These days Johnny Gill is the happy onlooker in what could have been an unusual battle of the bands -- a battle of the producers, actually.
Will radio stations play Gill's sensuous dance hit, "Rub You the Right Way," produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, or will they opt for his gorgeous ballad, "My, My, My," produced by L.A. Reid and Babyface?
So far they've been playing both songs, regularly enough to persuade 1.2 million people to go out and buy "Johnny Gill" and pump it up toward the top of Billboard's album charts (it's No. 13 this week).
Just how did the Washington native -- who replaced Bobby Brown as lead singer in New Edition 2 1/2 years ago -- get the two hottest pop/R&B production teams in the country to work on his solo album?
"It just happened," Gill says with a chuckle during a recent visit to co-host a segment of WUSA's "Music Video Connection."
"I wanted to work with both of them and they both wanted to work with me," Gill explains. "They just wanted to make sure I got off to a great start in my solo career."
This is actually Gill's second solo career -- more on that later -- but there's a difference this time around.
"They gave me great songs, and they knew because of the type of vocalist I am that's all I need," Gill explains. "I didn't need a concept, I didn't need a gimmick. There's no certain pocket that I'm stuck in. That was the key to making things happen for Johnny."
Jam and Lewis, best known for Janet Jackson's breakthrough albums, "Control" and "Rhythm Nation," had produced the first Gill-led New Edition album, "Heart Beat," while L.A. Reid and Babyface had produced N.E. Posse alumnus Brown's "Don't Be Cruel," as well as hits by Paula Abdul, Karyn White and Babyface himself. However, the two dynamic duos had never worked with a single artist at the same time -- until Gill.
Gill -- handsome, outgoing and blessed with a deep, warm, powerful baritone -- is part of a new generation of silky soul singers who may let their minds drift to the bedroom but also keep a foot on the dance floor. Babyface has said Gill is "the greatest singer I've ever worked with," and his passionate masculinity is part of a tradition that extends from Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Teddy Pendergrass to Luther Vandross, Peabo Bryson, Jeffrey Osborneand newcomers like David Peaston and Babyface himself.
"There's nothing to Johnny but just Johnny sings," says Gill.
Seeming more assured these days than before he joined New Edition -- and the gold "JG" rings and chains suggest he's more financially secure as well -- Gill is, at 23, a veteran of the music business. The youngest son of the Baptist minister at Trinity Temple on 16th Street, he first fronted a brotherly gospel quartet at age 7 -- Johnny Gill and the Wings of Faith performed locally and on the Southern gospel circuit.
As a teenager, though, Gill's tastes expanded to include secular music, and when he went to Sousa Junior High he gravitated toward the glee club, where he encountered an old playmate from Kimball Elementary School -- Stacy Lattisaw. Lattisaw had been recording for Atlantic Records since she was 14, and after some prodding, she persuaded Gill to send a demo tape to the label.
Gill signed on at 16, releasing his first eponymous album a week after his 17th birthday. He was a final link in Atlantic's fabled "D.C. connection," which dated back to Ruth Brown and the Clovers in the '50s and peaked with Hathaway and Roberta Flack in the early '70s. Ironically, when Gill and Lattisaw first sang together at Sousa, it was the Hathaway-Flack duet "The Closer You Get." Later they would record their own album of duets, "Perfect Combination," and the combination remains potent: Lattisaw and Gill recently topped the black singles chart with "Where Do We Go From Here."
Where did they go from here? To Motown, actually: That's the label both Gill and Lattisaw call home these days. Gill suggests that Atlantic not only treated him like a kid but didn't really know how to market him either, choosing to push him only as a balladeer and duet partner with Lattisaw. Ironically, Gill's current success will probably provoke a "Best of Johnny Gill" from Atlantic, drawing from his two solo albums and the duet project. "That would be funny," Gill says, restraining the laughter.
In fact, MCA Records bought out Gill's Atlantic contract in 1988 and he was already working on a solo album with L.A. Reid and Babyface when New Edition drafted him. (When MCA's president for black music, Jheryl Busby, moved to head up Motown after it was purchased by MCA that year, Gill went along.) That's when Ricky Bell, Ralph Tresvant, Michael Bivins and Ronnie Devoe asked him to step into the spotlight occupied by Bobby Brown.
"People always say, 'You took Bobby Brown's place,' " Gill says. "But Bobby never left. Bobby's still a part of New Edition, part of the family, and I couldn't take his place. When I came in, the main thing I had to prove to everyone was that Johnny holds his own and that Johnny is Johnny and Bobby is Bobby."
(Brown's departure was not completely amicable, a point addressed in a subsequent New Edition song called "Competition." The parties have since overcome their differences.)
New Edition, which had established itself as a teen heartthrob group in the Jackson 5 tradition, was looking for someone to take it into the adult market, which the deeper-voiced Gill did with such hits as "Can You Stand the Rain" and the aptly titled "Boys Into Men."
It was something of a two-way street, Gill adds. After all, his reputation was as a balladeer, which meant his stage presence tended to be fixed, not fluid. That would change drastically in a group knows for its nonstop steps.
"Being with a group that dances, it could only enhance me," Gill says. "I don't care how great you sing, it comes to the point in a concert where you also have to be able to give people something to look at. A wonderful voice is good and you can listen, but after a while, you'll start getting restless because you want to see something. This has given me that experience -- the ability to really entertain -- and that's something that I was lacking before coming with New Edition."
Part of the deal in joining New Edition was that the move wouldn't interfere with Gill's solo career, that it would merely delay its next stage. As it turned out, Bobby Brown's departure and subsequent multi-platinum success would open the floodgates within the group.
"Ralph Tresvant actually started his solo project first, and he's going to be the last one out," Gills says with a smile. Bell Biv Devoe's "Poison" album, which came out a month before "Johnny Gill," is currently No. 5 on the Billboard chart, spurring some jovial jockeying for chart position, according to Gill.
"But it's all in fun. The bottom line is that what we're doing is all in the game plan." That game plan, Gill adds, includes a New Edition reunion tour -- Bobby Brown included. "We feel like everyone has to be successful in order to do this, and so far everyone has been. It's competition and we're all rooting and pulling for each other, though we all feel, 'Well, I want to be the most successful out of all of them.' "
Two and a half years down the line, Gill insists he never felt he was taking a risk in putting his solo plans on hold. "Not really, because I knew that going with the group was only going to give me more exposure -- they had this young, wild audience -- and that would set up the solo career. I couldn't lose either way. And I didn't have anything to lose."
Except perhaps his reputation as a balladeer. That's why Gill opted to work with Jam and Lewis, who produced a side of dance-driven hits to complement the ballad side produced by L.A. Reid and Babyface. As a result, one team portrayed Gill as a subtle romantic, the other as an aggressive lover. No one had ever questioned Gill's skills at setting a romantic mood, but until "Rub You the Right Way," there was some doubt about his ability to sustain a hard groove.
Says Gill, "That's why I came out with the up-tempo record first, before I came to the ballads, so that I could prove to people -- and to myself -- that I'm an all-around entertainer. I love singing ballads, but I don't want to go to a concert and have to sit and sing ballads all night when I enjoy dancing as much as I do singing."
"My, My, My," featuring a buttery saxophone intro by Kenny G. and supple vocal backing from After 7, will sustain Gill's reputation on the ballad side.
"I sing from the heart, I sing with feeling," Gill says. "I can't technically go out and do the same thing exactly the same way night after night. It depends on the kind of energy that's coming from the audience. When the audience is high, it brings out a whole new side of me."
Based on the heat generated by "Rub You the Right Way" -- both the song and the much-played video are full of steamy energy -- Gill seems to be rubbing large groups of people the right way. He remembers getting strong feedback from industry insiders while the album was still being finished in the studio, but "I figured people were just saying that. The proof was in the pudding -- when the album was at 1.1 million."
After graduating from Sousa Junior High, Gill studied with a tutor while pursuing his musical career. Five years ago, after he'd received his high school equivalency diploma, Gill expressed an interest in going to college to study electrical engineering. Soon afterward, New Edition came calling, offering a crash course in electrical imagineering. Since then Gill's been able to observe gold and platinum plating close up, and his smoldering good looks have even elicited some offers of film roles -- which he has so far declined.
"I've got to concentrate on what I do best," Gill says. "The other opportunities will be there as long as I continue to be consistent and successful."
Any immediate goals?
"I want to reach 2 million," Gill says. Confidently.