Just Being Me
With hands holding tight to the Good Book, and ears locked solidly into the sounds of both contemporary and traditional music, Keith "Wonderboy" Johnson is giving a new, fresh face to modern Gospel Quartet music.
With his latest release, Just Being Me, Keith has taken an overview of the last several decades of Gospel music, and what he's come up with is a remarkable mix of straight-ahead, foot-stomping Sunday morning church, soulful ballads, and a contemporary spin on the timeless sound of Gospel Quartet music. In fact, with a perfect mix of yesterday, today and tomorrow all working together, Just Being Me carries "Gospel Quartet" to altogether new and fresh terrain.
"You can always count on it," says Keith. "If you go to a venue with a mix of all types of Gospel-rap, R&B, traditional-with all the top artists from all the top genres… if the crowd hasn't moved yet, trust me. You give them the right Quartet group, and that classic, driving sound, and that crowd is going to wake up…quick!
"People hear the term 'Quartet' and think it's going to be old-fashioned and tired," Keith continues. "They don't realize that it's the most rocking Gospel that's out there. It was Gospel Quartet music that played a major role in the birth of R&B, soul and rock'n'roll. They all borrowed from us. We've cranked it up considerably since the old days, but the heart of our sound has been consistent for years. This is where it all started.
"I could buy myself a nice car if I had a dollar for every person who has come up to me after a show and said, `You know what? I never gave Quartet a chance, but listening to your music, I really like this. The way you incorporate other musical styles is something different, and I can really get into it.' It is something different. I call it `New Wave Quartet.'"
On an album filled with strong, solid songs, several shine especially brightly. "God Is Able" is traditional, hand-clapping, can't-sit-still Gospel at its most irresistible, while "He Made A Way" resonates with a profound ring of truth and firsthand experience, as a Gospel choir accompanies Keith with stirring ensemble vocals.
"That song is my testimony," says Keith. "It's my life, and the miracles the Lord has done in it. No matter what I've been through, He's always made a way. I want people to think about ways they can see the Lord having worked miracles in their own lives, and know that if He's made a way before, He'll do it again."
"Thank You For What You've Done" is a rocking, backbeat-driven shout of praise to the Lord for his abundant goodness. "One thing I'm never short on is telling God, `Thank you,'" says Keith. "On every album I've ever done, and will ever do, there'll always be a song of thanks to God."
"I Made It" is a swinging, steady rolling testament to the faithfulness of Christ. "It's easy to focus on what we don't have, instead of all that we do," Keith says. "Instead of complaining, we need to thank Him for what He's already done, and He'll do even more." Displaying Keith's command of a diverse range of musical genres, "Love" has a cool, jazzy touch. "He's Been Good" packs a punchy, retro R&B/soul groove, and "Give It to Jesus" is Gospel Quartet with a very funky, urban edge that most definitely fits Keith's definition of "New Wave Quartet."
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Keith began singing professionally at the tender age of five, when he became a member of his father's quartet, the Spiritual Voices. Closely watching and listening to his dad and the other group members-which included two uncles and two cousins - Keith patterned his voice and his moves after his family mentors. With a God-given gift from rhythm, he began playing drums in his church band when he was six, later adding bass as well to his repertoire.
Keith stayed with the Spiritual Voices - who performed largely in and around the New York area - throughout high school, still singing Gospel Quartet, though Motown as well as '70s and '80s soul also figured into his mix of musical influences as a teenager. He attended the University of Maryland, graduating with a degree in business and going to work on Wall Street as an account representative for a major banking and investment firm. When the company down-sized three years later, Keith found himself in a "last-in-first-out" situation, which he sees now as a "holy nudge" in his intended direction. "I was reasonably content with the 9-to-5 life," says Keith, "but I never could get the thought of a career in music out of my mind. I didn't want to wind up an old man always wondering what might have happened if he had given singing a serious shot. So I decided to go for it."
Still singing with the Spiritual Voices (of which his father, Phil Johnson, remains an active member today), only by then as the featured artist, Keith found himself signed within a year to the independent World Wide Gospel Records, with his first of five albums for the label following in 1998. Landing two albums in the Billboard Top 40 Gospel charts, and scoring a number of successful singles, Keith moved to Verity Records with 2004's New Season.
Having spent his life witnessing the almost magnetic appeal of Gospel Quartet music to masses of people across all lines of age, race and religion, Keith sees himself very much on a mission to carry modern Quartet to an ever-wider audience. But his greatest goals are set on even higher things.
"Above anything and everything else, I would hope people knew of me as a man who loved God, loved his family, loved and encouraged people, and tried to let them know that Jesus is the way," he concludes. "And also did his very best to turn them on to Gospel Quartet music!"
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