By Bob Marovich
Twenty-seven-year-old Sophia Martinez Gokey was a big fan of American Idol. She taped the program so her husband Danny Gokey, also an enthusiast of the singing competition, could watch it after he returned home from work.
Sophia eventually encouraged Danny to audition for the show and, in his final year of age eligibility for the program, Danny decided to go for it. But on July 9, 2008, four weeks before the American Idol audition was to take place in Kansas City, Sophia passed away.
“It was tragic. It was heartbreaking,” Danny told the Journal of Gospel Music. “It almost took me out. But the grace of God kept me.”
Despite his personal tragedy, Danny came in third on American Idol’s Season 8 (2009), behind Kris Allen and runner-up Adam Lambert. It led to a record deal with RCA Nashville / 19 Recordings, Inc.
Danny’s debut single, the appropriately-hopeful “My Best Days are Ahead of Me,” came out in December 2009. March 2010 saw the release of his solo album, My Best Days. It rose to #4 on the Billboard 200 chart and #3 on the Country chart.
“The album sold well right off the bat,” Danny said. “but it didn’t sustain itself, and I was dropped from the label.”
He continued: “It was years of doing nothing. I couldn’t sell a ticket to a concert. I couldn’t sell a song to save my life. It was as if God didn’t want American Idol to get all the credit, because that’s when your career is supposed to take off, and that’s when my career actually failed.”
Or so it seemed at the time.
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Danny Gokey grew up in a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, household that adored music. The family sang all the time. “In the kitchen, in the living room. It was just kind of what we did,” he said. “My dad would bring home an album and we would listen to it. James Brown, the Staple Singers, the Average White Band, Huey Lewis & the News, the Chi-Lites. We listened to a lot of funk, a lot of big band, soul, country music, Christian music—it was a pretty broad spectrum.”
When Danny became music director for Faith Builders Church, he traveled between the church’s Milwaukee and Beloit, Wisconsin, campuses while also driving a truck for a local logistics company. “It was really an incredible time,” he said. “I learned so much.”
He and Sophia Martinez, high school sweethearts, were married in 2004. Her death four years later from a surgery gone badly, and the seeming end of his professional music career just as it was starting, were almost too much to handle.
“There was so many times that I wanted to give up,” Danny admitted, “but if I give up, where do I go? There’s nowhere to go. So you’ve got to keep hope alive. You’ve got to press through the pain and not let it devastate you, because it can really devastate you. We see it all around—people allow pain to get them into addiction, mental illness. That’s what pain does. I’m thankful that God put another vision before me. Vision is what we need to get through the dark season.”
He continued his post-Idol story: “So I’m label-less. I don’t really have any management. I don’t have a team or anything, to be quite honest. I signed with a new manager. He said, ‘Listen, we can waste our time talking about dreams, talking about vision, talking about all these different things, but if we don’t have a record label, we don’t have anything. We need someone to fund the project. If we don’t have a project, we don’t have a song. If we don’t have a song, we can’t get radio. If we don’t have radio, we can’t have a career.’”
Initially, no label wanted to sign Danny. Finally, they heard back from BMG; the global entertainment company was just starting an artist division. Danny said the BMG representative who signed him told his manager: “I don’t know why I’m signing Danny Gokey. I know I’m supposed to. Please don’t let me lose any money. Let me break even.”
Released in 2014, Danny’s first Christian music single, “Hope In Front of Me,” was forged not only in the crucible of his life experiences but also from years of Christian education and church music ministry. It hit number one on the CCM chart.
“I feel my career is something God built, not man,” Danny said. “I don’t know anyone who came off of [American Idol], failed, came back, and is doing better. Most don’t have a second chance at a career after being dropped by a label. That’s my story. That’s nothing short of a miracle. God gets all the credit.”
The BMG representative must have felt a thrill of justification: Danny recouped on every record he made for the company. “We sold more records we ever thought we could through them.”
Danny was subsequently signed by Capitol Christian Music Group. Released January 11, 2019, “Haven’t Seen It Yet” is his latest self-penned Billboard charter and the title track for his new album, slated for release April 12.
The song is for people who are trying to process life and it’s not making sense,” Danny said of “Haven’t Seen It Yet,” produced by ASCAP Christian Songwriter of the Year Colby Wedgeworth. “There’s a lot of people who feel stuck. They feel like they have prayed prayers that God has not answered. It reminds them that things may look like they are falling apart, but don’t give up, because God’s doing more than you can see in that moment. Remind yourself who He is. Let Him be God.”
Today, Danny Gokey lives in Nashville with his new wife Leyicet and their three children (a fourth is on the way). In addition to his Christian music career, he has organized a nonprofit, Better Than I Found It, named for a song from his 2017 album Rise (featuring Kierra Sheard). The organization was inspired in part by Sophia’s Heart, a nonprofit Danny organized in memory of his late wife.
He said that although Sophia’s Heart helped 200 families get off the street, funding was tough to secure and the organization shuttered. Better Than I Found It aims to help small nonprofit organizations like Sophia’s Heart that need help overcoming financial and operational pitfalls that have the potential to crush their mission before they can make a difference.
So what would Sophia think of all that has happened to Danny since her passing? What would she say?
Danny didn’t hesitate to answer: “She’d say keep running the race, don’t lose hope, God’s got it. The Bible says we are surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses. She’s in that crowd now.”