Happy Birthday Smokie Norful

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    Happy birthday to Smokie Norful, born October 31, 1975. 

    Norful seemed to come out of nowhere in the early 2000s to establish himself as one of the modern greats in Gospel music. Virtually unheard of when he released his debut album, I Need You Now, in early 2002, Norful became Billboard Magazine's #1 Gospel Artist of 2003 and also won the coveted 2003 Stellar Awards for both Best Male Vocalist and Best New Artist.

    Happy birthday to Smokie Norful, born October 31, 1975. 

    Norful seemed to come out of nowhere in the early 2000s to establish himself as one of the modern greats in Gospel music. Virtually unheard of when he released his debut album, I Need You Now, in early 2002, Norful became Billboard Magazine's #1 Gospel Artist of 2003 and also won the coveted 2003 Stellar Awards for both Best Male Vocalist and Best New Artist.

    Norful was born in Pine Bluff , Arkansas , the son of Reverend W. R. Norful. Nicknamed "Smokie" after a deceased family friend, he attended the University of Arkansas , where he majored in History, following which he taught high school for several years before traveling to Chicago to attend Garrett Theological Seminary. In the late 90s he began writing for a number of Gospel artists, including Shirley Murdock and Dottie Peoples, and planned to independently record and release his first solo album, a process that ended up taking four years.

    Norful was signed by EMI Gospel and released his debut, the sleeper hit I Need You Now, in 2002. While ultimately a smash, the album began slowly, adding station after station in both the Gospel and Urban Adult Contemporary markets, and finally topped the Gospel charts over a year after its release. Musically, the disc was not revolutionary. It covered the crossover Gospel/Soul ground successfully mined over the past few years by several artists, and stylistically bore perhaps the most similarities to Yolanda Adams' 2000 crossover breakthrough, Mountain High...Valley Low. But while Norful's music was not as radically funky as Gospel material being released by artists such as Tonex or Deitrick Haddon, it developed a following because Norful simply covered the fairly familiar Gospel/Soul territory very very well.

    The title cut of Norful's I Need You Now album was a piano-laden ballad dominated by Norful's clear, plaintive voice. It became a staple on both Gospel and UAC radio for most of 2003, and was really a marvelous contrast to much of what was playing on Urban radio. Following the success of I Need You Now, Norful released Limited Edition, a album of mostly live recordings of material from his first album. Unlike its predecessor, Limited Edition, debuted at #1 and stayed there for a month, cementing Norful's rise to the A-list of modern Gospel singers.

    Nearly two years after Smokie Norful took the Gospel world by storm, he released Nothing Without You, which turned out to be one of the most awaited new releases of 2004. Surrounded by an A-list of contributing producers, including George Duke, Tommy Sims, Victor and Cedric Caldwell and Alex Asaph Ward, Nothing started where Smokie's popular I Need You Now left off, but with a little more emphasis on balladry. The new disc certainly included successors to Norful's most popular songs "I Need You Now" ("God Is Able," "Nothing Without You") and "Same Old Sad Song" ("I Know Too Much About Him"). But it was where the new album stretched out that it shined, such as on the hot, horn-laden first single, "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus" and the beautiful Tommy Sims acoustic ballad, "In The Middle." Perhaps the most surprising disc highlight was the terrific leadoff cut, "Power," a funky upbeat number reminiscent of Earth Wind & Fire's "Serpentine Fire." Like its predecessor, Nothing Without You wasn't revolutionary or genre stretching. However, an album that is this well written, produced and performed should never be taken for granted. It should be cherished.

    In the mid-00s, feeling overwhelmed by his music career and his pastorship at Victory Cathedral in Illinois, Norful contemplated retiring from recording. But he returned in 2009 with his first Live album to generally favorable reviews. He has continued to record sporadically, and hit yet another career milestone in 2015, winning the Grammy for his song "No Greater Love," more than a decade after he first conquered the Gospel charts. 

    Happy birthday, Smokie!

    By Chris Rizik

     

     
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