When Johnny Gill of Southeast Washington started playing the electric guitar at the age of 5, no one in his family realized he would go so far, so fast.
Now, 11 years later, Gill has a hit record to his credit. And with a smile as wide and bright as his dreams, the curly haired musical prodigy has the look of a young man on his way to stardom.
Eight months ago, Cotillion Records, a division of the Atlantic recording label, one of the biggest in the industry, signed Gill to a five-year, five-album contract. His first album, "Johnny Gill," already is getting the pop hit treatment from some local disc jockeys.
His single, "Super Love," has climbed steadily from number 67 to number 29 on Billboard's soul music charts. It also is one of the most successful debut singles in the company's history, according to Henry Allen, president of Cotillion Records.
For Gill, who has been singing professionally for almost 10 years, music is a family affair.
"I had no idea that he would be so successful in so short a period of time," said his father, John Gill Sr., a Baptist minister and pastor of Trinity Temple on 16th Street NW. He bought Gill his first electric guitar one Christmas and soon after, Gill formed a band, with his three older brothers, Randolph, Driffere and Bobby, accompanying him.
The band eventually grew into a traveling gospel troupe called "Johnny Gill and the Wings of Faith." Gill, his mother Annie Mae and two of his brothers performed for many churches on the East Coast. But it was Johnny Gill's friendship with D.C. singing star Stacy Lattisaw that eventually led him to Cotillion Records.
Lattisaw, a former schoolmate from Sousa Junior High School, encouraged him to send a tape of his singing to Allen at Cotillion Records, the company for which she records.
At the time, Gill's family was planning to move to Georgia, but later they decided to stay in the District when he was offered a contract.
"My family said that whatever I did, they would be 100 percent behind me. They have been very supportive and have always encouraged me," he said.
Lattisaw likens Gill's vocal style to Teddy Pendergrass and said she and Gill plan to record a single some day, entitled "Perfect Combination."
Gill said he considers himself a ballad singer. He has not had to change his style to adapt to singing pop, he said, but gospel is still his favorite kind of music.
"I was raised in church and I grew up all my life singing gospel, and that will always be a part of my music," he said.
Gill's album is a showcase of his various musical talents, ranging from solo instrumentals on guitar and drums to a rendition of a 1960s Sam and Dave hit, "When Something is Wrong With My Baby."
"Some people say I'm better at the up-tempo stuff. I don't know," Gill said. "We'll just have to wait and see."
According to company publicity, Cotillion Records hopes to market Gill's clean-cut image as an alternative to other artists who have established their reputations with sexually explicit lyrics. That marketing concept is in keeping with Gill's own musical tastes.
"Artists like Prince and Rick James aren't really my bag. I think it's a shame that younger kids can't listen to the radio without having to hear about going to bed, and I hope I can make it a little easier for them," Gill said.
Gill now lives with his family in a quiet neighborhood in Riverdale. He said his life has not changed very much since his new-found success. Still a typical teen-ager in many ways, Gill said he likes to watch television and play basketball and football with friends between recording sessions.
"My idea of a good time would be to get a nice car, put the top down, drive to the park and just blast the speakers real loud," Gill said, smiling.
Of his new career, Gill said, "It's all happening so quickly, but it's a lot of fun." His advice to aspiring young singers is to "hold on and keep trying, because there is going to be a brighter day."
"The message I am trying to project is that we need to come together and love one another as sisters and brothers instead of fighting and shooting and robbing each other. What we need is more love."
Annie Mae Gill is optimistic about her son's future. "In five years, I guess he'll be almost at the top," she said. Then she reconsidered her statement.
"No. He'll be at the top."