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To Backstreet (and Back) - An Interview with Burk Parsons, Part 2
August 10, 2009
Yesterday I began an interview with Burk Parsons. You can read the first part here. The interview continues today…The interview continues today…
People may have heard rumors in the past that you were an original member of the Backstreet Boys. Is this true?
Unfortunately, yes, it’s true. In fact, I recall the day we were told the name of our group. Alex, Nick, Howie, Sam, and I were together in Lou Pearlman’s enormous game room (adorned with original Hollywood paraphernalia, such as a Darth Vader helmet, C3PO suit, and Starship Enterprise model hanging prominently above—everything teenage boys loved). It is there where many of our early practice sessions and conversations took place. Lou had been in collaboration with his people from the entertainment industry about the name for his new boy band. As I recall, I was sitting on the floor next to Nick Carter who was thirteen at the time, and when Lou told us our new name, “The Backstreet Boys,” we laughed so hard that we were actually rolling on the ground. We all thought it was quite possibly the worst name he could have come up with. At first, we thought Lou was joking. For years, friends of mine have mockingly referred to the group as the Back Alley Boys, Backyard Boys, Backseat Boys, and so on.
How did it come about that you found yourself part of a boy band?
My dear mother was involved in the entertainment industry growing up. As the second daughter of Jimmy Featherstone, a 1940s big band leader, drummer, and studio-orchestra director for WGN in Chicago, my mother was in modeling, music, and stage shows most of her life until she met my father. In fact, at the time she met my father my mother was employed as a public relations assistant to Hugh Hefner (Go figure that one out!). She was and has always been a dreamer. While my father wanted me to change the world through politics and law, my mother seemed to think I could influence the world through the entertainment industry. Alas, thankfully, God had other things in mind.
Bear with me here as I try to provide some background information as to how I found myself in a boy band and why I left. When I was sixteen, I lived in Sarasota, Florida, with my mother, stepfather, and two younger sisters all of whom had recently begun to attend Sarasota Baptist Church with me under the pastoral care of godly pastors—Dave Clippard and Greg Lester. This is the church in which I became a Christian and was baptized along with my stepfather (and, yes, I was immersed, in a horse trough no less because the new sanctuary was still under construction).
My father, however, remained in Dayton, Ohio, after the divorce. It was 1992, my father was sixty eight years old and had just been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was a WWII navy war veteran who picked up a smoking habit in the navy and quit before I was born—in Carmel, California, incidentally, in March of 1976. His cancer progressed quickly, and my father didn’t fight it. He had lived a full life, and though I have never said it before, I have always thought that he didn’t fight his cancer primarily because he wanted to go home to be with his Lord, whom he had just recently come to know. My father and I spoke regularly on the phone, and in one of the last conversations we had he urged me to pursue a law degree. I respectfully spoke with him and explained to him that I thought I would be in pastoral ministry some day. While he admitted he was pleased to hear my desire, he was concerned that I would not be able to provide for a family properly and that I needed first to earn a degree that would give me something to fall back on in case a life in ministry didn’t work out. I still think his was good advice for a fifteen-year-old kid. But as I mentioned earlier, I was a very serious kid, and I recall thinking at the time that my father was not able fully to understand the passion God had instilled within me to serve Him in pastoral ministry.
On September 20, a beautiful Sunday evening, my mother came into my bedroom when I got home from work and told me that my dad had died. For reasons I won’t mention, I never had the opportunity to see my father again after he had been diagnosed, and I didn’t get to attend his memorial service outside Branson, Missouri. It was just a few years ago that Amber, Claire, and I had the opportunity to visit his grave for the first time, where he is buried next to the first son he had from his former marriage to the daughter of automobile manufacturer Preston Tucker; his son was killed in 1969 at the age of eighteen while hunting. That death drove my father into life-long sadness, divorce, and eventually to marry my mother—and, I believe, it also drove him finally, by God’s grace, to his knees to trust Jesus. In turn, my father guided me to Jesus, and in his death I too was brought to my knees to trust God, realizing as a young man the realities of sin, death, and despair in this life but the unspeakable salvation, liberty, and peace in our Lord.
After my father’s death, my desire for ministry had grown even stronger, and our Enemy worked even harder to divert me from following Jesus onto his own path—a path of self-centered pursuits and the world’s pleasures. In the devils hands were several seeming advantages: First, my family had little money at the time. Second, my youngest sister, Callie, had a very rare type of anemia that doctors promised would take her life in her early twenties, at the latest, and any treatments, including bone-marrow transplants, would be very costly. Three, my mother had a dream to get me into entertainment, and within a couple of months of my father’s death, I was playing extra roles in movies, commercials, and so on. I thought it was all pretty neat—well, kind of, but in no way whatsoever was my heart in it—again, I was a serious kid who wrote poetry, listened to Simon and Garfunkel, loved 1960s folk music, drove a truck—you get the point. I despised the teenage pop-scene; I never went to high-school parties because I thought all those partying kids were losers; I didn’t know what the popular shows were on TV, and my favorite movies at the time were mostly in black and white. Nevertheless, when I showed up at Sarasota High School my freshman year, coming from a small Mennonite Christian school, I dated the prettiest girl on campus and was voted valentine’s king—again, all the Enemy’s tantalizing ways of attempting to pull me towards him.
After a couple of months doing bit parts in the entertainment industry, my mother made an appointment with an agent. We drove to Orlando, met with an agent for about thirty minutes, and literally as we were walking out of her office she received a phone call from an agent representing a man named Lou Perlman, and she said they were forming a boy band akin to the New Kids on the Block (all this is getting very depressing). They were looking for boys between the ages of thirteen and eighteen who met several criteria. While my mother and I stood in front of the agent, she held the phone in her hand, looked at me and said, “Can you sing?” I said, “I guess so” (I’m thinking Simon and Garfunkel). She hung up the phone and told me to be at a warehouse in Orlando in two weeks with two songs prepared to perform.
At the audition, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I listened to my mother, whom I respected deeply, and I went into this warehouse filled with blimps (Airship International being one of Pearlman’s former businesses), sung my songs and met the agents, and then a big guy (Lou Perlman) got up from behind a big table and put his big arm around me and walked me around and spoke with me about our future together. He asked me if I knew who the Beatles were; I said yes (I knew 1960s music probably better than he did). He then asked if I knew who Paul McCartney is; I again said yes. Then he said this to me, and I’ll never forget it: “I’m going to create the next Beatles, and you’re going to be my Paul McCartney.” At that very moment I felt like laughing, and as I write this I still feel like laughing.
Two weeks later I got the call that I was officially in the band. That next weekend my mother, sisters, and I drove to Orlando. My sisters swam in the hotel pool with Nick Carter and his brother, Aaron, and I was picked up in the nicest limousine I had ever seen—myself along with the other guys hopped in with Lou Perlman and went to eat. I didn’t quite know what to make of it all, and I was skeptical from the outset, yet I went along with it for the time being. It was January 1993, and for the next several months the other guys and I met in Orlando for voice lessons, rehearsals, dance lessons, and conversations about private tutors for school and about our future together. The agents began to assign the guys stage names (it seems I didn’t need one): Alex McLean became “AJ” (he was supposed to be the bad boy of the bunch, but really a nice guy), Howard Durough became “Howie D” (a very kind fellow with an incredible voice—both Howard and Alex really carried the entire group with their voices). Nicki became “Nick,” he was the young cute kid of the group, and I was right in the middle at sixteen going on seventeen, I was supposed to be the one all the moms would like—they one they would “approve of,” so that moms would let their young, impressionable daughters buy our albums and come to our concerts (I think that’s what they told each of us).
The agents began to write bios for us detailing how we all grew up together, signing together at school and in the streets, hence “Backstreet Boys.” The word was that we were always together. Consequently, to get the buzz going, we went everywhere together throughout Orlando. We went to all the best restaurants, and spent a lot of time at Church Street Station (which Lou later purchased from the city of Orlando). If we weren’t in the limousine, we took Lou’s 1940s Rolls Royce or his brand new 1992 baby blue Rolls Royce convertible. We were living an absolutely incredible life. All the guys were great to know and I thought well of all of them: Nick, Alex, Howard, and Sam (Incidentally, Sam was an original member as well who, if I’m right in my assumptions, perhaps got a bit too old as the group began to take off in 1995-1996 on their first European tour, and Sam decided to fly solo into the entertainment world. I heard from Vanity Fair magazine a year or two ago—when they wanted to interview me on a piece they were doing on the rise and fall of Lou Pearlman—that Sam is doing well in his solo career, but I am told I can’t give his current stage name because he doesn’t want the association considering his particular audience.)
For several months we were together and I enjoyed my time with the group. Meanwhile, Lou’s attorneys were preparing contracts; his agents were lining up gigs, and his managers were beginning to work with studios, songwriters, and producers. All the while, however, especially after the initial thrill of it all wore off, I was seriously questioning whether or not it was something I should do—whether or not it was something God wanted me to pursue. Many of the Christian friends and adults around me said it seemed like it was a door that God had opened for me (herein lies the danger of “open-door” theology: Just because a door is seemingly open doesn’t mean we should walk through it, and just because a door is seemingly closed doesn’t mean we shouldn’t knock it down and walk through it). Their reasoning—almost persuasive—went like this, if God had really called me to ministry, and if God had given me certain talents, and if God had opened this door to a potentially worldwide audience, then God must want me to do it. It was an open door—why not do it? The advice from many Christian men and women, many seemingly excited and jealous for my opportunity, was to go into it and see if I could have any sort of voice for God in the world through the entertainment industry. Of course all my friends thought it was just cool and that I would be crazy not to do it. Of course, on top of all that were some of the pressing family factors that played a role in getting me into entertainment in the first place—my family had little money at the time and my sister would need major medical treatments in the future.
And how did it come about that you decided to walk away from it? How did you wrestle through the call to ministry versus the call to ministry through Backstreet Boys. Would that not have opened up a multitude of doors?
There were several factors that lead me to walk away from it. Besides the fact that I was not into the pop-music scene and couldn’t (didn’t want to) dance hip-hop too well, I was consumed with following the path that God had set out for me in ministry. Of course, at sixteen, I thought I might be able to do this for a while and then go into ministry. It’s also important for me to confess that although it was clear to me what God had called me to do in the future, and although it was clear that I was now a Christian and that my life began to change as a result of my conversion, I didn’t know all that meant for my present situation. Moreover, some of my friends were not yet Christians, and I did not yet have one single authority in my life that was helping to direct me as to what I should do, whom I should date, and how I should spend my time. There was one man, however, whom the Lord used mightily to help me make the decision to walk away. His name is Gene Miller, he was a principal at Sarasota Christian School and recently retired in May of 2009. Mr. Miller is a godly Mennonite man and the man who asked me to lead a 500-student chapel service in eighth grade (something that hadn’t been done before and certainly something that was never tried again). I was to give my testimony and a few words from Scripture (really my first “sermon.”) I went on longer than expected and took the whole chapel time. I recall using Chuck Swindoll’s book Improving Your Serve on serving one another as students. I was fourteen (I am still embarrassed). Mr. Miller approached me one day when the word was spreading about my involvement in this new boy band in Orlando. Actually it’s not really accurate to call them a band; it was a boys singing group; to my knowledge none of them played any instruments; I was learning guitar (think Simon and Garfunkel). He approached me, gently put his arm around me, and said, “Burk, this isn’t what God has for you, my son. You can’t do this in the world and still expect to serve God faithfully.” I responded, “But Mr. Miller, how do you know what I can or cannot do? Maybe God will enable me to remain faithful to Him while serving Him in the world. Maybe this is God’s open door for me to have a voice for Him in the world.” He said, with a big smile, “Burk, it’s just not possible. You can’t serve God and the world at the same time.” And with that he walked away probably thinking his words had landed on deaf ears, but on the contrary, in God’s providence, his words were exactly what I needed to hear.
All the while, we were preparing to sign contracts in a few weeks just prior to our first photo shoot on Cocoa Beach (incidentally, the attorneys demanded that no personal photographs be taken prior to our signing of the contracts). My mother, while very pleased that I had made the cut and that I was on my way to stardom, she was growing somewhat suspicious of Lou Pearlman’s character (a suspicion which later proved to be insightful as Lou was repeatedly alleged to have had naughty associations with several young boys). Together with Mr. Miller’s well-timed words, my mother’s suspicions, my own lack of care for the pop-music scene, I was completely overcome with the following questions and concerns: First, how could I honestly serve our Lord by singing lust-filled music and shaking my body for young, impressionable teenage girls (like my younger sisters)? Second, through what venue would I actually get the opportunity to speak about the faith and my conversion to Christ when even our life stories were being rewritten and even copyrighted? Third, how could I remain faithful to what I told my late father about my call to pastoral ministry if I pursue a life in show business, a life that he would not have endorsed? (My father was of a traditional mindset about Hollywood and considered the world of show business to be a world of uneducated, trashy people who were responsible for making the world even more corrupt.) My father’s impressions were, and remain to be important to me as I still seek to please him, if that’s possible.
So, with those questions in my mind and my self-developed conclusions to those questions, I walked into Lou’s office one week before contracts were to be signed and told him that this wasn’t what God had for my life. I explained to him as he sat behind his desk, breathing heavily, that I believed God had other plans for me and that I believed I would be in ministry some day. That’s really about all I said; it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life (even to this day). Lou Pearlman, a lapsed Jew, first cousin of Art Garfunkel (kind of ironic), and self-made millionaire (or so it seemed at the time), looked at me, smiled, and said, “We love you Burk, you can’t leave us; we’re you’re family.” He knew me well enough to know that those words wouldn’t convince me, and I recall looking down as if I had disappointed him, and he went on to say, this time using the same theology that many Christians had used with me: “Maybe this is God’s way of using you. Maybe this is God’s plan for you. How do you know what He wants you to do? You just need to think about this a little more. It will all be okay, Burk. Next week things are really going to start to get exciting with our first photo shoot…” I then remember standing up and saying to him (and there was no one else in the room) Lou, I just can’t do it—I’m sorry.” He then stood up and said, “you must do it, Burk.” His face turned red and he huffed and puffed (he was a big guy; he’s not as big now, literally, since he’s been in jail for the past year awaiting his arraignment for fraud, embezzlement, and a host of other state, federal, and international charges; it’s all very sad). He then proceeded to remind me of all he had invested in me and in the rest of the group. By this time the rest of the guys could hear what was going on as they sat in the game room outside Lou’s office. He was yelling, and he was beyond upset. In tears, I thanked him for all he had done and how said how sorry I was for letting him down and leaving. I walked out, said goodbye, and waved to the guys whom I dearly came to love and care for and drove home to Sarasota. It was one of the longest two-hour drives of my life.
Go to Part 3 where I say to Burk, “I’ve heard rumor as well that you were the first person Lou Pearlman spoke to when he decided to begin another band he called ‘N Sync. Is this true as well?”