Gail Jhonson is a lady who knows what she likes and how she wants it done. As a solo R&B/funk keyboardist, such abilities have served her well to establish herself as a neo-soul artist and enable her to release her latest CD Pearls, which features collaborations with Marion Meadows, Paul Brown, and Norman Brown. Jhonson has also established herself as the Music Director for Norman Brown’s SummerStorm concert series and for a number of gospel musicals and stage productions, which have all been a once in a lifetime experience that she would not have missed for anything in the world.
She notes that juggling a career as a solo artist and a music director takes a strong will as these two roles are as opposite as Ying and Yang, but somehow they come together as one. She examines, "These roles are completely different. However, being a music director did help by watching and listening to the others in the show. I'm glad to be a solo artist. I'm on the road with all these artists so I figured I might as well play my music too! It was hard finding time while performing so much, but I was determined to make my solo CD and continue to make money."
She tells why she felt that she was ready to make her new album Pearls. "I was ready two years ago. I needed to get everything all organized. I write very easily, but I needed time to arrange and produce the tracks to make it just right. Once I wrote ‘Pacific Breeze,’ I wanted more songs that would blend nicely to that one. I then decided that I wanted some outside input from other writers so I could concentrate on being the musician performing."
One of these musicians whom she wanted to record with on Pearls was saxophonist Marion Meadows. She explains, "I was working with Marion Meadows with the SummerStorm 3 Tour. He was fantastic to work with from the very first day he came to rehearsal. I told him about my efforts, then asked him, and he gladly obliged. He is approachable and honest, and always willing to share. He has a sound that is smooth, sexy, yet quite musical. I thought he would lend a specialness to the making of Pearls, and he did!"
Jhonson has a mix of original material and cover tunes on Pearls. One track, which is a splendid rendition of an upbeat funk/soul melody, is "Sisters." She reveals, "'Sisters’ was written by James Lloyd. He sent me the track. I added my style to it and gave it the title with the vision of all my sisters doing the ‘step/line’ dance. A fun time for all of us to dance together!"
One of Jhonson’s original tunes from the album is "Moment of Love," which projects heavy, emotive keyboard tones as opposed to the sprightly chimes she plays on the tune "Miles Away." She assesses, "I wrote ‘Moments of Love’ at a time when I learned to be close again. Remembering my loves are expressed in the heavy, rich chordal colors. I love deeply and passionately and I wanted that song to reflect that. ‘Miles Away’ was co-written with Travis Milner. The title itself says movement, not being somewhere far away, but going away. ‘Me wishing you well, where you are...Miles away.’"
Jhonson rendered the services of many producers for Pearls, but relied on world-renown jazz musician Paul Brown to help mix the tracks on the album. "Paul Brown's name has been floating around for several years; recording with Boney James, Norman Brown and mixing for everyone in smooth jazz!!! I didn't think I could reach out to him, but my lil' brother encouraged me to call him. Surprisingly, he lives minutes away!!! So, I called him, he was available, and liked my music. I really dig his sound. He added a nice spice to ‘Silky Slide, penned by my dad," she shares. "My CD was subsequently mixed by Michael Blum and Paul Brown rather equally."
Jhonson not only turned to collaborating with other smooth jazz/R&B musicians for the recording of Pearls, but she also found herself using her own advice from her published books Funk Keyboards and Dictionary of Keyboard Grooves, which she cites, "Lay down the groove 1st!!!! Give people something they can feel, then when you tell them, or show them or direct them musically; then it is easier to introduce your new ideas to people that are unfamiliar with your sound. They just might wait a minute before skipping to the next track to listen. I hope I was able to convey on Pearls what I try to help others to develop....Always a student, embrace leadership and new ideas. Also learn to love to practice!"
Gail Jhonson has not wasted any time going on tour. "I have been performing with my band locally at least once a month during the past four years. Since writing Pearls, I've been playing some of the songs live and getting great responses from the audiences. I am on tour now with Norman Brown's SummerStorm 4, mention of the CD alone is always applauded heartily. I expect to tour later this year and certainly in 2009."
Performing on Norman Brown’s SummerStorm 4 and being the music director for the tour requires Jhonson to wear two separate hats, and yet, she has no problem balancing the two distinct duties because she knows what she wants from both of them. She affirms, "A good leader IS a good listener! The ability to make a sound decision and accept responsibility for the consequences is also necessary to lead a band. My responsibilities for SummerStorm include gathering the audio material, charting the sheet music, organizing rehearsals, liaison between the musicians and the artists and management, make sure everyone makes the changes and cuts in the music while performing onstage, recommend musicians to join or leave the band, arrange the order of songs in the show and mostly, smile and be a fun example while performing!!!"
Gail Jhonson has been the music director for Norman Brown’s SummerStorm concert series since the first one set up tent four years ago. "I've been working with Norman Brown for many years. The last several years, he was participating in these package deals with Dav Koz or Will Downing or Gerald Albright. Once he was given the opportunity to host a package of his own, SummerStorm was born, and my music director position simply shifted from one artist to four with Norman Brown and the other features this year, Chante Moore, Alex Bugnon, and Paul Taylor."
She has been able to parlay her position as Brown’s musical director to being the musical director for a number of gospel musicals and stage shows in the Los Angeles area, such as Saving Grace and Reason for the Season. She recalls how she became involved in such productions. "I initially got involved because I subbed for someone in the play Eubie. I thought I could get used to this!!! It was hard, a lot of music, but do-able. It is fulfilling because it gives the feeling of the actors and the music coming alive right before your eyes. Because I'm involved and the music is coming from the artist through me, [it] is absolutely exhilarating. As a music director, I strive to complement the story, the scene, the actor’s emotion and involvement from the audience."
She recollects, "My friend, Dennis Rowe, saw in me the possibility of scoring his stage plays. I took the position and loved every minute. Stage performers need to be flexible because of the live performance aspect. The band needs to adjust constantly. This can be challenging when reading music, especially when the stage goes dark."
Her position also enabled her to direct her son Vein and her daughter Tamina in the musical Saving Grace, but she emphasizes that they did not receive special treatment for being the children of the musical director. "A boss is a boss," she commands. "I try to be ginger with anyone developing their craft. They listened and did their best. What a joy for me, all of us doing a creative thing!"
Jhonson additionally worked on the soundtrack for Saving Grace, which would lead to making her first solo album, Keep the Music Playing. She provides, "Me and my buddy Addam Driver had completed the recording of Saving Grace in 2003, then worked on my son's record VEIN. So we were a little production house getting things done in North Hollywood. Next, it was time for me. Keep the Music Playing was started because I decided it was time for me to make a concerted effort to put my music out, and take a stand in the music business. Everyone was encouraging me to it."
She remembers, "Although I had It’s About Time CD, that was a collection of works with friends compiled to test the waters. Keep the Music, was my first attempt with myself as the focus. I wrote the songs for me to play and express myself. I did invite some close friends to share in the project, Charlia on ‘I Wanna Luv You’ and Vidais Lovette on ‘Sunrise.’ With Addam and members of my church choir as background vocalists on several tracks, I had a complete project that took about a year to do."
Seeing Gail Jhonson today, you may have never believed that she began her rise to stardom as the keyboardist for the Morris Day band. She reflects, "Oh I've changed alright! I've learned to take direction and give it. Morris Day taught me about possibilities. Coming to Los Angeles, opened my eyes to all the opportunities in the music biz." She admits that there are "lots of changes" today. She lists, "The ‘audition’ scene was a great networking social scene for all musicians. With the decline of R&B bands and artists, musicians have lost a very valuable position in the industry. Now, there are only artists and sidemen that play without any input into the development of the music. I think it's turning around now...slowly."
Gail Jhonson is originally from Philadelphia, but moved to Los Angeles where she got the gig in Day’s band. She tells that the move was life changing for her. "I finally moved to Los Angeles in 1987. I had the opportunity to audition for Morris Day in August 1985, after meeting Herschel Happiness from Larry Graham--after running into him while at Joe Jefferson's office [at] Sigma Sound Studio. I met Herschel while out on the road with Eugen Wilde ("Gotta Get You Home with Me Tonight"). Anyway, he said they were holding auditions. I flew out, got the gig, loved it and seized the opportunity. [I] stayed with a Philly friend Val, prepared and practiced really hard. It has changed my life in many ways. I felt like I was on my way to success and I'd be able to help my family. Being in Los Angeles allowed me to meet and participate with a lot of industry people that I wouldn't have had access to so easily in Philadelphia. It was the right decision and I am continuing to pursue all that God has in store for me!"
Though the move to LA put Jhonson on her current path, she still keeps a strong attachment to Philadelphia by making a reference to the city in the name of her record label entitled Philly The Kid Records. She outlines, "I started the label after relocating to Los Angeles. I was producing a lot of local talent after I started making money and investing in my own studio. I wanted to remember my roots and give back, yet move forward positively. I had several artists I could have signed, but things didn't work out. So now I'm concentrating on me and my budding daughter Tamina, a true artist in her own right."
Gail Jhonson’s affair with the R&B/funk music and playing the keyboards began at 10-years old. She recounts, "My mom bought me a keyboard when I was two, and my grandmother had an old Emenee organ in her basement. I always fooled around whenever a keyboard was around. At 10, my neighbor came home late after taking piano lessons from school. I desperately wanted to take them too. I pleaded with my mom. She struggled to pay for lessons and piano rentals. After seeing Stevie Wonder at The Uptown Theatre playing a Farfisa organ...I was hooked!!! Playing the keyboard allowed me to escape into my own world and listening to all the greats of the day, like Sly & The Family Stone, Mandrill, Al Green, Earth, Wind & Fire. I quickly joined my cousin's band. We called ourselves ‘Natural Experience.’ We played all over Philadelphia and later, the East Coast during my high school years."
She expresses that some of her earliest musical influences were, "For sure Stevie Wonder, Mary Lou Williams, Ramsey Lewis, and Hubert Laws," which she relates, "I played flute for many years." She continues on, "A local guy, Mose Davis on organ and Jimmy Smith, I loved. It's still a dream to play onstage with any of my heroes." She mentions, "Today, McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamaal and James Williams are still an inspiration."
In the same way that these heroes have inspired Gail Jhonson to play the keyboards, she too is inspiring new musicians by being a part of the smooth jazz movement to revitalize R&B/soul/funk music for a new generation of musicians to join and enjoy. It is music that blossomed during the ‘60s Motown era and the ‘80s new wave, and there is no reason for it not to be rejuvenated and experience a new season. It is long over-due in Jhonson’s opinion and her record Pearls is one bauble in the strand that is making this happen.