Grammy-nommed Gospel singer Willie Neal “the Country Boy” Johnson, died Jan. 10 in Tyler, Texas, of a stroke. He was 65.
Known for his blues- and country-infused brand of gospel, Johnson was the leader of Willie Neal Johnson and the Gospel Keynotes. Together with a fluid roster of band members, he released more than 20 albums.
In 1981, their song “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” earned a Grammy nomination, and the group won a Stellar Award for “Lord Take Us Through” and “The Country Boy Goes Home.”
As a youth, Johnson began singing with his five siblings. While a teen, he was recruited by the Rev. C.W. Jackson to join the Five Ways of Joy Gospel Singers. A few years later, he formed the Gospel Keynotes with his friends Ralph McGee, the Rev. J.D. Talley, Charles Bailey, John Jackson, Lonzo Jackson and Archie B. McGee.
The group members soon signed with gospel records label Nashboro Records, where they released their first hit, “Show Me the Way.”
When Nashboro folded in 1985, the band rechristened itself Willie Neal Johnson and the New Gospel Keynotes and signed with Malaco Records. At Malaco, the band released “The Country Boy Goes Home” in 1992, “Lord Take Us Through” in 1994, and “Help Me to Be Strong” in 1996.
The group was inducted into the American Gospel Quartet Hall of Fame in Birmingham and, in 1999, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in Detroit.