New Kids on the Block’s Danny Wood on How Late Mom’s Breast Cancer Battle Caused Denial & Divorce (Exclusive)
By Leena Tailor
Photo: Danny Wood
Danny Wood fondly recalls the day he came home from recording vocals with bandmate Jordan Knight on New Kids on the Block’s 1988 hit, “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever,)” and proudly played the beautiful ballad for his late mom, Elizabeth, aka Betty.
“I had been in the studio with Jordan learning how to engineer and I recorded some of the vocals, so I took the cassette home and played it for my mom and she was like, ‘Wow,’” Wood tells ET. “My mom always knew I was in this group and that we were making music, but I don’t think she took it seriously until she heard that song. Then she was like, ‘You guys have got a hit!’”
For Wood, her support and encouragement meant everything as he navigated life on the cusp of superstardom with New Kids on the Block. Now, as he marks 19 years since Betty sadly lost her battle against breast cancer, the father of three is opening up about how his mom made him the man he is today, the suffering she endured following her diagnosis and the impact the illness had on his life, marriage and philanthropic efforts with Remember Betty, a foundation he started in her honor.
“I tell my kids all the time that everything that’s good in me came from her,” says the 49-year-old boy bander and solo artist, who grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, with five siblings. “She was Portuguese and that side of her family was a big influence, then going into first grade when [desegregation] busing started in Boston, she always taught me, ‘Don’t judge people by the color of their skin -- it’s about who they are inside.’ That was a staple in our home growing up. She also taught me how to bake and cook and eventually helped me become a man and raise my own son [Daniel, 25, from a past relationship with Elise Stepherson.]”
When the news came, in his late twenties, that Betty had cancer, Wood was devastated. Having reached hysteria-inducing heights of fame with Knight and his brother, Jonathan, Donnie Wahlberg and Joey McIntyre, and developed a fandom which remained devoted even after the group disbanded in 1994, success and adorning fans could do little to ease the pain of learning he could lose his mom.
Initially diagnosed with breast cancer, doctors removed one of Betty’s breasts but found the cancer had spread. “So, she had a rough two years of treatment,” Wood says. “My mom really suffered and it was a hard decision for her to make, but she couldn’t do any more chemo in the end."
On Sept. 19, 1999, Wood flew home from Miami, to the Dorchester home he grew up in, to sit with Betty, 55, on the eve of her death. While Daniel, aged six at the time, sweetly sang to his beloved nana, Wood -- who had married Miami songwriter Patricia Alfaro by then -- later wrote how he felt, “my world crumbling around me,” in those scarring moments.
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The years that followed proved arduous as Wood struggled to come to terms with his loss and felt an increasing strain on his marriage to Alfaro, with whom he has two daughters, 20-year-old Chance (adopted from Russia) and 19-year-old Vega.
“It had a big impact on my life because I didn’t accept it for a long time,” Wood says. “She was so influential in my life that I just didn’t accept it. Between me and my ex-wife, it was that for me and other issues for her, ending our marriage. It was a long road to get to the point where I was ready to create a charity in her name and be able to talk about it. People often ask me, ‘How do you deal with it?’ and I tell them, ‘You just learn how to manage it better … it doesn’t get better.’”
“I was always good at sticking to raising the kids, working out and trying to take care of myself and the kids through everything,” he adds. “But there was always this underlying pain there that I hadn’t really addressed because I was just trying to get through life, day to day. It probably wasn’t until I did get divorced [in 2006] and really was on my own with the kids, who ended up spending most of their time with me, that I finally was able to start realizing the reasons why she passed away -- and how this foundation and the people we help are why she’s not here.”
Danny has dedicated much of his time since to fundraising efforts in the fight against breast cancer and launched Remember Betty to help ease the financial burden faced by many sufferers. Money raised has helped cover everything from medical bills to rent, groceries and car repairs to ensure patients can attend treatment. Fundraising work has been phenomenally escalated by New Kids on the Block’s dedicated army of “Blockheads,” who sprang into action from the get-go, starting their own fundraising events, campaigns and donation drives in Betty’s honor.
“They started making Team Bettys all over the country and a lot of it comes from the fact that they’ve lost someone too,” Wood says. “Everyone’s connected to breast cancer, specifically in our fan base. And, the guys in the group are connected to it because they were all close with my mom. It’s taken off to the point now where I’ve become friends with a lot of these girls who are fundraising. They still come to shows and fangirl, but some of them have my phone number and we talk about ideas they have for fundraisers. They’re passionate about it because they’re all connected to it, and some are survivors themselves.”
Wood’s family was hit with the illness again a few years ago, with the “scary” news that his sister, Bethany, also had breast cancer. Thanks to advances in medications to help treat the harsh side effects which led Betty to halt her chemotherapy, Bethany was able to conquer the treatment, get better and now runs marathons and has even taken over for Wood as the director of Remember Betty.
In a salute to the proactive fans who have helped the foundation flourish and kept Betty’s memory alive, Wood is now giving Blockheads the opportunity to win a spot on New Kids on the Block’s upcoming 10th fan cruise, as part of a CrowdRise fundraising campaign for Remember Betty. Contributors will be in for a chance to join Wood and his bandmates as they set sail with Rose Tours from Miami to the Bahamas, on board the Carnival Victory, for four days and nights of parties, performances and priceless interaction with the band.
“We’re out and about on the boat the whole time,” says Wood, who takes his children on the cruise. “Someone’s always taking selfies with people, we have theme parties at night, and the five of us are all in it together, staying up until three, four, five in the morning.”
“There are points in the night where Jon will jump in the pool, or once Joe was in there with a bunch of girls while wearing a purple skin suit because we did Purple Night in honor of Prince,” he continues. “He was in a purple skin suit dancing to ‘Darling Nikki.’ It was pretty disturbing, yet I guess for most girls, entertaining!”
Before they set sail on Oct. 18, the group will celebrate the recent 30th anniversary of their breakthrough record, Hangin’ Tough, with a one-off show at New York City’s Apollo Theater on Oct. 7. The venue holds significant meaning for the quintet, who cracked a brutally tough crowd during a career-defining performance at the Harlem venue in their early days.
Wood says he had little idea the lifechanging impact that the Hangin’ Tough studio sessions would have.
“I remember recording ‘Hangin’ Tough’ with me, Donnie and Jordan and there was no wall between us and the soundboard,” he says. “Our producer, Maurice Starr, was just building the studio, so we were all standing around a mic singing ‘Hangin’ Tough,’ while you could hear cars driving past outside. We didn’t think it was going to be a number one record -- we just thought it sounded all right. We had no clue!”
“Being back in the studio, it has been me, Donnie and Jordan a lot, which was also the case for Hangin’ Tough -- right after school we would go the studio,” Wood explains. “So, it’s been a lot of fun. We’ve been in the studio with Lars [Halvor] from Deekay Music, who worked on ‘Remix’ and DJ Kay Gee from Naughty by Nature.”
“The music’s really fun and some of the songs have a retro sound, which we did a little bit with ‘Remix,’ but this is more directly towards the '80s rather than Motown,” he adds. “Ultimately for us, we only care if the fans like it. We’re not going to radio and trying to have a top 10 record -- it’s not a realistic goal anymore.”
Wood is excited for fans to hear the new music, “probably early next year,” with an official announcement coming on Oct. 8., And, if that’s not enough to whet Blockheads’ appetites, patient fans will also be rewarded with new solo material from Wood, potentially next fall. Having previously released 2009’s Stronger: Remember Betty and 2016’s Look at Me, with proceeds going to Remember Betty, he confirms he has two albums' worth of solo music ready to go but is currently focused on New Kids on the Block.
“I’ve been writing and working on it and it’s an easy way for me to be creative, but also have a goal to raise money and help people,” he says. “There’s no pressure or expectations and I get to write and produce everything myself. It starts with me and a guitar, coming up with chords, melodies, lyrics, and it’s always influenced by my mother’s memory and also past relationships, current relationships, stuff that’s gone on in the group, life experiences, my kids. I try to put everything into what I write, so I’m pretty excited about it, but need to sit on it for a while because the group always comes first and people are going to have a lot of fun with what we have coming up!”