One of the current kings of gospel quartet music, Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson, has died suddenly at the age of 50. Johnson was found dead in his Atlanta, GA home this morning. An autopsy is scheduled. Johnson was known for big gospel radio hits such as “Let Go and Let God Have His Way,” “Be Right,” and “Hide Behind the Mountain.”
“I’m in total disbelief,” says Black Smoke Music Worldwide founder Kerry Douglas who first discovered Johnson when he was performing at the American Gospel Quartet Convention in Birmingham, AL in the late 1990s. “I saw Keith perform there and I was just taken by how he moved the audience,” Douglas recalls. “He was an electrifying performer. He was the second act I ever signed, and he was my first signing to become a major artist. We used to sell CDs and The Gospel Truth magazines out of the trunks of our cars. We sold over 100,00 copies back in the day. Keith was like a brother. I was there when his first child was born. We fussed and fought with each other since we met, but that relationship built this company. A lot of the big artists today stand on Keith’s shoulders because of those sacrifices we both made in those early days. Keith began his career with Black Smoke and ended with Black Smoke.”
Johnson was born as Keith Lamar Johnson on May 17, 1972, in Brooklyn, NY. When he was five years old, Johnson’s family started calling him “Wonderboy” for his wonderous musical talents. As a teenager, he enjoyed going to Harlem’s Apollo Theater to see great gospel acts such as John P. Kee and the Rev. James Cleveland. During his teens, he sang with the Boys Choir of Harlem and with his father’s quartet group, The Spiritual Voices.
Johnson’s first Black Smoke Music Worldwide hit was 1998’s “Hide Behind the Mountain,” a rootsy acapella track with a steady drumbeat. Then, came other hits such as the massive “Be Right,” “Send A Revival,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” which showcased the singer’s gravelly tenor. In 2004, he moved on to RCA-owned Verity Records where he released two albums and scored his biggest hit of all, “Let Go and Let God.” Over the years, Johnson’s bouncy rendition of “12 Days of Christmas” has become an annual favorite on gospel radio stations.
After one-off albums with Malaco Records and Motown Gospel, Johnson scored a production deal with SRT Entertainment which released his album, Keep Pushin’, through a distribution deal with Shanachie Records. “I am saddened to hear of the passing of Keith `Wonderboy’ Johnson,” says Shanachie General Manager, Randall Grass. “I first heard his song `Let Go and Let God’ around 20 years ago and was immediately impressed; here was an artist injecting the quartet tradition into a contemporary style and it was great. A few years ago, we had the opportunity to release a new album by him which was an equally satisfying melding of traditional and contemporary gospel. His contribution has been great, and he will be missed.”
This past spring, Johnson returned to Black Smoke Worldwide where he released the album, Restructure, Renew & Reunion, which featured the radio single, “It Was You.” Johnson has also acted in touring musicals such as “PMS” and “What A Man Wants, What A Woman Needs.” “He had a bubbly personality,” says Glinda Perkins, Program Director for WXVI in Montgomery, AL. “He was very personable and very serious about music. He was his own best pitchman and even though he had people who worked for him, he was always the best promoter for his music.” Johnson is survived by his parents Susan and Phillip Johnson; a sister Sonya Denise Johnson; and two daughters, Brianna Destiny Johnson and Elyse Victoria Johnson.