Soul music fans knew Johnny Gill was gifted pretty much from the start-it just took a few years (and a placement in a soon-to-be legendary vocal group) before the record-buying public at large realized it.
The Washington D.C.-bred musician was discovered by teen star Stacy Lattisaw (“Let Me Be Your Angel:, “Love on a Two Way Street”) in the early Eighties. He grew up singing gospel with his family and even as a teenager, had a commanding, rich vocal presence that drew comparisons to singers like Teddy Pendergrass almost as soon as his self-titled debut album was released in 1983. Yeah, the thought of a teenager conjuring up images of Teddy Bear is a bit awkward, but unless you knew Gill’s age, you would’ve thought he was a full-grown adult based on the sound of his voice.
In 1984, he and Lattisaw recorded an album of duets entitled Perfect Combination. The title track became a Top 10 R&B hit, giving Gill his first major success at 19 years of age. Just a year later, his second solo album, Chemistry, was released. It yielded a moderate hit with the piano ballad “Half-Crazy”. Again, it’s hard to believe that a teenager was capable of sounding like this. Concentrate on the voice and try to ignore the unfortunate quasi-curl JG is sporting in the video.
“Half-Crazy” peaked at #26 on the R&B charts and didn’t cross over to the pop charts, but despite not being a major success, songs like this caught the ear of people in the music industry. New Edition member/future industry mogul Michael Bivins was one of those people. New Edition had already booted troublemaker Bobby Brown from the group in 1986 and was facing the loss of lead singer Ralph Tresvant to a solo career (Tresvant would later reverse course and decide not to leave), Gill was recruited to join the Boston-based outfit and officially became a member in 1987. His voice gave N.E. a more mature sound, and combined with the production and songwriting prowess of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, New Edition’s 1988 album, Heart Break, went on to become a multi-platinum success.
It set the stage for Gill to re-start his solo career. Despite continuing as a member of N.E., Gill released three solo albums from 1990-1996. All sold at least half a million copies. Gill had finally grown into his voice-and then some. Jumping with ease from danceable numbers like “Rub You The Right Way” to sex-you-up slow jams like “My, My, My” (his signature song), Gill was poised to lead soul men into the post-Luther era along with similarly gravel-voiced crooners like Gerald LeVert.
After ’96’s Let’s Get the Mood Right, however, Gill took an inexplicable 15 year break from making albums-sort of. New Edition has remained an active touring unit for most of this time and they released a moderately successful album in 2004, he has released two albums as a member of LSG (with LeVert and Keith Sweat), has popped up on several compilations and soundtracks, and the multi-talented musician even played as a sideman on albums by the likes of Janet Jackson. However, Still Winning (released this past Tuesday) is his first solo release in a decade and a half. Unlike some artists who take ridiculously long absences and then embarrass themselves upon their return, Gill’s still got it. His new album is a collection of tasteful, mature midtempo and slow jams with only a small dab of modern production trickery (note to Johnny: if there’s anyone in the world who does NOT need Auto-Tune, it’s you.) New Edition is also apparently planning a few things to celebrate their thirtieth (!!!) anniversary. Even if there’s not a song as instantly memorable as “Half-Crazy” on Gill’s new album, we’ll trade it to have that voice back, and also to have JG now sporting a sensible hairstyle.