"Never Would Have Made It" is the biggest gospel hit of the past decade, and the man who sings it, Marvin Sapp, is quite possibly the biggest name in gospel today — a development that still surprises the Michigan pastor.
"I'm blown away by how that song has had the impact that it has had on so many people," Sapp tells NPR's Guy Raz. "All of us, I've learned, have gone through 'never would have made it' moments, and that's the reason why I believe that it resonates so strongly in so many people's lives."
Sapp's last record made its debut at No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, the highest debut for a gospel record in half a century. Since then, he has lived through the tragic loss of his wife, MaLinda, to cancer in 2010. Sapp says he wanted to "sit back and just give up" after her death, but that a comment from his then-11-year-old daughter Madison convinced him to keep going.
"The day after she passed, that morning at 6 a.m. my kids were up getting ready for school," Sapp says. "And I was like, 'You don't have to go to school today — Mommy just went to be home with the Lord yesterday.' And she said, 'No, no, Daddy. We've got to go to school because Mommy would want us to keep it moving.'
"That's what we've been doing ever since, me and my children — we've been keeping it moving," Sapp says. "What I've learned is the best way to honor someone who has passed on is to live."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER WOULD HAVE MADE IT")
MARVIN SAPP: (Singing) Never would have made it, never could have made it without you.
RAZ: This is the biggest hit in gospel music in the past decade. It's called "Never Would Have Made It," and the man singing it is quite possibly the biggest name in gospel today: Marvin Sapp. His last record debuted at number two on the Billboard charts, the highest debut for a gospel record in half a century. Since then, Marvin Sapp has dealt with the tragic loss of his wife in 2010.
His new record is a tribute to her and to his faith. It's called "I Win." And I'm delighted to welcome Marvin Sapp here in the studio with me. It's great to have you.
SAPP: It's great to be here, Guy. Thank you very much.
RAZ: I imagine it's been a tough two years since the passing of your wife, Melinda.
SAPP: Very challenging, you know, trying to really learn new normals and really trying to find out who I am as a 45-year-old man versus when I married her at 23. So - but it's been good. You know, my kids are adjusting well and just trying to navigate through life.
RAZ: You know, before you came to the studio, I was talking to some folks in the building, and so many people mention the song "Never Would Have Made It" and how that song has helped so many people through really tough times. It came out in 2007. And the video of it is of you - you are a pastor, I should mention.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: And we'll get to that in a moment, but you in the church, and it's almost sung like a sermon. Man - I mean, people listen to that song to get through tough times.
SAPP: Man, I'm blown away at how that song has had such the impact that it has had on so many people, selling millions of ringtones, being number one at radio for like 47 or 48 weeks or something like that. And you never think that something so simple would have such an impact. The song is just simply never would've, never could've, stronger, wiser, better. And, you know, I never thought in my wildest imagination that it would have the impact.
RAZ: That song, of course, is about God.
SAPP: Absolutely. Without question. You know, all of us have gone through never-would-have-made-it moments, and that's the reason why I believe that it resonates so strongly in so many people's lives.
RAZ: You met Melinda when you were in third grade.
RAZ: When you were a kid.
SAPP: On the playground.
RAZ: You were married, I remember, when you were like 25 years old?
SAPP: We got married at 25, but we were together for 20 years. We started dating at 23.
RAZ: And of course she tragically passed after a battle with cancer. How long does it take you before you were even able to just get up in the morning?
SAPP: Well, you know, it's funny. The truth of the matter is, is that, you know, being people of faith and really having a real strong connection to God, and then also being a pastor, you know, you tend to understand the sovereignty of God. And honestly, I really wanted to have a real pity party and lay there and just sit back and, you know, just give up, YOU KNOW?
But I have three children, number one. And my children - believe it or not, my 13-year-old, who was 11 at that point, a statement that she made changed my life, literally. My wife passed away, and the day after she passed, that morning at, like, 6:00 a.m., my kids were up getting ready for school.
And, you know, I hadn't slept much that night. So I got up out of my bed, and I walked, and I saw my baby girl, you know, brushing her teeth in the bathroom. And I said: Madison, what are you doing? She's like, Dad, we're getting ready for school. And I was like, well, you don't have to go to school today. You know, Mommy just went on to be with the Lord yesterday.
And she said: No, no, Daddy. We got to go to school because Mommy would want us to keep it moving. You know, my wife had a slogan, a statement that she would say all the time: Keep it moving, people. Keep it moving. She would get up in the morning while she's cooking breakfast and fussing with the kids: Come on, keep it moving, children. Keep it moving.
At the church, she would tell the people: Keep it moving, faith. Keep it moving. So my daughter said that, and immediately, I went back into the bedroom crying and cut on the shower - jumped in the shower, got out, got dressed, and that's what we've been doing ever since. Me and my children, we've been keeping it moving.
RAZ: You have a song on this record of course called "Keep it Moving."
SAPP: Yeah. Yeah. That song was actually written based on her statement.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP IT MOVING")
SAPP: (Singing) Don't let anyone really make you forget that I am with you, I am for you. So keep it moving, people. Just keep it moving. You keep it moving ahead, keep moving ahead. Just keep on moving.
What I've learned is, is that the best way to honor someone that has passed on is to live. And that's what me and my kids have done. We've just decided, you know, through counseling, to just keep living.
RAZ: I'm speaking with the acclaimed gospel singer Marvin Sapp. His new record is called "I Win." Marvin, how did you go from being obviously a charismatic and talented pastor, minister, to a hugely successful recording artist? I mean, how did you - first of all, did you know that you had this voice?
SAPP: I've been singing since the age of 4, you know...
RAZ: In the shower, everywhere.
SAPP: No, no. Actually, I started singing at the church, my church that I went to, True Life Missionary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My father was a singer. So it just kind of happened that one Sunday while my dad was singing, I just walked out and stood next to him, and I started singing the song that he was leading, and I sang it in perfect pitch. So at the age of 4, I started singing.
They used to put me on a box so I could stand up and get to the microphone. And by the age of 10, I was traveling all over the Midwest doing music. And my mom would teach me all of the songs that I knew. And never had a passion. It's a funny thing, you know, I think about it, my mom asked me a question at the age of 12. Actually, she gave me a choice.
She said: Marvin, either you're going to sing in church or you're going to sing secular music, but you can't do both. So you need to decide which one you want to do. So at the age of 12, I decided to sing gospel music, and that's all I've ever done all my life. And I never imagined that I would be at this level, because you don't think about this in gospel. In gospel music, you just...
RAZ: I mean, you play - you're playing arenas. You're selling out huge stadiums.
SAPP: Yeah. It's like 15, 17,000 seat places.
RAZ: That's incredible.
SAPP: It is. It's incredible, and it's mind blowing. But that's not something that you map out and you plan out. You just - when it happens, you just accept it.
RAZ: You have had to counsel people as a minister in your professional life, people who have experienced loss. Who counseled you?
SAPP: Who counseled me? My wife's adviser. My wife was a licensed psychologist by profession and a college professor of psychology. So it was a natural progression for us to immediately transition upon her passing and me get myself and my kids into counseling.
RAZ: You call this album "I Win."
RAZ: And you have a track on the record with that same title, which is remarkable because so many people in your place would look at what happened and say, I lost.
RAZ: I suffered loss. What did you win?
SAPP: You know, what I won was, you know, having a stronger faith in God. I didn't lose my mind in it. My faith remained intact. And now I understand what my assignment is. My assignment is to take my situation and to use it to help others who feel hopeless and/or helpless because of loss.
It may not be because of a loss of a spouse but because of loss in general. So when I look at being a winner, I look at it from the standpoint of as that, I've come through this and now that I'm going to use it to help so many others. And hopefully, you know, my witness will be a blessing to so many.
RAZ: Marvin Sapp, thank you so much for coming in.
SAPP: Thank you.
RAZ: That's gospel singer Marvin Sapp. His latest album is called "I Win." You can hear a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WIN")
SAPP: (Singing) I decree it and I declare it. I know that I shall win. All you've got to say is this. Say I decree it and I declare it. Oh, I can win every...
RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Remember to check out our podcast. It's called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Find it at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.