Hi-Five name. Two years later, Irby and Sanders were working on putting Hi-Five back together when Thompson died in Waco from freon inhalation.
The “Unsung” episode ends with a new Hi-Five heading back into action, with new members Billy Covington and Faruq Evans joining Sanders, Irby and Gill to round out the fivesome. But the prevailing tone of “Unsung” is bittersweet, a feeling that the fame and promise the Waco group enjoyed early on never fully realized its potential.
Bits of trivia
There’s some small bits of enjoyable trivia thrown in, such as copyright issues forcing a change in the group’s original name, the Playmates; the group’s initial Hi-V logo having to be changed to Hi-Five to avoid confusion with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS; and how a choreographer’s assistant shows up as a fifth Hi-Fiver in a music video shot shortly after Neal’s departure.
Lamar Chase produced the “Unsung” episode with Arthur Smith, Kent Weed and Frank Sinton as executive producers and Mark Rowland as co-executive producer. Its parent channel, TV One, is carried by Time Warner Cable on Channel 184.