It's an old adage that where there's smoke, there's fire. And the debut release from EMI Gospel's Smokie Norful, I Need You Now, is proof positive. With a voice that both soothes and excites, and a songwriter's pen that runs the gamut of much of modern popular music, Smokie Norful arrives alive and on fire.
An incendiary live performer as well, Smokie has drawn great responses from both churched and unchurched audiences for music he terms "urban/inspirational."
"Music is a power. it's a force," he says. "The Lord is the ultimate source of that power and He has no limitations or boundaries. If you tap into that source, people can't help but take notice, whether they realize it or not. I try to write and perform songs that come out of my personal experiences, when I do that it seems to reach the heart of people. Music is the calling card that opens the door," he adds, "and then once you have people's attention you can impact them with what you have to say."
And on I Need You Now, Smokie has a lot to say, indeed.
The album's title song, written as are a majority of the selections by Smokie, is a gorgeous, jazz-tinged ballad that means exactly what it says. "I wrote that at a time when my wife, my father and my grandmother were all dealing with some serious medical issues, and I was seriously reaching out to God for comfort and guidance and healing," says Smokie. "I was crying out to God and realizing my total dependence on Him, and ultimate victory through Him."
"It's All About You" displays Smokie's comfort with a funky groove, and "The Least I Can Do" is a worship melody that showcases his soaring vocal prowess. "Psalm 64" lets the Word, Smokie's vocals and a grand piano deliver the message, while "Praise Him" is a rocking, hand-clapping traditional gospel arrangment that defies anyone to sit still.
"Still Say Thank You" beautifully weds Smokie's soaring tenor voice with a soulful, silken vocal ensemble. "Whether we're up or down, we have to tell the Lord thank you," Smokie says, "and if we do, we find that in that faith, bigger trials will bring bigger blessings."
"Same Sad Song" is offered in two mixes, the first carrying Smokie's message of fatigue with an overload of songs of troubles and woe atop a crystalline acoustic guitar and harmonica, and the second "Urban remix" adding some kick with electric guitar and a punchy bottom end.
Smokie is the son of an African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Pastor, but was given the freedom as a boy to experience some of the mainstream as well as gospel music of his youth, and he still counts the likes of El Debarge and Stevie Wonder as musical influences, along with Daryl Coley, Vanessa Bell Armstrong and many other of the era's gospel greats.
Born with God-given gifts for music, by the age of two Smokie had already begun picking out melodies on a child's toy piano, and by four he had graduated to a full-fledged upright piano in his father's church. Singing also came readily to Smokie. As he recalls it, "I just opened my mouth and there it was."
Smokie was raised until his early teens in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and his parents took him to perform in churches throughout that region of the A.M.E. denomination. He was only 10 when he caught the ear of a his district's musical director, who was preparing to make a custom recording with her own choir. Floored by the youngster's talent, she gave him the opportunity to be the featured artist on one entire side of the upcoming LP.
"I wasn't impressed with myself at all, or phased by the opportunity I was being given," Smokie recalls. "I just wanted to sing! They just stood me in front of the microphone and I let 'em have it!"
The album did well in the small sliver of the country where it was released, and within two years Smokie was playing piano regularly in his father's church, which he continued at age 14 when the family was moved to a congregation in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. With a natural ear for verse and rhyme, coupled with his prodigious musical gifts, Smokie also began writing and performing original songs by his mid-teens.
With years of private music lessons behind him, as well as having performed in all his school choruses and musical productions, Smokie decided not to formally pursue music when it came time for him to enter college. By the time he was a freshman at the University of Arkansas, he had his mind set on a major in history, and spent four years teaching Jr. & Senior high school level history.
Smokie's vocational path took another turn in 1998 when he felt God calling him into the ministry. Smokie relocated to suburban Chicago's to attend Garrett Theological Seminary where he is near completion of a Masters of Divinity degree.
But his mind and heart never strayed far from the music that had been born in his bones. "The entire time I was in college I was president of the youth department of the A.M.E. church for the 12th district [Oklahoma/Arkansas] and worship leader internationally. "I never stopped singing and playing in my local church or community. When I began teaching school I put together a 100-voice community choir, many of whom were, or had been, students of mine."
After his theological studies, Smokie accepted an assistant pastorate at a large church in Chicago, overseeing music, youth and children's ministries, where he came to the attention of Joanne Brunson, leader of gospel's famed Rev. Milton Brunson's Thompson Community Singers. Asked by Ms. Brunson to sing a song on the choir's upcoming album, Real, Smokie agreed, contributing one of his original numbers, and his career as a major-label artist was underway.
In the audience the night of the concert was Edwin Oliver, director of urban music publishing for Walt Disney. Edwin was immediately impressed by Smokie's ministry. This interest eventually led to Edwin's spearheading Smokie's debut album on EMI Gospel.
Seeing his future much like his past diverse and ever-changing Smokie is clearly a man available for the Lord's calling. "My greatest goal is to please God in all I do…my life, my music, my ministry," Smokie says, "and the only way to do that is to be a servant. My service at this point is the uplifting and encouraging others with the gifts that God has given me."