Born on May 22, 1966 in Washington, D.C., Gill had the traditional church upbringing, singing in the family gospel group Wings Of Faith. Plans to study electrical engineering at college were sidelined by his burgeoning musical abilities, and the decision to pursue that career was proved right when he became something of a teenage sensation.
Gill enjoyed his first record success via a solo deal with Cotillion Records, placing seven singles on the US soul survey with the company from 1983, although only one of them, the following year’s ‘Perfect Combination,’ made the top ten. The song was a duet, the lead track from a whole album of them, with his childhood friend Stacy Lattisaw, the ‘Jump To The Beat’ hitmaker who was to figure again in Johnny’s story once he got to Motown.
But what happened next was that Gill was snapped up for the latter-day line-up of New Edition. After years of success but certain internal wrangles, the group had invited Bobby Brown to leave and were planning for the departure of their lead singer, Ralph Tresvant. As it happened, Tresvant stayed, and the group, bolstered by the older Gill, developed a new, more sophisticated sound at MCA that yielded more success than they’d had since their early days.
Under the tutelage of producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and with Gill largely as second lead vocalist, New Edition’s Heart Break album of 1988 went double platinum in the US and produced four major hits: ‘If It Isn’t Love,’ ‘You’re Not My Kind Of Girl,’ the R&B No. 1 ‘Can You Stand The Rain’ and ‘Crucial.’ But it would be eight years before they recorded together again, a period that Gill used to great effect, as he became one of the bright new lights of Motown and became a king of the new jack swing into the bargain. But first, he revisited an old friend.
Gill was the guest vocalist on Stacy Lattisaw’s ‘Where Do We Go From Here,’ a song from her third Motown album What You Need, and the partnership worked a treat. The song spent two weeks atop the R&B chart in February 1990, segueing perfectly into Gill’s own Motown debut. “She’s always had such a pure voice and a very strong voice,” Johnny said in the Billboard Book of No. 1 Rhythm & Blues Hits. “I thought [it was like a] Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell kind of thing, and they were people we idolised.”
Less than three months later, Gill was top of the R&B tree in his own right. Poetically, he would succeed Bell Biv Devoe, the New Edition spinoff group, who had their own big single with ‘Poison’ before Johnny’s assured performance of ‘Rub You The Right Way’ itself became a chart-topping, gold-selling single.
The Johnny Gill album that it was part of, produced by Jam & Lewis and the other red-hot studio double act of the day, L.A. Reid and Babyface, was a super-confident return to his solo career. With songs chiefly written by the two production teams, he became a flagbearer for the new, streetwise R&B sound of the early 1990s, and the hits kept coming.
Incredibly, in just two months, Gill was atop the soul bestsellers yet again, for the third time in six months, with the album’s big ballad, ‘My, My, My.’ Written by Babyface and Daryl Simmons, it featured backing vocals by Indianapolis vocal trio After 7. Babyface had previously recorded the song with a view to releasing it himself, but by the producer’s own admission, Gill made it his. With his help, Motown, now under the new presidency of Jheryl Busby, was back on top.
Nor was Gill about to stop. Next up from the eponymous album was ‘Fairweather Friend,’ which debuted even while ‘My, My, My’ was still on the radio and went on to No. 2 R&B. Then, amazingly, yet another No. 1, with Jam & Lewis’ ‘Wrap My Body Tight,’ which cruised to the summit in April 1991. Gill was on the run of his life.
Now he was in demand for film scores, too, and that summer he charted with ‘I’m Still Waiting,’ from the soundtrack of ‘New Jack City,’ starring Wesley Snipes and Ice-T. There were more movie songs in 1992, from ‘Mo’ Money’ and ‘Boomerang,’ and an appearance on Shabba Ranks’ top five soul hit ‘Slow and Sexy.’ That came after Gill had played the male lead to a new female partner and another of Motown’s big names of the day, Shanice, guesting on the top five soul single ‘Silent Prayer,’ from her Inner Child album.
Jam & Lewis were the chief producers when Gill returned with his next studio album, Provocative, in June 1993. That almost unprecedented success the last time out had given him a great deal to live up to, and while the new album went gold, the songs were never quite a match for the memorable standard of their predecessors.
The album’s biggest hit was its first single, ‘The Floor,’ which reached No. 11 R&B with the help of some backing vocals by Mint Condition and a video directed by British filmmaker Julien Temple. Motown labelmates Boyz II Men sang backup on their own composition ‘I Got You,’ and the album performed solidly, with a 46-week chart run, if not to the standard he’d set at the beginning of the decade.Gill’s final album for Motown was Let’s Get The Mood Right, released in October 1995. It featured an almost bewildering array of producers, including Jam & Lewis among other names of the day such as Tony Rich and Al B. Sure. The album delivered top 20 hits with the title track and with ‘It’s Your Body,’ featuring an appearance by Roger Troutman of Zapp, and the LP itself went gold again. The new jack swing was clearly not so new anymore, and Johnny’s Motown association came to an end, but he was ready to find new challenges. In 1996, New Edition reformed with all six members, so Gill was teamed with the ever-controversial Bobby Brown for the first time.
Home Again was a resounding success, as US audiences seized the chance to hear their 1980s heroes back at work. The album debuted at No. 1 on both the pop and soul charts and went on to sell two million copies in the US alone, offering up big crossover hits in ‘Hit Me Off’ and ‘I’m Still In Love With You.’ Gill managed two co-writing credits, on ‘Shop Around’ and his showcase ‘Thank You (The J.G. Interlude).’ Another adventure started soon afterwards, as Gill became co-founder of LSG, aka Levert Sweat Gill, with fellow soul stars Gerald Levert and Keith Sweat. Their East West album, also called Levert Sweat Gill, was a platinum smash, and from it, the track ‘My Body’ became one of the soul anthems of 1997, with a mighty seven aggregate weeks at the top of the R&B chart. LSG2 would follow some six years later, with brief top ten status in both pop and soul genres, but without major hit singles.
Johnny’s stratospheric success of the early 1990s was not without its challenges, in his case of a financial nature, but happily he got himself back on track. “There's no blueprint when you become a star, someone to tell you how you're supposed to act, how you're supposed to deal with the money,” he said later, with the wisdom of experience. “You got to learn it as you go."
Few artists can match Gill’s track record in a golden period of a dozen years or more in which he was a solo star, a guest artist, a member of a multi-platinum band, then solo again, then with the band again, and then with another all-star group, all giant successes. Not to mention more than 80 appearances as an actor in films and TV, including a cameo on the sitcom ‘Family Matters.’
In 2008, with his New Edition colleagues, he received the Golden Note Award at the ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Music Awards. In 2011, Gill was back on record as a soloist, releasing the Still Winning album for Notifi Records. These days, he tours with Brown and Tresvant in the group Heads of State. As an R&B frontman, collaborator, guest star and later member of perhaps the original soul boy band, Johnny Gill has quite a legacy, at Motown and beyond.
Words: Paul Sexton
Johnny Gill re-established himself as a solo artist in 1990, and he did so in tremendous fashion, recording an astonishing self-titled debut for Motown that brought together the hitmaking duos Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and L.A. & Babyface to produce an album chock-full of hits. The combination of these two duos was unprecedented. Along with Teddy Riley, they had dominated late-'80s urban radio, utterly and absolutely, churning out hit after hit after hit and co-defining the burgeoning new jack swing movement in the process. Gill likewise had recently experienced enormous success during the late '80s when, following two flat solo albums for Atlantic, he joined New Edition for its Heart Break album and its long run of hits, including "Can You Stand the Rain," a number one hit that featured him prominently. Thus it was only fitting that Motown's visionary teaming of these artists at their respective primes culminated in a set of wonderful songs, chief among them "Rub You the Right Way" (a Jam & Lewis production) and "My, My, My" (L.A. & Babyface). The former was a high-energy, pleading chart-stormer that infiltrated urban radio with brute force and sent Gill straight up the charts in the process; the song furthermore became a coast-to-coast club favorite -- and remained so for years upon years afterward, standing tall as one of the definitive new jack swing anthems of the era. The latter was the yin to "Rub You the Right Way"'s yang; it became a quiet storm favorite and even crossed over to the pop and smooth jazz markets, reprising many of the same qualities that had made Babyface's own "Whip Appeal" single such an across-the-board chart-topper only a year earlier. While nothing else on Johnny Gill quite rivaled "Rub You the Right Way" and "My, My, My," the remainder of the album still had more than its fair share of highlights. There was a second round of singles ("Fairweather Friend" was another new jack stepper, "Wrap My Body Tight" another slow jam), as well as a couple of excellent album tracks ("Feels So Much Better" and "Giving My All to You") that could have been hits for anyone else. But after four singles and a good year or so of chart saturation, Gill and Motown collected their winnings and moved on. To the continual frustration of the singer, he would be forever dogged by this unduplicatable success, an album so massive, so epochal it would become, in a sense, his ultimate legacy. And a fine legacy it is, indeed.
Words: Jason Birchmeier
A marvelous compilation of Johnny Gill's Motown sides. Someone was even thoughtful enough to include "There U Go," an overlooked gem from the Boomerang soundtrack. Gill's lusty baritone is a flexible instrument, and he has complete control over it, never failing to conjure an emotion from listeners. He doesn't sing for himself, he sings to please others, and it shows in his phrasing and delivery. Johnny outdoes himself with an absolutely marvelous vocal on "If You're Wondering," arguably one of the best urban ballads of the '90s. Gill's vocal range amazes on the lilting, dreamy concoction that is better known in Europe. A duet with childhood friend Stacy Lattisaw, "Where Do I Go From Here," shows their vocal skills but is too predictable; it's one of those tunes you think you heard before, but Lattisaw still sounds luscious belting out the love tale. Johnny proves he can sing hip-hop by hitting the #1 spot on Billboard's R&B Chart with "Rub You the Right Way," an energetic workout for the balladeer. "My, My, My" also topped the R&B chart in July 1990. Just as good is the irresistible "Wrapped My Body Tight" with its incessant beat. A great package of Gill.
Words: Andrew Hamilton
Johnny Gill released his fifth album, Let's Get the Mood Right, only a few months after he participated in the New Edition reunion. In other words, it was timed to cash in on the group's massive comeback success. If he had delivered a dud, such crass commercial planning would have been in poor taste, but it's his strongest album in years, thanks to an excellent selection of songs and a stellar cast of producers, including Babyface, Tony Rich, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Gill shines at smooth soul like the title track, but what is remarkable about the album is how comfortable he sounds with the uptempo, albeit low-key, dance numbers. It's his best, most consistent album since Johnny Gill.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
The Millennium Collection: The Best of Johnny Gill compiles all of Gill's greatest solo efforts, including the new jack favorite "Rub You the Right Way," the passionate quiet storm ballad "My, My, My," and the smooth chart hit "Fairweather Friend." While it is nowhere as expansive as 2002's Ultimate Collection, this compiles all of Gill's major chart-toppers and a few audience favorites onto one economically sensible disc, which is perfect for the casual fan or those looking to upgrade from their cassettes without having to hunt down many of Gill's original releases.
Words: Rob Theakston
Three and three-quarter hours of one of the all time hottest genres, New Jack swing - Every hit song from the rockin' early 90's. A good reflection of the time and a good collection of songs. Includes top tracks from, Aaliyah, Aaron Hall, Al B. Sure!, Bell Biv Devoe, Beverley Knight, Bobby Brown, Boyz II Men, Brownstone, Goodfellaz, Guy, Heavy D & The Boyz, Hi-Five, Horace Brown, JON B., Jodeci, Joe, Joe Public, Johnny Gill, Johnny Kemp, K-Ci & JoJo, Keith Sweat, Lucy Pearl, Mac Band, Mary J. Blige, Montell Jordan, New Edition, Pebbles, R. Kelly, Ralph Tresvant, SWV, Shai, Smooth, Soul For Real, Soul II Soul, TLC, Teddy Riley, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Whitehead Bros., Wreckx-N-Effect, and Zhané.
Words ft: Stu'sthedaddy