Song by local music minister up for Stellar Awards

Joey Matthews | 3/26/2015, 8:34 p.m. | Updated on 3/27/2015, 8:34 p.m.
James Johnson was aboard a plane last spring bound for a recording session with the Arkansas Gospel Mass Choir when …
Mr. Johnson

James Johnson was aboard a plane last spring bound for a recording session with the Arkansas Gospel Mass Choir when inspiration struck.

“I was looking out at the clouds, at his creation, and I was thinking about just how great God is,” he recalled.

At that moment, Mr. Johnson, the minister of music at Richmond’s Cedar Street Baptist Church of God, wrote the verses and the end of the song, “You Alone.”

The song is among nominations for the Stellar Awards, which recognize the top African-American gospel artists and television and film stars in the nation.

“I didn’t write it thinking it was going to be a hit,” Mr. Johnson told the Free Press last week. “I just wanted it to be a song that would help draw people closer to God.

“What blesses me the most is when people share with me, ‘This song changed my life’ or “It really helped me through some tough times,’ ” he said.

Mr. Johnson, 31, explained that co-writer Michael McDowell had sent him the song’s chorus before he flew to Little Rock, Ark. In less than a hour, Mr. Johnson had written the words and ending to the song that the choir recorded under his production.

“You Alone” became the title of the 2014 gospel hit by the Arkansas Gospel Mass Choir. It spent dozens of weeks on Billboard’s Top 15 chart for gospel songs, eventually reaching No. 1.

Mr. Johnson said other Richmond musicians worked on the CD, including drummer Brandon Taylor, organist Lawrence Taylor, bass guitarist Alvin Spratley and pianist and auxiliary keyboardist Darryl Johnson, who co-produced it.

The song is nominated in six categories: Song of the Year, CD of the Year, Choir of the Year, Traditional CD of the Year, Traditional Choir of the Year and Praise and Worship CD of the Year.

The multitalented Mr. Johnson grew up attending church in Baltimore. At 17, he entered the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he studied writing and performing. Among the school’s most famous alumni: The late rapper Tupac Shukar and actor Jada Pinkett Smith.

Mr. Johnson expects to complete a bachelor’s degree in music performance this spring that he began at the Peabody Institute of John Hopkins University.

He has been at Cedar Street Baptist for the last seven years.

He said about 10 members of Cedar Street will join him at the 30th annual Stellar Awards when the celebration is taped Saturday, March 28, at the New Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. It is scheduled for back-to-back airings on TV One at 8 and 10 p.m. on Easter Sunday, April 5.

Mr. Johnson received a rousing Stellar Awards sendoff Sunday at the East End church’s two worship services led by its pastor, Dr. Anthony L. Chandler.

The sendoff was by punctuated by a stirring musical performance by longtime gospel artist Beverly Crawford, another Stellar Awards nominee.

A five-minute video contained tributes to Mr. Johnson from his wife and children, Dr. Chandler, members of the multiple choirs he directs at Cedar Street and other family members who traveled from Baltimore to attend.

“We are so proud of you,” his grandmother, Lucy Gross, told a tearful Mr. Johnson near the end of the second service.

“I’m speechless,” Mr. Johnson told the congregation. “This is an honor to God who continues to blow my mind with his favor.”

He later told the Free Press, “Whether I win or lose, I already feel like I won after the way the church recognized me today.”