In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
It sounds so light. “I Like The Way (The Kissing Game),” the only #1 hit from the teenage Texan R&B group Hi-Five, is a remarkably soft, gentle song. In 1991, when the new jack swing era was still near its peak, Hi-Five worked with genre architect Teddy Riley, and they built on the sound of the moment by taking it back to an earlier time. “I Like The Way” wasn’t as hard and confident as the music that Riley made with someone like past Number Ones artist Bobby Brown. Instead, it harkened back to the shimmery innocence of the music that Brown first made with New Edition.
“I Like The Way” is an ode to young love, and its tender sweetness sets it apart. That tender sweetness runs in direct opposition to the actual story of Hi-Five, whose entire run was an endless succession of calamities and tragedies. There have been a lot of sad stories in this column, but the Hi-Five saga is among the most dark and fucked of any of them. Be warned. Hi-Five’s #1 hit might’ve been light, but this story gets heavy.
When they found their way to the top of the Hot 100, the members of Hi-Five were young. Hi-Five lead singer Tony Thompson, who grew up between Waco and Oklahoma City, was a gospel prodigy. (When Thompson was born, the #1 single in America was KC & The Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight.”) When he was as young as eight, Thompson was singing in churches and local talent shows, building a rep for himself. Thompson’s cousin was a singer in Ador, an R&B group signed to Jive Records. When Thompson was 12, Ador’s manager Vinnie Bell signed Thompson to a production deal and built a group around him. Thompson recruited Toriano Easley, a friend from Oklahoma City. Three other young singers from Waco joined up, and the new group signed with Jive. Initially, the group called themselves the Playmates, but Hugh Hefner’s people threatened legal action, so they became Hi-Five instead. (At first, Hi-Five’s logo was styled as “Hi-V,” until someone pointed out that it looked too much like “HIV.”)
Bell brought Hi-Five to New York, where they recorded their self-titled debut album. The group made a few tracks with Teddy Riley, the young producer who’d revolutionized R&B by injecting it with a clattering physicality, imported from rap and dance music. By that point, Riley had already made hits with people like Bobby Brown, Al B. Sure!, Heavy D, and his own group Guy. For Hi-Five, getting to work with Teddy Riley was a big deal. With his regular collaborator Bernard Belle, Riley co-produced and co-wrote Hi-Five’s debut single, the funky and propulsive “I Just Can’t Handle It.” (Bernard Belle, incidentally, is the brother of R&B star Regina Belle, who will eventually appear in this column.) “I Just Can’t Handle It” sounded extremely New York, but Hi-Five recorded the video in Waco, making sure to present themselves as small-town kids. “I Just Can’t Handle It” made it to #3 on the R&B charts, but it missed the Hot 100 entirely.
“I Just Can’t Handle It” was a good start, but before Hi-Five’s album even came out, the group’s story took a sad and bleak turn. Toriano Easley went back to Oklahoma City to visit friends, and while he was there, he got into a fight and shot someone to death. Easley, 17 at the time, was charged with first-degree murder. He pleaded down to manslaughter and got sentenced to 10 years in prison. Hi-Five needed to find a new singer quickly, so Vinnie Bell recruited Treston Irby, a teenage gospel singer from the Bronx. Irby started appearing in the videos, but his voice wasn’t on Hi-Five’s first LP. A few months after the release of the album, the group released “I Like The Way (The Kissing Game)” as their second single.
Teddy Riley and Bernard Belle co-wrote “I Like The Way (The Kissing Game)” with studio engineer Dave Way, and Riley produced it himself. Compared to most Teddy Riley tracks from that era, “I Like The Way” eases off the gas pedal. The song isn’t a ballad; all of Riley’s tracks moved. Riley built “I Like The Way” on a bubbling, tumbling, intricate drum-machine beat, layering airy synth chords and pubescent harmonies all over it. It’s a track built for dancing, but it’s also a lost, dreamy crush song. When the single came out, Tony Thompson was still just 15. If anything, he sounded even younger.
“I Like The Way (The Kissing Game)” is a slight update on New Edition’s ’80s teen-pop R&B formula, and it gets closer to that sound than fellow New Edition imitators New Kids On The Block ever managed. Tony Thompson’s voice was thin and squeaky, but he knew how to control it. This was the early Mariah Carey moment, when R&B singers were just starting to go crazy with melismatic runs. Thompson could do that, though his take on the sound was relatively raw and unpolished. If anything, though, that added to the appeal of “I Like The Way.” In Thompson’s dizzy tenor delivery, you could hear slight echoes of young Michael Jackson, filtered through the prism of New Edition and new jack swing. (When “I Like The Way” reached #1, Teddy Riley was already working with the actual Michael Jackson. We’ll see Riley’s work again in this column.)
“I Like The Way” is a simple song, and it’s not exactly a work of art, but it’s effective for what it is. Thompson never says what “the kissing game” is, and it doesn’t really matter. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Bernard Belle helpfully explains, “The kissing game is, like, to get as many kisses. Teddy has a knack about hooks and titles. We were talking about this game that we used to play when we were little, how we would chase the girls and kiss them, so it was a young song. The guys were young, so we figured it might work.” Sure. But “I Like The Way” isn’t about a game; it’s about the feeling of making out when making out is new.
On “I Like The Way,” Tony Thompson sings about a brand-new teenage relationship: “All summer long, we’ve been together, and I never felt so good.” He insists that he’s in love, that he knows he’s in love: “I know our love will always be there.” If you’re old enough, you know that there’s basically zero chance of this couple making it long-term, and that’s fine. You get the sense that both of them will be looking back fondly on this for their whole lives, so he’s not wrong; it will always be there. The track floats along with near-frictionless ease. I don’t think it’s one of Teddy Riley’s best, but the whole joyously breezy vibe works.
Around the same time that “I Like The Way (The Kissing Game)” reached #1, the song went gold, and so did Hi-Five’s debut album. As a very young boy band with a chart-topping single, Hi-Five easily could’ve become one-hit wonders. Maybe things would’ve turned out better for the members of the group if they’d disappeared into obscurity after “I Like The Way” fell from #1. But that’s not what happened. Hi-Five followed “I Like The Way” with the ballad “I Can’t Wait Another Minute,” which topped the R&B chart and made it to #8 on the Hot 100. (It’s a 7.)
Another song from Hi-Five’s debut was “Too Young.” Hi-Five never released that one as a single, but a remixed version showed up on the Boyz N The Hood soundtrack in the summer of 1991. That remix featured the first commercial appearance of a very young Queens rapper named Prodigy, who would later become half of Mobb Deep. (As lead artists, Mobb Deep’s highest-charting single is “Hey Luv (Anything),” their 2002 collaboration with 112, which peaked at #58. As guests, Mobb Deep made it into the top 10 when they appeared on 50 Cent’s “Outta Control (Remix)” in 2005. That one peaked at #6, and it’s a 6.)
In 1992, Hi-Five followed their self-titled album with their sophomore effort Keep It Goin’ On. That album also went gold, and the deeply funky lead single “She’s Playing Hard To Get” peaked at #5. (It’s an 8.) The group also worked on that album with songwriter and producer R. Kelly. I’m not looking forward to this shit any more than you are, but R. Kelly will eventually appear in this column.
But back to this dark story: Soon after the release of Keep It Goin’ On, Hi-Five got into a van crash, which left group member Roderick “Pooh” Clark paralyzed. He would never walk again, and his time in Hi-Five came to an end.
Despite all their success, Hi-Five weren’t getting paid much. Russell Neal, another member of the group, got mad about money and left Hi-Five in 1993. Hi-Five quickly replaced both Clark and Neal, but their third album, 1993’s Faithful, tanked. That album’s biggest hit was “Never Should’ve Let You Go,” which got a boost from appearing on the soundtrack of Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit. The song peaked at #30, and that was Hi-Five’s last appearance on the Hot 100.
Hi-Five eventually fired manager Vinnie Bell and left Jive for Giant Records. But Giant really wanted a Tony Thompson solo album, and the label kept the group on the shelf. In 1995, Thompson released his solo album Sexsational. (Great title.) That album featured contributions from a bunch of people who were on their way to becoming stars: Mary J. Blige, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Missy Elliott, Faith Evans. It still bricked. The single, the Babyface-written “I Wanna Love Like That,” made it to #59, but that was it. At the time, Thompson was already deep in the throes of cocaine addiction. While he struggled, Hi-Five broke up.
In the late ’90s, Tony Thompson signed with Bad Boy Records, which was exactly the place where a fading R&B star should’ve been able to revive his career. It didn’t happen. Possibly because of his addiction problems, Thompson’s time on Bad Boy amounted to nothing. Eventually, Thompson formed a new version of Hi-Five, and they released an album on Thompson’s own label in 2005. But some of the other former Hi-Five members sued over the rights to the name, and the album was pulled.
Two years later, Tony Thompson died outside an apartment building in Waco. He’d been huffing freon from the air conditioning unit, and it killed him. Thompson was 31. It doesn’t stop there, either. In 2014, police arrested former Hi-Five member Russell Neal for murder. He had stabbed and beaten his wife to death. Neal was deemed unfit to stand trial, and he was institutionalized. That means two of the five singers on “I Like The Way (This Kissing Game)” are murderers, one is paralyzed, and one is dead.
A few other former Hi-Five members have put together a new lineup of the group, and they even released an album in 2017. In the Unsung episode dedicated to Hi-Five a few years ago, those guys said that they were doing it to keep the music alive and to honor Tony Thompson’s memory. I get it. But if I were those guys, I’d want to get as far away from Hi-Five as possible. Hi-Five had a nice little two-year chart run, but even while that was happening, their story was full of all sorts of impossible misery. I don’t believe in metaphysical curses, but the Hi-Five saga makes me wonder.
BONUS BEATS: Bay Area underground rap great Messy Marv flipped the hook from “I Like The Way (The Kissing Game)” on his 2006 Redman collab “I’m A Hustla.” Here it is:
(Redman’s highest-charting single is the 1995 Method Man collab “How High,” which peaked at #13.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2011, back when he still used the inadvisable name Tity Boi, 2 Chainz used “I Like The Way (The Kissing Game)” as the basis of his mixtape track “Kissing Game.” Here it is:
(As lead artist, 2 Chainz’ highest-charting single is the 2012 Drake collab “No Lie,” which peaked at #24. As a guest, 2 Chainz made it has high as #3 when he rapped on Jason Derulo’s 2014 single “Talk Dirty.” That one is a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: ’90s R&B survivors SWV quoted “I Like The Way (The Kissing Game)” on their pretty-great 2012 single “All About You.” Here’s the video:
(SWV will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil B rapping over a sped-up “I Like The Way (The Kissing Game)” sample on his 2012 mixtape track “Tell You This”:
(Lil B has never had a Hot 100 hit, but his old group the Pack made it to #58 with their 2006 single “Vans.”)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Just last year, Usher and Ella Mai sang over the drums from “I Like The Way (The Kissing Game)” on Usher’s single “Don’t Waste My Time.” Here’s the video:
(We’ll see a whole lot of Usher in this column. Ella Mai’s highest-charting single, 2018’s “Boo’d Up,” peaked at #5. It’s a 10.)