Rich Cronin's comeback

Six years after 'Summer Girls,' the leader of LFO battles leukemia

By Sheela Raman
Globe Correspondent / July 7, 2005

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The past two years have not been easy for Rich Cronin, former lead singer of the boy band LFO.

As soon as LFO disbanded in 2002, three years after striking gold with the song ''Summer Girls," Cronin hoped to release a solo album, but lawsuits with managers over royalties and publishing interests kept getting in the way. When Cronin, who is 30, finally disentangled himself from the lawsuits and began recording new songs early this year, he got a phone call that would change his life.

It was his doctor, telling him he had leukemia.

''I just know that four hours before I got that phone call I was just some dude with mono, then all of a sudden I was a cancer patient," he says.

Cronin spent April at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he received 20 blood transfusions. A bone marrow sample revealed that he had acute myelogenous leukemia, which most often afflicts adults over the age of 60, says Cronin's oncologist Dr. Robin Joyce. ''The drama of leukemia is that it's like a bullet," Joyce says. ''It can easily kill you in a couple months."

If it hadn't been for the observant eyes of his parents, Cronin says he would never have seen a doctor at all. His only symptoms were fatigue and weight loss, which he ascribed to a diet plan gone too far. At the beginning of March, he was preparing to shoot the cover of his album and had stopped eating unhealthy foods. ''I was like, 'Wow this diet really works,' " he says.

But in late March, Cronin thought he would visit his parents in Kingston after traveling from his home in the Orlando, Fla., area to New York to meet with record producers from his new label, Hydrogen Records. When he arrived, his health-conscious father immediately knew something was wrong. ''He kept telling me I had to see a doctor and I didn't look right, and I was actually getting pretty annoyed with him," Cronin says.

''We really ganged up on him," says Cronin's mother, Doris. ''We had relatives over for Easter, and we all kept saying, 'Look at him, look at him, doesn't he look bad?' " she says.

After constant insistence from his family, he agreed to see the family doctor, Dr. Gary Trey. Cronin didn't have the slightest idea his visit would land him in a hospital bed.

A few days Cronin arrived at Beth Israel, nurses wheeled him into the hospital corridor after checking whether his heart was healthy enough for chemotherapy. One of them told him an orderly would be around soon to push him into his room, which was a few floors up.

''That was the psychological slap," Cronin says. ''It is the antithesis of being a star. People used to say, 'Oh, that's the 'Summer Girls' guy or 'That's the guy who went out with [Jennifer] Love Hewitt.' Now there's people looking down at me with a mask on my face because I'm too sick to breathe the air."

A high priceCronin is no stranger to psychological struggle. On his rocky path to fame, he became well acquainted with intense disappointment and unexpected twists of fate.

At first, Cronin pursued stardom with a vengeance. Growing up in Kingston, he had a poster of Vanilla Ice hanging in his room long after the rapper went out of style. He looked up to Ice as a role model for an aspiring white hip-hop artist. He worked at the Blockbuster Video in his hometown while studying at Bridgewater State College, watching movies starring his future girlfriend Hewitt and dreaming of dating her. When BMG Records signed LFO (which stands for Lyte Funky Ones) in 1996, the band toured Europe for three years performing pop music that wasn't Cronin's style but was supposed to help the band build an audience.

But the tour proved crucial in teaching Cronin that the price of success in the music business can be too high. He could not stand his label telling him not only how to comb his hair and to dress in a certain way but also to play music he didn't like. After the tour, Cronin returned to his parents' home, far from LFO's base in Orlando.

''I was ready to call it quits," he says.

But as Cronin sat in his parents' unfinished basement on his father's Soloflex machine, watching spiders crawl around his feet and feeling depressed, he unwittingly wrote LFO's ticket to fame. ''I just thought back to when I was young, happy, no worries," he says. '' 'Summer Girls' was all about a summer on the Cape. Inside jokes. I never thought that anyone besides my close friends would ever hear it."

But the song was leaked to a radio station and climbed Billboard charts. Teenage girls everywhere were singing the rhymes Cronin wrote to combat his disappointment. ''I would have definitely taken out the line about Chinese food [making him sick] if I had known that would happen," Cronin says.

Now, battling leukemia, Cronin uses the same tactic of positive thinking that he used to recover his spirits after the European tour.

After returning to his parents' house from his first round of chemotherapy in April, Cronin played Bel Biv DeVoe's ''Poison" over and over. ''I was immediately back at a ninth-grade dance," he says. ''I didn't have time for depressing things."

Joyce says Cronin has lightened the atmosphere for everyone in the cancer ward of the hospital with his clever imitations of the doctors. He tells admiring nurses where they can look up LFO pictures on the Internet. But when these same nurses have to help him when he throws up, Cronin demands no special treatment, Joyce says.

''With people I've dealt with in the entertainment industry, if money and fame have come too quickly to them, they have no skill in dealing with the tragedy of leukemia," Joyce says. ''Rich is a really hunky guy, you know, nice muscles. I thought he'd be a jerk, like very macho. But he's not."

Joyce adds that leukemia patients usually have one of two extreme reactions to their diagnosis. ''They either say, 'This is no big deal and I'm gonna lick this,' or they become paralyzed by fear," she says. ''Neither reaction is facing the truth." She says Cronin has taken a more realistic path in dealing with his leukemia by rationally discussing his fears with her. Mike Caputo, Cronin's best friend, who also helped produce some of Cronin's solo tracks, says Cronin has not complained to him once about having cancer.

''God has a plan for Rich," Caputo says. ''I think this happened to him for a reason, 'cause I know he'll come out of it and do something positive."

New purposeAfter one round of chemotherapy, Cronin's leukemia went into remission. He is now back living with his parents in Kingston, although he visits the hospital almost every day for blood tests and to finish four additional rounds of chemotherapy to complete his treatment. Cronin plans to sell his house in Florida and move in with his parents indefinitely.

Cronin's mother says Rich is the most connected to the family among her three children. ''He's always been back every chance he gets," she says. ''He's very spiritual, very caring. For him to get hit was especially unbelievable."

Cronin now has shadows under his eyes, and at 6 feet 3 inches and 185 pounds, he looks a little thin. Yet he exudes energy. As he talks about his experience, his eyes open wide and his leg shifts restlessly in his chair. He tells of all the phone calls he received, from people he hadn't spoken to in as many as 12 years. Fellow boy band stars Jordan Knight from New Kids on the Block and Jeff Timmons from 98 Degrees visited him in the hospital. Johnny Damon called, even though Cronin had never spoken to the Red Sox center fielder before. And even though Cronin only knew the daughter of Hulk Hogan, the wrestler called him repeatedly in the hospital to say, ''Hey, Richamania, enough of lying in bed!" As terrible as lying in a hospital bed is, Cronin says, it has taught him lessons that hundreds of arena performances could not. The outpouring of concern from friends as well as doctors, nurses, and fellow cancer patients helped him put into perspective the aggressive side of people he has encountered in the music world.

''In the music business, everyone's all me, me, me," he says. ''But at the hospital, I've been on the brink of breaking down, and Dr. Joyce would sit down with me for, like, two hours to make me calm. To me, that was unbelievable."

His disease has also given Cronin a new purpose in life. As soon as he is fully well, he says, he will work to educate people about bone marrow donation, which is crucial for leukemia patients who do not have a match among their siblings. Often, because of the short supply of donated marrow, patients do not receive a transplant in time. Neither Cronin's brother nor his sister match his marrow type. If his leukemia were to resurface, he might require a transplant from an anonymous donor.

''I don't want to be the poster boy for cancer. I'll leave that to Lance," Cronin says, glancing down at the yellow Lance Armstrong Foundation wristband his mother gave him. ''What he went through was much worse. What I want to do is just talk to people."

But Caputo says Cronin will probably take a strong activist role. ''Knowing Rich, he's not going to take it only halfway," he says.

Cronin says he will continue to make music, although now he does not mind if he plays only in dive bars and coffeehouses. He will finish his solo album as soon as he can, he says. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Keeping with his usual style, the new album's tracks will be lighthearted.

''I would never write about morbid, scary things like leukemia," he says. ''A song won't take away a problem, but it might distract you for three minutes."