Johnny Gill is easily the most enigmatic R&B vocalist of his generation. Blessed with a stunningly mature full baritone that he first introduced to audiences as a 16-year-old, during a 19-year career, Gill has consistently recorded underwhelming material. He achieved some semblance of real crossover success in 1990 with material better suited for some of New Jack Swing’s lesser lights such as Keith Sweat, Al B. Sure, and Bobby Brown. Gill is simply one of the most gifted vocalists in the tradition but has yet to record a disc’s worth of material that fully realizes his gift. Johnny Gill: Ultimate Collection collects some of Gill’s performances from his solo career, his less than frequent collaborations with Stacy Lattisaw, and as the post-Bobby Brown co-lead of New Edition.
A native Washingtonian (D.C. that is), Johnny Gill was initially encouraged to pursue a recording career, by his longtime friend Stacy Lattisaw. Lattisaw had some success in the early 1980s singing often over-produced ditties like her remake of the Moments’ “Love On a Two Way Street” and “Let Me Be Your Angel”. With Lattisaw’s connections in the industry, Gill was signed to a label deal and released his solo debut Johnny Gill in 1983 with a jerri-curled cover photo that was never in sync with the singer’s deeply hued and husky baritone. At seventeen, Gill sounded less like teen counter-parts like the falsettoed Ralph Tresvant or even smooth tenor-men like Peabo Bryson. Instead Gill sounded like a more like a grown-ass Teddy Pendergrass (shout to my man Cedric), which given the era’s fixation with Michael Jackson and Prince, presented particularly a difficult sell for his label Cotillion. After Gill’s debut fell flat, he was paired with Lattisaw, Marvin and Tammi style, (Lattisaw’s mother sang backup for Gaye at Motown) on Perfect Combination (1984). On the project’s title track, Gill sounds restrained allowing Lattisaw the limelight. Though the track was one of Lattisaw’s last real commercial successes, it did earn Gill a wider audience. Gill followed-up the next year with Chemistry which featured one of Gill’s best performances on the beautiful and thoughtful “Half Crazy”. Co-written and produced by the legendary “Philly-Soultress” Linda Creed a year before her untimely death, “Half Crazy” is one of the few examples in Gill’s career where he recorded material that matched his rather prodigious vocal talents.
Gill’s career was largely in limbo, when New Edition impresario Michael Bivens reached out to Gill and asked him to join the group after the departure of Bobby Brown. The Jam and Lewis produced N.E. Heartbreak (1988) would be the first New Edition project to feature Gill’s vocals (Jagged Edge paid tribute to the recording on their J.E. Heartbreak in 1999). Though Gill’s coming into the fold meant that Ricky Bell (arguably a better vocalist than both Tresvant and the departed Brown) would never ascend to legitimate lead, Gill and Tresvant provided a nice balance on what remains New Edition’s most accomplished recording. While Gill played the background on the project’s lead single “If It Isn’t Love”, he was prominently featured on the anguished ballad “Can You Stand the Rain”. The track gave audiences their clearest indication that the group had grown up.
Gill translated his new visibility into a new solo deal with Motown. 1990 signaled a dramatic shift in the fortunes of black pop, with the dramatic success of New Edition offshoots BBD (Bell Biv Devoe) with tracks like “Poison” (“Never trust a big butt and a smile”) and “Do Me” and Ralph Tresvant (“Sensitivity” remains one of his singular performances), the continued success of Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel (1988) and the cementing of the LaFace movement (Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and current Arista head Antonio “L.A.” Reid). It was that same year that Gill managed to step out of all of their shadows releasing his aptly titled solo “rebirth” Johnny Gill. Employing the services of LaFace and Jam and Lewis, Gill released four singles from the project, three of which were R&B #1s (the fourth stalled at #2) and two of which were Top 10 crossovers. All four tracks including “Fairweather Friend” and “Wrap My Body Tight” are collected on Johnny Gill: Ultimate Collection. In 1990 Gill also collaborated again with Stacy Lattisaw on the “big” ballad “Where Do We Go From Here” (from Lattisaw’s What You Need). This time around Gill is on equal footing with Lattisaw and their performance soars.
The lead single to Johnny Gill, “Rub You the Right Way,” was one of the first tracks were Gill really let it loose, perhaps aided by the song’s video in which he wears what can only be described as a form fitting black Hefty bag (one that Missy Elliot apparently borrowed some years later). Though produced by Jam and Lewis the song featured the classic “New Jack Swing” sound that brought Teddy Riley and a host of folks that he produced (Johnny Kemp, Guy, Keith Sweat, Bobby Brown, and even Boy “Don’t Take My Mind on a Trip” George) commercial success. The single also featured a cameo appearance by CL Smooth, who two years later with Pete Rock would dramatically alter hip-hop’s soundscape with their classic Mecca and the Soul Brother. Gill followed up “Rub You the Right Way” with “My, My, My”, which is arguably one of Babyface’s most tepid ballads. Despite its commercial success, the track epitomized the kinds of issues that Gill would face throughout his career. While Gill’s vocals in the case of “My, My My” transcended the formulaic LaFace production, there were too many other times where even Gill couldn’t save a song.
After contributing tracks to the soundtracks of New Jack City (“I’m Still Waiting”) and Boomerang (the very fine ballad “There U Go”) and collaborating on songs with Motown label-mate Shanice Wilson (“Silent Prayer”) and Shabba Ranks (“Slow and Sexy”—damn that was a long time ago), which are all collected on Ultimate, Gill returned with Provocative(1993). Again handing over the majority of the production reins to Jam and Lewis and LaFace, the visibility of the project may have suffered as both production teams were well at work at expanding their productions houses and boutique labels. Nevertheless, Provocative is one of Gill best full projects. Though the sophisticated dance tracks “Where No Man has Gone Before” and the Boyz II Men produced “I Got You” were inexplicably left off the Ultimate Collection, the project’s lead single, “The Floor” (a clear derivative of “Rub You the Right Way”) and the sweet ballad “Quiet Time to Play” are included.
In 1996 Gill returned to the New Edition fold for “reunion” disc in which Gill, Brown, Tresvant, and a more confidant Bell tried to share lead singer billing. Beyond the hype, the project was a dismal affair, but also had repercussion for Gill, arguably the one “good” guy in the bunch, as Motown (again inexplicably) released Gill’s Let’s Get the Mood Right a month after New Edition’s Home Again. As the “Bobby and Whitney Show” began to eclipse the New Edition reunion disc and tour, Gill’s project also got lost in the shuffle. While Mood was not a great project, it was grounded by strong singles. The lead single and title track, which was produced by Keith Andes and written by Babyface, failed to cross-over, but is one of Gill’s most complete pop performances, easily surpassing “My, My, My” (which Gill references throughout the song) in this regard. Mood was followed-up by Gill’s own It’s Your Body which featured a cameo by the late Roger Troutman. Lacking a real push from Motown, the project foundered commercially. Johnny Gill: Ultimate Collection also features the very fine Jam and Lewis ballad “Maybe” which is also drawn from Let’s Get the Mood Right.
A year later Gill would lend his vocals to the “super group” LSG, which featured Gill, Keith Sweat, and Gerald Levert. In the aftermath of the platinum-selling project, Sweat and Levert both solidified their firm positions among the generation of post-Pendergrass/post-Vandross “New Jack” vocalists. Gill on the other hand has literally disappeared, having been reportedly in the studio for two or three years at press time. With nearly 20 years in the business, the 35-year-old obviously has a career left. Johnny Gill: Ultimate Collection is just an overview of those first 13 years of Gill’s recording career and unfortunately a reminder that Gill’s real genius as a vocalist has yet to be fully realized.
// Notes from the Road
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