It should be no surprise longtime Soul Train fans have a hard time pinning down their singular favorite Soul Train memory. Singer Johnny Gill is among those, as he has several favorites to filter through. During a bit of downtown from making final preparations for his seventh solo album Game Changer, Gill tells SoulTrain.com he does have a definite standout among them. “That one is receiving my first Soul Train Award for Best Male Vocalist,” he says, mentioning he was a Grammy and American Music Award winner that same year. “Nothing had more impact because I grew up watching Soul Train.”
Gill’s own impact has been a joy for millions to watch. The platinum-selling DC native’s soulful expressions have been heralded since the 1980s. His duets with Stacy Lattisaw are coveted like the rarest of fine art, he famously brought a matured sound to iconic group New Edition with celebrated results, and reminded the younger MTV and BET generation what “real” R&B sounded like by teaming with Keith Sweat and the late Gerald Levert to form super group LSG. It’s Gill’s solo career, though, that’s made him award-winning urban music royalty.
SoulTrain.com: So, Johnny, do you have your Soul Train Award displayed in a special place?
Johnny Gill: I have it sitting on my mantel in my studio. I still like to look at it; not to take anything away from any of my other awards or the new Soul Train Awards, but I got my Soul Train Award from Don Cornelius.
SoulTrain.com: If Soul Train was still on the air today, what song have you recorded for this new album you’d consider to be tailor made to perform on the show?
Johnny Gill: Oh, my single “Behind Closed Doors”, hands down! It’s a great mixture. It’s got a falsetto you hear in that song that gives you a feeling that may make you think of Maxwell, if you want to compare it to someone from today. In the middle of the song and at the end of the song you’ve got ‘Johnny Gill,’ which people like to compare to Teddy Pendergrass, and the list goes on. It’s a great balance I think would be beyond perfect for Soul Train.
Johnny Gill: I’d say it’s a combination of all those things, actually. I’m open to listening to all types of music. I’m not a 30-year veteran in this business who’s bitter. I love all types of music, but I stay in my lane. I know who I am and I stay true to that. I think that’s the thing people understand about me, and why they’ve supported me. I go off of where I am today, what I feel like today, and what I want to sing about today.
SoulTrain.com: Even though you’ve flirted with different sounds throughout your career, you’re synonymous with singing loves songs.
Johnny Gill: And I enjoy singing love songs, but I also enjoy singing all kinds of music! If you heard some of the music and songs I recorded for Game Changer before I narrowed it down, some stuff was so far left and some so far right! Artistically, I was just expressing myself. Then I have to narrow it down, never compromising who I am. You have to continue to grow, you have to try new things, and when you take risks you get big rewards. Overall, I try to stay true to myself.
SoulTrain.com: How are love songs different now than, say, 15-20 years ago?
Johnny Gill: You know what? It’s still an important language today, but what’s different is the messenger. If you live in Japan you’re going to speak a different language. Even though we speak English and we’ve had the same music, I think different generations and their messengers have their different ways of delivering their messages. I respect that. Fifteen years ago when we sang about love it was “put on your red dress” and “some of that sweet perfume.” Today they’re speaking a different type of language to a different generation. But I don’t discredit their feelings and how they identify love. This is how they were taught, this is how they convey it, this is their connection to what love is.
SoulTrain.com: In a lot of respects, mainstream music has become dance music. More R&B acts are making dance records, many of which have little to no substance. You have a history of making fast songs with a point, so do the lot of ones that don’t offend you?
Johnny Gill: We made those fast records intentionally so people could never put me in a box of just being a balladeer. No, they don’t offend me. I always try to put music in its proper perspective. Music is a form of art, and because I may not like certain things it doesn’t mean other people don’t. Many people have been successful with it. I get everyone has different tastes when it comes down to art, clothes, cars, food. And that’s what it is. In a nutshell, I respect that. Though I respect their art I expect my art to be respected.
SoulTrain.com: You’ve always offered music with a gentleman’s approach, a trait some people feel is missing from the music industry today. In your opinion, why are you needed right now?
Johnny Gill: I think everything that comes now comes with some level of an angle. And it’s okay to have angles. But at some point the angles we’ve gotten have come with all this “stuff” on top of it, and it’s not solely about talent. I’m not willing to compromise who I am, doing things in order to get attention. I want people exposed to the talent God has gifted to me. That’s why I think I’m needed.
SoulTrain.com: I think you’re derived from a generation of artists, not just singers.
Johnny Gill: We are artists, and we’re able to express ourselves artistically. For example, with my video for “Behind Closed Doors” there’s a twist to it, but it’s a part of what happens in reality everyday with relationships and the dynamics of people. And I get all of that—that’s a part of being artistic. But in order to get music out there right now in this industry, which is so tough, you have to do something crazy; you have to go out and get locked up, you have to go out and get busted for weed, you have to go out and do something that’s crazy just to get attention! It’s not about the talent anymore! I’m just going to stand my ground, win, lose, or draw. This is my talent, this is what I have to offer you.
SoulTrain.com: What’s most important to you as an artist right now?
Johnny Gill: It’s important to make this happen. If I can get through this tough time of where the industry is and can do it with honor, with my merits, the strength of my talent, of me doing it being who I am–and this is a gentlemen, then mission accomplished! Maybe I can reopen the doors for people to understand and respect talent, and deal with great music.
—Mr. Joe Walker
Known as “The Word Heavyweight Champion”, Mr. Joe Walker is a biographer, author, and columnist, currently a senior writer for SoulTrain.com, staff writer for Muskegon Tribune Newspaper, and writer of popular Concrete Magazine blog “Tinna: See”. Also co-creator of TheGrooveSpot.com, Walker’s acclaimed, award-winning work has been published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker, connect with him on Facebook, and also visit his blog ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.