PATERSON, NJ - Becoming famous doesn’t carry a guarantee that you’ll stay famous. Paterson resident Skip Van Rensalier found that out in the 1990s after the rhythm and blues group he managed, “Riff” – four teenagers from Eastside High School – were portrayed in the 1989 film “Lean on Me” and went on tour with Vanilla Ice.
For the boys, fame was short-lived. Now, Van Rensalier talks about it in his new book, “Six Part Harmony – Riff (The Untold Story).”
“It was a struggle for us,” Van Rensalier recollected in a recent interview. “It started off very positively, but the reality set in very quickly.”
Van Rensalier met the boys while he was working as a social worker at East Side High School. He had graduated from the school in 1966, attended college, and returned.
In 1982, Joe Clark became principal of the school and began turning it around with harsh, sometimes unorthodox, methods. Among the rules, he demanded that all students learn the school song and sing it when requested.
Van Rensalier, who was choir director for First A.M.E. Zion Church (and still is), heard the harmony of the four students around 1988. He told them he’d written some songs he wanted to show them. “It kind of blossomed from there,” he said.
He began managing them a year before the film came out. He got them local gigs.
When “Lean on Me” premiered in theaters in early 1989, it became a big hit. Morgan Freeman starred as Joe Clark, with Robert Guillame and Beverly Todd in supporting roles.
In a famous scene, Clark bumped into the boys in the bathroom and asked them to sing the school song on the spot.
That’s when producers sought out the boys in real life.
“People realized the untapped talent at Eastside High School,” Van Rensalier said. “Riff was at the top of the list.”
Van Rensalier stayed involved as a manager when a record company sent the boys on tour in early 1991. They released a single, “My Heart Is Failing Me.”
They toured with Robert “Vanilla Ice” Van Winkle, who became famous for his oddly shaved head and one-hit wonder, “Ice, Ice, Baby,” which sampled “Under Pressure” by David Bowie and Queen.
“I thought on a personal level, we got along very well,” Van Rensalier said of Van Winkle. “He was kind of immature, kind of spoiled. It’s not a revelation; he was known for his temper tantrums. It was all about him. But he was young, and I understand that.”
Van Winkle was 23 when the song zoomed up the pop charts.
Van Rensalier mostly blames the record company, which also managed Wilson Phillips and Tracy Chapman, for not promoting Riff properly.
“The urban stations weren’t playing Vanilla Ice,” Van Rensalier said. “They were not respecting or recognizing him. It didn’t do anything for us.”
He said the company was trying to market Riff as a pop band, not R&B. He sees them more as a predecessor to the young R&B groups that found success in the 1990s, like Boys II Men and Jodeci.
“The [Riff] shows were all sold out, but it was 96 or 97 percent white teenage girls,” he said. “They came off the tour not as popular as they should have been. The record company didn’t promote their CD as much. I think a lot of it had to do who we were out there with.”
While on tour, Van Rensalier kept a journal. “I was very faithful to the journal,” he said.
“I wrote every night. It was a four-year journal. I used it as a foundation for the book.”
In 1994, the group terminated him as co-manager. He said there were no hard feelings, and they remain friendly today. “I didn’t have pedigree to be a manager,” he says. “A good manager is someone who can pick up the phone and make things happen.”
He added, “I still blame myself to a certain degree. But I also blame the record company, knowing the kind of success they should have had, their talent.”
The boys still sing together on occasion, but have other jobs.
Van Remailer’s kids have met the boys and have gone into the arts too. His oldest son, Darnell, is a member of the R&B group Shai, which had a platinum hit in 1992. His son, Darien, is hip-hop dancer who appeared on stage at Radio City Music Hall, and teaches dance. His daughter, Damani, recently graduated from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers as dance major and is appearing on Broadway as a swing cast member in the musical “Hadestown.”
On the book and its lessons
Van Rensalier said people can learn a lot about the music business, and the ups and downs of fame, from the book.
“People used to ask, and still do, ‘What happened to Riff?’ ” he said. “They did Arsenio Hall and the Tonight Show. People said, ‘Those boys can really sing.’ This book is a first-hand explanation as to what happened, and maybe the promises that were made by the record company and not kept.”
He said he knows the music business is tough, and even the most talented are still competing for a small slice of audience attention. That hasn’t changed, but some things about the recording industry have.
“People can promote themselves on YouTube now,” he said. “Or start a home recording studio. They can create their own CD and put it out there. Fetty Wap [from Paterson], I think he was outside selling CD’s out of his trunk, and next thing, he’s blowing up. I see rap artists [on the street] all the time. I support them. If they’re selling a CD, I buy a couple. It’s a tough business. |It’s not always about your talent. It’s competitive.”
Van Rensalier was recently was involved in a signing and launch for his book at Paterson’s Fabian Theater that featured a performance by Riff's current lineup, and is available for more events.
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