Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.
Smokie Norful's silky voice and potent songs have quickly propelled him to the top of the gospel hill.
His 2002 debut, "I Need You Now," spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums chart. The title track became a multiformat hit. The EMI Gospel project, which has sold 338,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, netted him two Gospel Music Association Dove Awards and three Stellar Awards and reached No. 154 on The Billboard 200.
An EP last year also hit the summit of the gospel album chart (it debuted at No. 90 on The Billboard 200). Now Norful fans are excited about his new full-length collection, "Nothing Without You," which arrived Oct. 5.
Norful says he did not have any jitters about trying to replicate his past success. "I don't try to follow up what God does," says Norful, who was Billboard's top gospel artist in 2003.
"I just believe that it was God's doing because it fit no formula. I equate chasing after what we experienced on the first album like a dog chasing its tail and never catching it," he continues. "I went in with the attitude that the same God that spoke to me on the first CD, the same God that put a message for his people on the first CD, is the same God I'm calling upon and trusting to do this CD."
Norful has been sharing the gospel most of his life. His father was a pastor, and by the time Norful was 4, he was playing piano and singing in church. His big break came when he was asked to sing on an album by Rev. Milton Brunson's Thompson Community Singers. He soon caught the attention of Edwin Oliver, then director of urban music publishing for Walt Disney, who took Norful to EMI Gospel.
On "Nothing Without You," Norful again teams with producer Antonio Dixon. He also began working with such noted producers as Tommy Sims, Percy Bady, George Duke and Cedric and Victor Caldwell, as well as newcomer Josiah Bell for the lead single, "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus."
Norful calls Bell "one of the greatest producers that I think gospel and Christian music will ever see. He's 17 years old and a baby genius."
The title cut is a song Norful wrote for his wedding. "I was supposed to sing it, but the musicians didn't learn it," says Norful, who lives near Chicago. "I didn't want to leave [my wife] and go play it by myself and then come back. I regret to this day that I didn't have the opportunity to sing it to her at the wedding. But we did get it at the reception."
Plans call for Norful to embark on a church tour next spring. In addition to his concerts, he plans to offer a series of workshops across the country to educate aspiring artists on vocal care, music ministry and the music business.
"Every time someone meets me somewhere they have a CD they want to put into my hands, or they have questions," says Norful. "I've been where they are, and I've had those same questions ... My whole mission in this ministry is to make sure that I am educating God's people so we can go higher. You can't go higher if everybody continues to make the same mistakes and falls in the same hole, but if we stand up on one another's shoulders, we will surely reach the goal that God has intended for us."
Norful recently taped a one-hour TV special in Nashville that will be released Jan. 25 on DVD. He also taped a multi-artist special, "Look Up, Sing Out," to be released Nov. 16, that also features LaShun Pace, Mighty Clouds of Joy, Darrel Petties and the Blind Boys of Alabama. EMI Gospel is also shopping the two specials to TV networks to air this winter.
Excerpted from the Oct. 9, 2004, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
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