Johnny Gill is young.
Well, his mentor, Stacy Lattisaw, has recorded six albums, collected several hits . . . and just turned 19.
Gill is 18.
He just sounds older.
On his recent hit single "Half Crazy," Gill's husky, powerful baritone would lead to you to think he'd been around the love wars long enough to do some postgraduate work. But the cover photo for his "Chemistry" album and the "Half Crazy" video show a slightly-built kid with a soft, innocent stare, looking like he just got out of high school.
Which he has.
"I know the voice doesn't match up with the face," Gill giggles, much less resonantly than he sings. "People'll be looking at the video, going, 'No, no, that's not him.' But at the same time, you can see me singing my heart out.
"It's something I make happen," he says of the growling, gritty voice that should rightfully belong to someone bigger and older, like his friend Jeffrey Osborne. "I just bring that out of myself.
"It's funny," he adds. "When I was 7, I had a voice so high that if you'd put me behind a wall, you'd have thought I was a woman. When we were singing gospel, my father used to keep us up till 3 or 4 o'clock rehearsing, and he used to get mad at me, say, 'You sound like a girl, now quit it!' "
Eventually, "my voice dropped and I didn't get mad, not at all."
Gill is the latest member of Atlantic Record's D.C. Connection, which stretches back to Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, and to the label's origins with the Clovers and Ruth Brown. He performs tonight at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre.
"I feel proud to be a part of the D.C. Connection," Gill says, making sure it includes Marvin Gaye (even though he was a Motown man). But he's also a bit wary, not wanting to get lumped into another tradition, that of duos such as Gaye and Tammy Terrell, or Flack and Hathaway. Last year Gill and Lattisaw recorded an album of duets, "Perfect Combination," that earned rave reviews and threatened to typecast Gill as Lattisaw's partner.
"Every time I walk down the street -- and I don't mind this -- 'It's Johnny Gill, he sings with Stacy Lattisaw.' There's nothing wrong with that, but I want to be Johnny Gill, period. Right now we're trying to establish me as a solo artist."
He's quick to point out that Lattisaw is still his close friend and that his career would be nowhere without her. "We first became friends at Kimball Elementary, but it was just 'hi there' like everybody else. She was a year ahead of me."
Son of a Baptist minister, and the youngest of four brothers, Gill showed his musical inclinations early, picking up the guitar at 5 and heading the family gospel quartet, Johnny Gill and the Wings of Faith, at 7. A veteran of the southern gospel circuit, he was not that eager to sing in school. At Sousa Junior High "I was quite a shy-type guy," he confesses. "I used to play the viola."
It was in Sousa's glee club that Gill and Lattisaw first suggested a perfect combination. "We rehearsed one song together, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack's 'The Closer I Get to You,' " he recalls. "But I wound up doing a solo song and some other guy did that one with her. Mostly, we were just messing around."
Gill says his biggest influences are Stevie Wonder and Hathaway, "though I only got into him about three years ago when everybody started telling me I sounded just like him. We'd done the song, but I didn't know his name. Once I heard the record, I knew there was a resemblance."
By this time the mega-decibel Lattisaw was all of 14 and establishing herself as soul's most precocious singer since Wonder. "She'd already had one album, 'Young and in Love,' " Gill recalls. "It was during her 'Dynamite' album that I really got to know her.
"Stacy and I lived in the same neighborhood, and I used to go over to her house all the time. It's strange, I never approached Stacy about singing. Other kids used to come over and say, 'Stacy, I want to sing, can you get me a contract?' I was the quiet type, never mentioned anything to her about singing. And it just happened to me out of all of them."
By the time Lattisaw sent Gill's demo tape to Atlantic/Cotillion, she was up to four albums and Gill's family had moved to Georgia. When they came back to Washington to pick up some belongings, Johnny found a contract offer. He released his debut one week after his 17th birthday.
Like Lattisaw, Gill has been unable to attend school in recent years, studying instead with a tutor. Last summer he received his high-school equivalency certificate in a small private ceremony. "I had a chance to go to school and walk across the stage with the rest of the kids," he says, "but I didn't think it was really fair to not have to go to school for the last couple of years and walk the stage like everybody else."
He insists that school's not out just because he's ready to pop onto the charts. "I want to go to college, take up electrical engineering, but that's going to take four years of college and I don't know how we're going to work it out. But it's something I want to get done while I'm still young."
Another project is an album that will reflect Gill's gospel background. He points out that there is a long tradition of gospel singers moving into the pop field, as well as a pragmatic motive. "All of a sudden they wake up one day and say, 'Gee, I want to make a living, I want to buy a house. I think I'll change,' " Gill says.
"I want to do a gospel record because I want to let everybody know where I come from. People feel that R & B is the devil's music, and it's not. All music is God's music. It's just that some artists have perverted the music, used it and abused it, leaving a bad impression on people so that they think R & B is all the devil's music."
Not that there isn't a little devilment in Gill.
"I was just an innocent little kid," he says, recalling his first recording sessions in Los Angeles. "I'd walk around the studio, going, 'What is this for?' I was there for three months, and after a while I felt comfortable. As a matter of fact, after the album was over, I didn't want to come home. I'll tell you a little secret -- I played sick a couple of weeks. And my parents still don't know this.
"It was the first time I'd ever been away from my family, period. Some things are easy to get used to, and L.A. is one," laughs Gill, who now lives in Hyattsville.
For his new album he was teamed with veteran producer and songwriter Linda Creed, who had worked with Thom Bell on the Delfonics', Stylistics' and Spinners' recordings but dropped out of the business for five years to raise her family. "I didn't know anything about her," Gill confesses. "When they first told me, I was going, 'A lady?' After they told me who she'd worked with, I said o-kay!"
That new combination, he feels, is going to put him that much closer to his dream: "to sell 40 million copies like Michael and then get into the movies." Luckily Gill's strengths as a ballad singer coincide with commercial radio's currently receptive attitude toward medium tempo, romantic material.
But will the world go along with a ballad singer who's so young?
"That's what we've all got to find out very soon," Gill says evenly. "I know this one may not go gold. But I'm going to spray paint it."