~ Biography of R&B singer Smokie Norful ~
Smokie Norful is one of the most successful gospel music artists ever. He’s earned two R.I.A.A. certified gold albums, 300 million digital streams, 3.5 billion radio airplay impressions, and two GRAMMY® Awards. There’s no doubt that he’s put his stamp on the inspiring genre with heart-wrenching ballads such as the recent No. 1 “I Still Have You” and “No Greater Love” to “Dear God” and his 2002 breakthrough classic, “I Need You Now.” The latter was so massive that it’s been covered by luminaries ranging from belter Tamela Mann to Broadway star, Billy Porter. Norful has performed on the BET Awards, at the Essence Music Festival, and even The White House. After a nearly-decade long recording hiatus, he’s finally back in the recording booth with a new album is in the works, thanks to his music-producer sons, Tre’ Norful and SNW.
“I never completely quit music, I just didn’t do the music industry,” Norful explains. “It’s like 7-10 years between albums and I had concluded that I wasn’t doing any more. There are so many great young artists like Jonathan McReynolds, Jekalyn Carr, and my artist, Isaiah Templeton. I was content to be in that posture but, my two boys are incredible musicians.” Norful’s sons have been building their respective and separate resumés as R&B-Hip-Hop producers on the rise. “They have major placements on artists everybody would know,” their proud dad beams. The brothers staged a friendly intervention to convince him that it was time to record again. “They had literally been hounding me during the pandemic to make new music,” Norful recalls. “They literally sat me down and it was a sincere conversation. For me, it was emotional. I couldn’t deny them.”
The Norful trio collaborated on “I Still Have You,” the first release under the new joint venture between Norful’s Tre’Myles imprint and the MRNK Music Group. It’s the kind of raw, piano-ballad that became a Norful trademark during his two-decade affiliation with the Capitol Christian Music Group. It stormed the charts a few months ago, debuting at No. 18 on Billboard’s Gospel Airplay chart, and cresting at No. 1 on the Mediabase Gospel Airplay chart. “It was their first No. 1 at radio,” he smiles. “I beat all these other artists they are working with because my track was released first.” They also cut with Black Elvis, who’s collaborated with Beyoncé and Jack Harlow. The four of them came up with another track entitled, “Blessings,” for the new album.
Blessings have been a recurring theme throughout Norful’s life. He was born October 31, 1975, in Muskogee, OK, but raised in Pine Bluff, AR. He’s the first of three sons born to a now retired African Methodist Episcopal pastor, W.R. Norful, Sr. and his wife, Teresa. He began to study piano at the age of four, sang publicly at six, recorded an album at ten and became a church keyboardist by twelve. “My parents scraped and scratched to get me all over town to get in talent shows and to meet this person and to meet that person,” he once said. The word spread around town and came to a head circa 1989. “Greg Sain and Morris Hayes were part of Prince’s New Power Generation band,” Norful recalls. “Greg is from my hometown of Pine Bluff. He had come home, somebody told him about me… They flew me to Minnesota, and we recorded a demo at Paisley Park. My dad was there the whole time. He would not leave the room. He walked me through the whole process and then said, `they never talked about your education. You are in the 9th grade. There’s no way that they should not have said something about your education.’ He wouldn’t sign the contract, so I was mad at him for a long time, but I can say now that was the best decision because God had a plan and purpose for my life.”
After high school, Norful earned a history degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and began a seven-year teaching career. By 1998, he had moved to Chicago where he continued to teach school while earning a master’s degree at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. He composed and placed songs with artists such as Marvin Sapp, Dottie Peoples, and the Colorado Mass Choir. While singing at a church, Joanne Brunson of The Tommies choir, spotted his talent and asked him to sing on their next project. He wrote and performed “He’s All I Need” for their live recording, Real. In the audience was Edwin Oliver, a Walt Disney Company executive, who was awed by Norful’s talent. He soon became his manager and negotiated a recording deal for Norful with one of the leading gospel recording labels of the time, EMI Gospel.
Norful’s debut album, I Need You Now, was anchored by a song he hoped that Yolanda Adams would record. “Part of the reason I wrote `I Need You Now’ is because we weren’t supposed to be able to have children naturally,” Norful remembers. “My wife Carla was sick with tumors. They thought it might be cancer. My mom was paralyzed. My dad had just had open heart surgery. I dropped out of seminary to go care for him. My grandmother had her leg amputated. It was literally back-to-back-to-back. In the middle of that I sat down and said, `God, I need you now.’” The song was so personal that Teresa Norful felt that no one should record it but her son. “She never does that,” Norful says. “She kept making me promise that I wasn’t giving the song away, so I didn’t.”
Good thing. Once it was released, “I Need You Now” saturated the gospel and urban mainstream radio airwaves, cementing the foundation for Norful’s now-illustrious career. Although, there was no widely recognized gospel radio singles chart at the time, the song did peak at No. 8 on Billboard’s Adult R&B Airplay chart, sandwiched in between Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father” and Will Downing’s “A Million Ways.” It remained on that chart for 59 weeks, a rarity for a gospel song. The I Need You Now album spent 104 weeks on Billboard’s Top Gospel Albums chart, spent five of those weeks at the No. 1 spot, and was certified gold within two years.
For the next dozen years, the hits and accolades continued. Norful’s albums routinely showcased diverse rhythms such as the reggae cut “Nothing is Impossible,” the Pop tune “Run Run,” and the Motown-styled ode to Marvin Gaye, “I’ve Got What You Need.” However, it was always the big ballads that became the radio hits. “The thing and it really frustrates me as a preacher, everyone wants to keep me an artist,” Norful says. “As an artist everyone wants to box me into one style which is ballads, but I am a singer, a real singer. I’ve studied classical. I used to do Latin pieces. I was in a choral ensemble in college and high school. I have these eclectic musical experiences. I was a fan of Stevie Wonder, El DeBarge, Switch. I was a fan of B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson. I don’t like the frustration of everyone trying to box me in. Bishop Jakes once told me people will always try to keep you where they met you but as a creative it makes you exceptionally frustrated because you are so much more than what they proscribe for you. I’ve finally gotten to a season where I’m liberated in my thinking to do what I want to do; not what I got to do.”
One thing Norful feels he’s got to do is preach the Word. “I never had an inkling of an idea of that I would actually be pastoring,” he reflects. “I watched my father and mother make some extraordinary sacrifices for a lot of years. I just wanted to sing. At the height of my career, there was this overwhelming compulsion that I was supposed to do ministry at another level.” It started as a weekly Bible study and morphed into the Victory Cathedral Worship Center in 2005. Over the years, his Chicago congregation has boomed. During the COVID crisis, the church opened its Global campus, an online hub of its worship services that draw over 10,000 weekly viewers. Then, the church opened its third campus, a fellowship in the Atlanta, GA area a year ago. Norful splits time between the two cities while also overseeing churches in Birmingham, AL and Houston, TX.
“Marvin Winans once told me that eventually I’m not going to do music at all,” Norful laughs. “I said, `absolutely not. That will never happen to me.’ Sure enough, once I got into ministry, I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the people and the process: building lives, empowering people. Now, I’m on the front-line watching people go through the worse possible times and experience the best possible times, the triumphs and the trials and tragedies. I’m walking them through it, I’m praying them through it. I’m standing by bed sides in hospitals. It really made music ministry mean something completely different and it made me a deeper student in the word of God because now I have to study and be prepared to preach every single week without fail.”
Norful takes his roles as pastor and artist seriously, one complementing the other. First, he’s a constant learner who brings the art of instruction to the way he manages his church. From the church’s embrace of technology to enterprise, it’s not that old time religion. He was mentored by Life.Church founder Craig Groeschel on how to better manage his church years ago. “I went and just sat with him,” Norful explains. “He had a weekend where he had young pastors come in and he coached us and gave us access and exposure.” As a leader, he has demonstrated to his congregation how to be fiscally responsible. “Our church has millions of dollars of property,” he adds. “We are the largest black owned commercial developer in the far western suburbs of Chicago. We bought a strip mall. Hobby Lobby is our anchor tenant. They rent from us.”
Norful also found mentors in former EMI Gospel President Ken Pennell and the late Bill Hearn (former CEO of Capitol Christian Music Group) who shepherded his career over the last two decades. “Ken is like another dad to me,” he confesses. “He was the most amazing President that anybody could ever ask for coming into this industry for because he was really in love with God. He was mild mannered, and meek. But he was super, super smart. Bill was exceptionally shrewd as a businessman. He was so intuitive to industry trends, progressive thinking. Bill mentored me in business. I brought my whole church staff down and we spent two days locked in a room with him and he mentored my whole team on how to run a company and be profitable. Most people don’t understand that there is a business of ministry. If you don’t do business even as a church, you limit your capacity and reach and ability to make an impact in the world.”
Norful is now poised to share all the mental gems that he has acquired over the years through a yet-untitled mentorship program. “I’ve learned too much to take it with me,” he says. “I’ve learned too much to hoard it or to hide it. I have to share it and I have to train people. It’s about growth and development. I want to teach people how to monetize their art and how to own their voice. I’ll teach how to write successful songs and production. I’m offering this course to anybody who wants to grow and expand. I’m going to show people how to monetize their gift. Most people don’t know the work that it takes to be successful in music. How do you get on radio? How do you increase your streams? I’m in a teaching, fathering season.”
The concept of fathering returns us to the subject of Norful’s sons and the joy he feels working with them on the yet untitled new album. His eldest son, Tre’, just graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in finance and Spanish. His youngest son, Ashton, who’s known as SNW professionally, is a student at Loyola Marymount University. They both play guitar and piano, and have become great song crafters. Norful also has a daughter, Ashley, who seems to show no interest in a music career yet. “I’m like a fish in water,” he laughs of being back in the studio after a long hiatus. “I cannot deny there’s something special about being in the studio with my two miracle babies that I wasn’t supposed to be able to have. That is mind-blowing to me.”
Another mind-blowing occurrence is the conclusion of Norful’s twenty-year affiliation with the Motown Gospel /EMI Gospel music family. His two mainstays there – Bill Hearn passed away of cancer in 2017 and Ken Pennell retired a year later. He signed a joint venture deal with MRNK instead. “I literally went everywhere,” Norful explains. “I went first to EMI. They were my first stop and my first thought. But I have since figured out that it’s a new regime and new leadership. I ultimately concluded that God never calls you back to a place that He delivered you from. The new team offered me literally the same deal I signed 20 years ago [as a new and untested artist]. That was unacceptable. I had some deals on the table from mainstream R&B labels, but I felt most at home and at peace with Gina Miller and her team. It felt very familiar. I respect and honor Gina’s love for ministry and for God and for the music. They were also willing to do a creative deal that allowed me to be the businessman that I am even as I am being an artist. But my main purpose is the gospel and the message of Jesus Christ. ”