98° is hot.
In five short years — from 1997 to 2002 — they’d sold a staggering 10 million records, scored a chart-topping single, “Thank God I Found You,” with Mariah Carey and Joe, and collaborated with their collective idol, Stevie Wonder, on “True to Your Heart,” for the 1998 animated Disney film, Mulan. Their four-million-selling album, 98° and Rising (1998, Motown), spawned the top-5 favorites “Because of You,” “I Do,” and “The Hardest Thing,” while 2000’s Revelation (Universal Records), which sold two million copies, peaked at number 2 on the Billboard 200 and yielded a trio of hits, “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche),” “My Everything” and “The Way You Want Me To.”
By September 10, 2001, the frequent Total Request Live champions had reached “the pinnacle of our career,” remembers Jeff Timmons. That was the night the male-harmony group, which also includes Justin Jeffre and brothers Nick and Drew Lachey, performed in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden as part of the Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Celebration. A star-studded salute marking the icon’s three-decade run as a solo entertainer, it was the kind of achievement that should have taken 98° to the next level.
“Here we are, performing for Michael, singing ‘Man In the Mirror’ with Luther Vandross and Usher,” recalls Timmons, founder of the Los Angeles-formed, all-Ohio-raised quartet. “I’m like, ‘This is unbelievable, I’m so lucky to be here!’” But not 12 hours later, the 9-11 attacks changed the world forever. At that point, they decided to take a break.
Save for a one-off performance on a TV special in 2004, it would be more than a decade before the four friends in 98° would sing together again. And even then, it would only be in private, “to see if we still had what it takes,” says Jeffre.
“We met up in Vegas to hang out, go to a lounge,” he says. “Then, the next day, we gave it a go. We sang ‘She’s Out of My Life’” — the Jackson ballad they’d covered a cappella on their 98° & Rising album. It was only a few seconds in that “we knew. We just knew.”
The following year, the group tested the waters with a one-time appearance at the Mixtape Festival in Hershey, Penn. Then, in 2013, they hit the road with New Kids On the Block and Boyz II Men, the latter being their inspiration and a group that figures prominently in their origin story. (In the mid-nineties, a fledgling 98° snuck backstage at one of their concerts, hoping to get a demo to the Boyz.)
Encouraged by the rapturous fan reaction, the group headlined their own, 38-city trek in the summer of 2016. The My2K tour, which also included O-Town, Dream and Ryan Cabrera, played to sell-out or near-capacity crowds at venues like the prestigious Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and the 5000-seat Coney Island Amphitheater in New York City.
“Whenever you go away from the business for a bit, you wonder, ‘Will anyone care if and when we come back?’” says Jeffre. “But our fans really surprised us. They showed us so much love and support.”
It was the encouragement they needed. “After the My2K tour, we were like, “How do we keep this going?” Timmons says. “Ultimately, we don’t want to be on the road all the time. I have five kids; Nick has three, Drew has two.
The quartet will release their first full-length album in 4 years, Let It Snow, via UMe. Recorded this past July in Los Angeles, the album features the group’s signature R&B-tinged, four-part harmonies. Let It Snow is their second Christmas title, their critically-acclaimed This Christmas was a million-selling, multi-platinum album in 1999.
“As a group, our favorite record, hands down, is [This Christmas],” says Drew. “We’re proud of the music, the harmonies, the production. It’s a Christmas record that every year people can put on and enjoy.”
Explains Timmons: “We have primarily a female audience, but we’ll have guys come up to us and say, ‘You know what? I love the Christmas album; my mom bought it for me.’ It’s bro code that the Christmas album’s allowed,” Timmons jokingly added.
Plus, “it’s a special year for us – it’s the 20th anniversary of our first release on Motown Records,” says Nick. “So, it just seemed like the perfect moment to revisit that and do a Volume Two.”
The guys recruited Grammy-nominated music, TV and film producer Adam Anders to oversee the project. Perhaps best known for his work as executive music producer for Glee, Anders has written and recorded with some of the biggest names in contemporary pop music, from Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez to Backstreet Boys and the Jonas Brothers.
Along with beloved standards like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, and “Please Come Home For Christmas,” the 12-song collection includes their take on “What Christmas Means To Me,” written by Allen Story, Anna Gordy Gaye, George Gordy and is the standard that was popularized by Wonder.
“[Recording ‘True To Your Heart’] with Stevie very early in our career was a signature moment in terms of establishing us as a group,” says Nick. In addition to “Superstition” being a 98° concert staple, “I’ve had the chance to do a bunch of Stevie stuff over the years: performing “For Once In My Life” with Babyface on a variety show back in the day, as well as “That’s What Christmas Means to Me” on a finale of The Sing-Off. It was a no-brainer to include that on this Christmas record.”
Drew, meanwhile, “was kind of adamant” about including “Little Saint Nick,” the cheery 1963 Beach Boys bop. “You don’t hear a ton of people covering that one. It’s an up-tempo song, it’s fun, and it allows us to show off our harmonies.”
As for Timmons, he was the most thrilled about having 98° put their own spin on the classic carols “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “The First Noel” and “What Child is This?”
“Those are my favorite selections with regard to our group, our voices,” he says. “We nailed the arrangements on those songs! To hear Nick’s voice on “What Child is This”… Whoa! I’m a big fan of his.”
While Timmons describes himself as “that cheesy guy who gets into the holiday spirit no matter what,” Jeffre chose Joni Mitchell’s melancholic ode to winter, “River.” “Not everyone has family or friends to spend the holidays with,” says Jeffre. “This song is for those people. I hope they find some comfort in it.”
Over the past 15 years, all four members have enjoyed other careers outside of music. Nick appeared on TV shows both as an actor (The WB’s Charmed and One Tree Hill) and a host (VH-1’s Big Morning Buzz Live). Drew was crowned season two winner of Dancing With the Stars, been on Broadway, and both brothers opened Lachey’s Bar (A&E). Timmons joined members of Backstreet Boys and ‘NSYNC for VH-1’s Mission Man Band and Nick Carter’s Sci-Fi feature, Dead Seven. Jeffre is involved in various media and cause related projects stemming from his foray into politics as a mayoral candidate of Cincinnati.
Still, they always harbored a not-so-secret hope to one day record together again as 98°. And, this Christmas, the four friends got their wish.
“I love the singing, I love the performing, but the best part of making this record is that I get to hang out with the guys and share some laughs,” says Jeffre. “We’re all at the point in our lives where we have so much else going on — other projects, families. We may go for an extended period of time without even talking to each other, but when we get back together, we pick right back up where we left off.
The band will also be embarking on a 31 city tour kicking off on November 10 and running through December 23.
Might Let It Snow lead to future 98° albums? Time will tell, but Timmons certainly hopes so.
“The best has yet to come out of this group,” he says. “After all these years, ultimately, it’s all about the way we sound when we sing together. As you get older, that means everything: to be able to strip away all of that other stuff and get back to why we’re doing this in the first place.”