It's the Gospel Truth: Young Johnny Gill Has Jumped Onto Music's Fast Track

updated 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Someday soon, if Cotillion Records has its way, a poster of Johnny Gill, 16, will brighten the lockers of a million junior high school girls. With his full-lipped pout, baby-fawn eyes and glistening curly perm, little (5'5", 135 pounds) Johnny has the smooth-cheeked cuteness that sets the Tiger Beat crowd to cuddling their pillows at night. He also has the confidence. "I think I'm gonna go a long way," he says, eyes dancing. "It's just a short time before I'll be running on top."

Already, on his new first album, Johnny Gill, he reveals a startlingly mature range. Crooning such smoky ballads as When Something Is Wrong With My Baby, the teenager sounds like a veteran with a dozen hits behind him. But, as a Baptist minister's son, he renounces Satan and all his music. "It's ridiculous when you have young kids listening to the radio," he says, "and all they hear is lines like 'go to bed with me' and 'between the sheets.' "

The youngest of four musical brothers, Johnny grew up listening to gospel quartets in his dad's Washington, D.C. church. He strummed his first guitar at age 5, and at 7, with his father leading rehearsals six hours a day, he was headlining a family gospel quartet, Johnny Gill and the Wings of Faith, which toured the South. But his big break came via his school glee club, where he became pals with Stacy Lattisaw. A teen with a megadecibel voice, Lattisaw was discovered in 1978 by Henry Allen, president of Cotillion, for whom she's made five albums. Last year she sent some tapes by Gill to her mentor, who, after one earful, flew Johnny to New York and signed him to a contract. A single, Super Love, from his first LP has already reached the 26 spot on R & B charts.

As a new black singer, Johnny faces comparison to another wunder-voice. "I think he'll be bigger than Michael Jackson," Allen predicts. "We're grooming him to be a black matinee idol." Gill now has a tutor and says, "If I went to school I might come home with no clothes on. I did a benefit recently and girls chased me all the way to the car. Don't get me wrong," he adds, "I'm glad they feel that way."

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