Belying their origins as a raucous funk metal band, Sugar Ray turned out several of the most breezily infectious summer singles of the late ’90s, hitting on an appealing combination of sunny pop, lightly funky hip-hop grooves, and reggae lilt. Pegged as likely one-hit wonders after their 1997 breakthrough smash “Fly,” Sugar Ray managed to maintain their career momentum far longer than many observers expected, helped in no small part by the teen-mag pinup looks of lead singer Mark McGrath. Of course, it also helped that the band was able to duplicate the carefree vibe and effortless catchiness of “Fly” on its subsequent singles. Not everything Sugar Ray recorded bore the sonic stamp of “Fly,” but that was certainly the sound that made them radio staples.
Sugar Ray were formed in Orange County, the heavily suburban area south of Los Angeles, in 1992. Guitarist Rodney Sheppard, bassist Murphy Karges, and drummer Stan Frazier had been playing parties together in a hard rock/heavy metal cover band, Shrinky Dinx, since the late ’80s. Karges served as the touring bassist of L.A. punk veterans the Weirdos in 1990, although a story that Sheppard had once been a cast member on Land of the Lost was patently false. Friend Mark McGrath became the lead singer of Shrinky Dinx after jumping up on-stage to perform one night, and they soon began collaborating on original material. The band played around the L.A./San Diego area, building up a following, and got one of its friends to finance a music video for one of its original tunes; it wound up getting them a deal with Atlantic in 1994, albeit owing more to their look and potential. The threat of legal action by Milton Bradley, which owned the rights to the original Shrinky Dinks toy, forced the band to change its name to Sugar Ray (after boxer Sugar Ray Leonard). Around the same time, they began augmenting their live shows with the turntables of Craig Bullock, aka DJ Homicide, who later became an official member of the group.
Sugar Ray released their debut album, Lemonade and Brownies, in the spring of 1995. Dominated by aggressive funk metal, with touches of punk and alternative rock, the record’s typically roaring guitars and smart-ass humor seemed to position the band as a potential keg-party favorite. Commercially, however, the album stiffed. Atlantic decided to try again, based on the enthusiasm Sugar Ray generated on their lengthy supporting tour, and sent them into the studio with producer David Kahne (who, among many other credits, had recently masterminded Sublime’s commercial breakthrough). The result, Floored, became double-platinum hit thanks to “Fly,” a laid-back groove tailor-made for summertime. With help from reggae toaster Super Cat, “Fly” set new airplay records at modern-rock radio, and reigned as perhaps the most ubiquitous hit of the summer. The song didn’t sound much like anything else in Sugar Ray’s repertoire, seeming to come out of nowhere, and when Floored failed to produce a significant follow-up hit, many assumed that “Fly” was a fluke the band would never be able to repeat.
Again with Kahne in the producer’s chair, Sugar Ray delivered their third album at the beginning of 1999. The title, 14:59, was a wry reference to Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” dictum, but as it turned out, the group’s time wasn’t up by a long shot. 14:59 wound up outselling its predecessor, eventually going triple platinum. The first single, the “Fly”-like “Every Morning,” shot to number three on the pop charts and became the group’s second number one at modern-rock radio. Their follow-up singles were successful this time around as well, as the hits “Someday” and “Falls Apart” consolidated the group’s growing reputation for summery, radio-friendly alternative pop; plus, the album boasted a guest appearance from hip-hop legend KRS-One. The band played Woodstock ’99 that summer, and also made a guest appearance on Run-D.M.C.’s Crown Royal album. In the spring of 2000, McGrath made his acting debut portraying a doctor on an episode of the acclaimed drama ER. Sugar Ray returned in the summer of 2001 with their self-titled fourth album, which entered the charts at number six and gave the band its first-ever Top Ten album; meanwhile, the first single, “When It’s Over,” was another substantial hit in the familiar Sugar Ray mold. But in spite of reviews claiming that the band sounded more like a band than ever before, Sugar Ray’s sales were ultimately disappointing; perhaps hurt by the relatively lackluster performance of follow-up singles “Answer the Phone” and “Ours,” the record failed to go platinum within a year’s time.