NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Smokie Norful was ready to serenade his new bride with "Nothing Without You," a song he wrote especially for their wedding day.
But nobody told the musicians. They didn't learn the music, so he couldn't sing it.
"The only regret I've ever experienced was not being able to sing that song, a message I wanted to communicate to both God and my wife," Norful told The Associated Press.
But "Nothing Without You" was not written in vain. Six years after Norful's wedding day, it's the title track of his second full-length album, which has been No. 1 on the gospel charts since its Oct. 5 release.
The Chicago-based gospel singer's 2002 debut, "I Need You Now," sold more than 340,000 copies and stayed atop the gospel charts for five straight weeks.
"I just say, 'God, I trusted you the first time, and I trust you this time, so whatever you say I'm willing to follow,'" Norful said.
The new album mixes contemporary and traditional gospel with a hand-clapping, foot-stomping sound reminiscent of Sunday mornings. Norful wrote seven of the album's 12 tracks with the help of jazz legend George Duke, who produced the title track; Percy Bady; Tommy Sims; and the producer brothers Victor and Cedric Caldwell.
This album not only gave Norful the chance to make amends for his wedding day, it also gave him a chance to work with his biggest gospel inspiration, Vanessa Bell Armstrong. She lends her mellow alto to "Continuous Grace," a slow, intimate worship ballad.
But the most personal and stirring song on the album is "God is Able," which Norful says is a continuation of "I Need You Now."
"It was my own personal cry," he says.
When he wrote "I Need You Now," his father had just had emergency open-heart surgery. Doctors suspected his wife might have cancer, and they told her she would never be able to conceive children.
But now, Norful says, "I've got a 2-year-old son, my wife is healthy, my daddy is doing just fine, despite all the negative diagnoses."
"God Is Able" came years later, when his wife conceived their second baby - "a miracle child that we weren't even looking for," Norful says. "As a result, I sat down and wrote the words to 'God Is Able.'"
Norful started singing and playing piano when he was 5 years old. Others started noticing his talents at age 13 when his father, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor in Arkansas, made Norful fill in for a church musician who quit right before a Sunday morning service.
"That was an eye-opener and a shock to the whole congregation because no one knew I played," he said. "They were all sitting there flabbergasted."
Before becoming a professional musician, Norful tried being a park ranger, a congressional assistant, a medical technician and a high school history teacher.
He finally turned to music and got a deal with EMI Christian Music Group in Nashville. But he says he's never forgotten that gospel music is more than a career; it's a ministry.
"He has a passion for his ministry, and people have accepted his music for what it is because he isn't going to compromise," says Willie Mae McIver, program director of ABC's nationally syndicated gospel radio program, Rejoice Musical Soul Food. "He has made a difference in the gospel industry."
Stan North, managing editor of the online gospel magazine Gospelflava.com, said Norful is unique.
"There's nothing cookie cutter about his artistry," he says. "I would not be at all surprise to see him remain in the upper echelon of gospel artists for years to come."
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