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It’s hard to believe that the last studio album Johnny Gill released was 1996’s Let’s Get the Mood Right! But just because Johnny has been out of the solo game for a decade and a half doesn’t mean he hasn’t kept busy. He’s filled his schedule with touring — both as a solo artist and with his bandmates in New Edition and its spin-off, Heads of State — as well as worked on albums with N.E. and LSG, the latter composed of Gill, Keith Sweat and the late Gerald LeVert. Johnny recently returned to the charts with his latest album, Still Winning, which debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and No. 17 on the Billboard 200 chart. Led by the silky smooth “In the Mood”, Gill keeps his sound contemporary but classic. Soul Train talked with N.E.’s resident romantic about how Charlie Sheen almost changed the album’s title, Beyoncé being the female Michael Jackson, and why Still Winning will be his last solo effort.
Soul Train: Congratulations on your new album’s strong debut on the charts! Those numbers are great considering you’ve been out of the game for about 15 years in terms of solo albums. Why such a long gap?
Johnny Gill: Time just got away from me. (Laughs) From touring all year round and doing several different projects that I’ve been involved in, I looked around and was like, “Whoa! Shoot! How long has it been?” But we’re back — better late than never! (Laughs)
Soul Train: Everyone is really excited for this new project!
Johnny Gill: The response has been overwhelming! It’s a blessing and I’m just so grateful. The most important thing is to not take anything for granted, and I’m just grateful.
Soul Train: You worked with Troy Taylor, Brian Michael Cox, Johnta Austin, Trey Songz, Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis, among others, on Still Winning. What made you choose them for songwriting and production chores?
Johnny Gill: It wasn’t by any design. We knew Jimmy and Terry were going to be involved, but beyond that, we just kind of reached out looking for great songs, and [the songwriters listed] brought them to the table.
Soul Train: You also teamed up with Keith Sweat and Eddie LeVert for a song.
Johnny Gill: Yeah, that was really special for me because I miss Gerald so much and it was just like being able to come together. He was like the glue to us all and I felt Gerald’s spirit — it was really special.
Soul Train: Would you and Keith ever consider re-igniting LSG again?
Johnny Gill: We’ve talked about it. It’s something we’re definitely open to doing. We want to keep it LSG, so obviously we’d bring in Pop [Eddie LeVert] as well. I mean, who else could you think of in terms of who could fill that void that we so love and miss?
Soul Train: Going back to the new album, what do you want listeners to come away with when they listen to Still Winning?
Johnny Gill: A great album from the beginning to the end — all just great music, that’s what I aim to do. I made a conscious effort to make sure that when you play this CD, you should not have to hit the skip button at all. That was one of the most important things I wanted them to understand, that there’s still a lane for straight up R&B. It’s just me doing what I do; I didn’t compromise who I am. I enjoy different music, I venture out with what feels right to me. That’s what we ended up using on this album as far as the songs we chose. It’s just great music. When I say R&B, it’s soul, because that’s who I am, a soul singer, but overall, the album itself is just great music.
Soul Train: Did you find it challenging to be contemporary while also staying classic with your style?
Johnny Gill: It was really simple. I didn’t do anything hard. It was just making sure it sounded up-to-date and that I was singing what feels right, and letting everything else be built around who I am.
Soul Train: How do you feel when people describe your music as romantic? Even within the New Edition spectrum, you were known as the romantic singer of the group.
Johnny Gill: I love it, that’s who I am. I love to love, I love romance, that’s been a part of who I am. Even at the age of 16 years old, I was a kid that was in love and thought that I knew that there was no other feeling like it in the world.
Soul Train: What made you choose Still Winning as an album title? That phrase has taken on such an intriguing meaning ever since Charlie Sheen got a hold of it.
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Johnny Gill: I had this title for almost two years and was contemplating changing it because of that shenanigan. I was on the fence, but I was talking to Terry [Lewis] and some of my other friends, and they were saying, “This was a part of your vision, why would you change that?” I felt like this guy took this to a whole other place that I didn’t really want to be connected with. The reason why I wrote that song “Still Winning” was because I was talking about things that I’d heard people talking about that weren’t true. [Things like] asking me whether I was still singing when I’m touring all around the country doing this stuff year round without recording, and being able to have the opportunity to put out great music and to still be here today to enjoy doing what I’m doing. I said I’m still in the game, so I’m still winning and that’s what this was all really about.
Soul Train: Speaking of touring, do you have any upcoming plans to hit the road with Heads of State or New Edition?
Johnny Gill: We’re working on some things, but I’m doing my own as well. There are so many different things in the lineup because I want to continue to promote this CD because it’s been 16 years and coming, and to be honest with you, I doubt very seriously if I’m going to record another one. The work is so hard, the business is such a different business today and it’s changed so much. I just don’t know if I have that kind of time and patience to go through this process. This has been a real serious process in recording this new CD, and not only after recording it, but the process you have to go through in putting the music into other people’s hands. It’s been quite a task. I don’t like to do something that doesn’t feel right to me or doesn’t feel good to me, and making this music, it felt good to me. The other processes that you go through to get it out there, it’s a whole other ballgame and I could leave it. Some people say you could take it or leave it, I’ll leave it. (Laughs)
Soul Train: Wow. So is this possibly the last Johnny Gill album?
Johnny Gill: Absolutely.
Soul Train: Wow.
Johnny Gill: You know, working with New Edition or some of the other projects where I’m not having to deal with the headache by myself is one thing, but this has been one task that I’m cool on.
Soul Train: Do you prefer working in a group or as a solo artist?
Johnny Gill: I enjoy both because of the fact that it gives you balance. Balance allows me as a solo artist to express myself artistically without having to check with anyone. When you’re with a group, you have to be a team player and you have to think in terms of not only you, but everyone else and how they vote and how everyone has to fit in and play a role. It brings a level of balance for me as an artist to be able to creatively do and express myself with what I want to sing and what I want to say, and then being able to come back into a group and be a team player and understand that there’s a role that you have to play. We all play different positions and that makes us become this group that makes it to the championship.
I’ve never been one that was anxious and had a desire, a need for attention. I think that’s been proven with over 16 years of recording a solo album. I’m not “I need to be in front, I need to be seen, I need everybody to pay attention to me.” I’ve never been that. I wish I had some of that in me as an artist because sometimes that’s what it takes to have that drive, to have that desire to be on top. You have to have this conscious drive that you want everybody’s eyes on you, all attention focused on you. I mean, I enjoy the attention when it comes, but I can be with a million people and don’t have to be in front. And I know how to just play my part and be just fine.
Soul Train: Beyoncé’s new “Love on Top” video has been compared to — and probably inspired by — N.E.’s “If It Isn’t Love.” What do you think of the comparisons?
Johnny Gill: I love it because I love her! I’ve said this a million times and I don’t think people even understand what they’re witnessing with her. She is the ultimate female entertainer and when you start to think Michael Jackson, without a doubt, you can put her as that female Michael. She does it all. I’m saying this as an artist: you never hear a sharp or flat note; you always see her on point with her entertaining; she acts, she sings, she writes — she does it all. I know there are a lot of great female artists out there, but name me one out there that’s got all of that in full. You see it, but it’s going to be a minute before people really see that, “Yo, she’s beyond — she’s a beast!” She’s on her way to becoming the all-time best female entertainer.
Soul Train: Coming from you, that’s a great endorsement for her!
Johnny Gill: It’s true, it’s real. I’m an artist and I’ve seen — I can name a lot of people that I love and that I enjoy, and I can tell you what I like about them and what has inspired me and what are their strong points, but she does it all and we’re living in the moment of it.
Soul Train: Bobby Brown recently said that New Edition is considering doing a reality show to film the group getting back together.
Johnny Gill: There’s been a lot of talk about that stuff. I’m on the fence. I’m not sure where we are. I’m so sick of reality shows. I’m sorry; I hate to be the one to break the news — I’m sick of reality shows. The market is so saturated with reality shows. I feel like I wouldn’t mind doing television, it’s just what can we bring that’s different, what can we do that’s different and maybe new, that’s fresh? I don’t like to be a follower. I’m a leader. While everybody else is doing different music and when I look at this album and put it into perspective, I did what feels right to me and I just made great songs. I don’t know if it fits the trend for the radio, but this is who I am and where I am today, and this is what I can give you.
Soul Train: Throwback question. Fans love “Feel So Much Better” from your self-titled album released in 1990, which features backing vocals from Karyn White and Pebbles. Why wasn’t that released as a single?
Johnny Gill: (Laughs) To this day wish I could answer that question. Oh my God, you know that song is just as popular — it feels like it was a single because more people knew and loved that song, and it was one of the sleepers on the album.
Soul Train: Any parting words for your fans?
Johnny Gill: I’m grateful to have this opportunity to put out the music for people to know where I am, what I’m doing today. I’m still here. God has given an opportunity, been giving me the blessing, to do what I enjoy doing the most. I hope and pray that people enjoy this work. I put a lot of work into this CD. For folks that got it, I just really hope and pray to God that they really do cherish it and appreciate it, because honestly, I don’t foresee me putting out another one, I really don’t, unless some miracle happens. Cherish it now … I will. But I will never say never. It’s just where I am today. Making the music is the easy part; it’s the business stuff that comes with it that is outright outrageous to me.
Check out the first installment from Johnny Gill’s video series “Just the Way You Are”
Joel Lyons is a New York City-based aficionado of dance, pop and R&B. Experience his appreciation at www.ThatsMyJam.net.