In the middle of the Midwest, there is a Soul Music historian with a wonderful story to tell.
A Milwaukee native and entrepreneur, Johnnie Gee has over 48 years of experience in effects of music. To date Johnnie Gee continues to control all his Masters, Publishing, Licensing, Distributing and copyrights and continues to be a relevant agent in today’s music industry, Gee, has experienced things most artists have only dreamed about.
Johnnie Gee was born on in September of 1959 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was the 6th of seven children who got down his musical career at the age of 6 as a drummer. In 1968, Gee became the founder/lead vocalist and front man for the Midwest popular act known as the exclusive, “Step By Step Band”. In his earlier years, Lil Johnnie Gee and the Step By Step Band played local clubs and bars. As their popularity grew, they commenced to travel and compete in various music competitions. During those early years, Lil Johnnie Gee and the Step By Step Band would do at the same venues as a popular artist such as Jackie Wilson, James Brown, The Chi-Lites, The Stylistics, Ike & Tina Turner and many others.
In the late 60’s the group achieved regional attention with the recording of their first single on Cuca Records titled “Time After Time” and performed with likes of the “Jacksons”, The Platters to name a few.
1970, Ray Goodman and Brown also known as The Moments, took an interest in the group and introduced them to, Joe and Sylvia Roberson of All Platinum Records who subsequently signed the Step By Step Band to their label. Although the group recorded several songs, including “Love Is Strange”, which was a personal song of Sylvia Roberson, no records were released with All Platinum Records due to creative differences between All Platinum and its manufacturers.
Through passion and perseverance, the group proceeded to perform nationally opening for groups such as the Chi-Lites, O’Jays, Millie Jackson and other Disco/Funk artists. In 1972 Lil Johnnie Gee and Step By Step were setting up to perform at a local nightclub in Minneapolis, MN called the Filling Station. After several hours of setting up, the group decided to perish to the hotel to freshen up. Upon their return, they could hear a guitar doing a phenomenal solo, and with much surprise, a 16-year-old local guitarist by the name of Rogers Nelson was seen playing a Step By Step members guitar. He was required to put down the equipment, he hopped off the stage and ran off with a smile. Today, that artist is known by many as “Prince”.
Through touring with national acts, in 1975 the group began opening for Brunswick Recording artists the Chi-Lites, after several touring dates, tour manager Tim Butler and Marshall Thompson of the Chi-Lites introduced Lil Johnnie Gee and the Step By Step Band to Nat Tarnopol, CEO of Brunswick Records. After auditioning for the label the group was signed and recorded their first album on Brunswick Records titled, “I Always Wanted To Be In The Band” which was put out in 1976. Frank Sinatra’s personal string section with the Chicago Symphony performed all string arrangements for The Step By Step LP. The album was a masterpiece which rocketed up the Pop and Soul charts and instantly made the Step By Step Band the most sought-after Northern Soul & Pop artists in the country during the Mid 70’s. At their peak, Lil Johnnie Gee & the Step By Step Band were perhaps the most consistent young songwriters in Soul Music history from the Midwest.
In 1979, Johnnie Gee enlisted in the United States Army for 3 ½ years and filled in his tour with an Honorable Discharge. Fresh out of the Army in 1982, Johnnie Gee wasted no time going right back in the music saddle and started his own record label/production company “Sidetraxx Records and Entertainment”. The label produced 4 popular singles, coming apart yet again more records with artist such as “Jr. Mafia”, “Bizzy Bone” of Bone Thugs and Harmony and a host of many others collectively selling over 550 thousand copies worldwide.
In 2006, released a “Brunswick Top 40 R&B Singles 1966-1975” collection is a treasure trove of very popular and hard to find genuine soul classics. Younger consumers will instantly recognize many of the tracks from recent recordings by Joss Stone, Paul Wall, and Beyonce, who tried out the Chi-Lites’ 1970 hit “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” to create her Grammy-Award-winning song “Crazy in Love.” Under the leadership of Nat Tarnopol and Carl Davis, Brunswick Records rose to turn one of the most important Northern Soul labels of the classic soul era.
In 2007 Paul Tarnopol, the son of the late Nat Tarnopol inked a deal with Johnnie Gee and Sidetraxx Records to continue and uphold the legacy of music and experiences Johnnie Gee earned over his 48 years as a professional recording artist.
He launched his digital and marketing company “Digiprozs” in 2002 and had the opportunity to work with music Icons like Nicki Minaj, Drake, Lil Wayne, ASAP Rocky to name a fee. This is what he is currently doing at this time. You can see the full interview below!
How were you able to adapt in the music industry over the last 48 years?
Representing talent with consulting, management/agent, artwork, design, mastering/recording, distributing, licensing, magazine, grooming those who are willing to learn and management of my own personal music catalog.
You are one of a few artists that still own his masters. How have you been able to keep control of it when so many artists couldn’t?
Back in the 70’s, everyone had a choice to pay all cost and musicians up front or lose control over some rights, Sep By Step Band (Witch I am the founder of) played gigs and raised the money to pay for the recording. Back then you went on radio and media tours to promote your records, that was before major labels stop using in-store record reps. All my classic 45’s, I own the masters, publishing, and mechanicals. We were taught that if you don’t pay anything up front and take their “Advance” we could lose all rights and get as low as 12 cents per unit sold. Other artists back then didn’t have the strong financial backing we had, so the took the poison advances.
When can we expect new music content from Johnnie Gee?
Working on a new EP for fall 2017 “The Love In Me” expected to drop around September.
In 2002, you launched your digital marketing and promotions company. Can you tell us what inspired you to create your own digital platform?
After years of watching talent struggling to get the right look, representation, and someone with a solid background like myself, to lead and develop their careers. I finished conservatory of music, along with Al Jarreau and West Montgomery at age 14. I also possess a Music Major bachelor’s degree from Berkeley Music College in Massachusetts. After such a well response, today’s talent relies on Digiprozs to develop, design, consult and direct their careers.
You have done cover artwork for some of the industry’s most recognizable brands and companies. Which project was your favorite and why?
I have designed for Bizzy Bone Gansta Nip, Mopreme Shakaur, The Ch-lites, George Clinton, Luney Tunez, Lala Brown, Junior Mafia, MC Breed, Bone Crusher, Alexander O’Neal, and much more. I guess the most memorable would be “Interscope Records” I designed a few projects for the label.