Mr. Nelson “handled almost everything,” she said, from securing the church and its pastor, Dr. Trunell D. Felder, to marry them on Christmas Eve, a particularly busy day, to lining up the wedding’s gospel music performances, which left few dry eyes among the pews.
Ms. Cartwright and Mr. Nelson met, fittingly, over a piano in 2015 — one she was trying to get rid of. “Fred had just started as music director at the church, and I had this grand piano I was looking to sell,” she said.
Though the Nelson name was prominent in Chicago music circles — he started performing at age 6, playing piano as an opener for Ray Charles, and his father, Fred Nelson Jr., helped shape the city’s gospel sound in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s as the organist at First Church of Deliverance — she knew nothing of Mr. Nelson’s background.
Still, she felt intimidated by his job at the church because of its importance. New Faith, which seats 2,500, is home to six choirs. “One day I saw him walking down the hall, and I was going back and forth in my mind,” she said. “‘Should I tell him about the piano?’” If there was anyone who might know of a buyer, she thought, it would be Mr. Nelson. “I finally got the nerve to ask him directly.”
She had a picture of the piano, bought for the eldest of her two sons, Dionte Cartwright, now the youth music conductor at New Faith. But Mr. Nelson wanted to see the Yamaha Grand Disklavier in person. They made loose plans to meet at her house in the Chicago suburb Homewood, at a time when Mr. Nelson’s chaotic schedule allowed. (In addition to his work with Ms. Franklin and at the church, he is an artistic director at the City of Matteson School District; music minister at First Church of Deliverance, where his father had played organ; and an independent producer, performer and arranger.)
Ms. Cartwright got word one day while she was driving her son Kyle Hinton, then 16, to the orthodontist that Mr. Nelson would be at her house in 20 minutes.
“I raced to get home — I barely made it — and I was trying to act normal,” said Ms. Cartwright, who is curvy and petite. Mr. Nelson, 6 feet tall, barrel-chested and quick to laugh, put her at ease. “He was looking at the piano, and then we started talking about his daughter, who was having an H.R. problem at her job.”
“I had also just lost 30 pounds, and I was in my exercise clothes,” she said. “He said he was diabetic, and I told him diabetes runs in my family, which was why I was exercising. He said he wanted to lose weight.”
Once Mr. Nelson left Homewood with a promise to be back in touch about the piano, Ms. Cartwright got curious: Did the turns their conversation had taken signal romantic interest?
“Next time I went to the gym, where I have this crew of workout friends, I was like, ‘It seems like he’s trying to get a little more information.’ They were like, ‘He’s trying to ask you out!’ So next time I talked to him I said, ‘You need to find a workout partner,’” she said. “Fred said, ‘What about you? Will you be my life coach?’”
It had been a while since Mr. Nelson, who was widowed in 2007, met someone he warmed to that quickly. His wife, Cynthia, had inflammatory breast cancer, a rare, aggressive form of the disease. They met as teenagers and had been married 22 years when she died. The couple’s only daughter, Paige Nelson, now 29, was finishing her freshman year in college. “That was a crazy time,” Mr. Nelson said.
Friends remember it as a sad time. “It was a very tough period,” said Ira McKenzie, Mr. Nelson’s childhood best friend. “Fred is such a giving person. I would have to tell him, ‘Man, you cannot save everybody’s life.’”
Before he started dating Ms. Cartwright, who complements her soft-spoken persona with conservative dress and a huge, infectious smile, Mr. Nelson had been in another serious relationship. But something about Ms. Cartwright stood out.
“She was pure,” he said, meaning she was unfamiliar with, and not much interested in, many of the music industry figures with whom Mr. Nelson rubs elbows. Valencia Edwards, a friend Ms. Cartwright met on the job at a Chicago pharmaceutical company years ago, recalled Ms. Cartwright asking her who Clive Davis was after she met the music producer at an event with Mr. Nelson. “She asked me if I had ever heard of this ‘Cleeve Davis’ everyone was making such a fuss over,” Ms. Edwards said, laughing.
Mr. McKenzie confirmed that Ms. Cartwright’s anti-diva attitude won his friend’s heart. The day the couple first met, “Fred called me as soon as he got in the car. He said, ‘I just met the sweetest girl,’” Mr. McKenzie said. “The thing about Lynda was, she’s grounded. She didn’t want anything from him. He said, ‘I think this girl is my friend.’ And I knew that was it. You have to be friends before you can be lovers.”
The couple had their first date on June 13, 2015. Mr. Nelson picked her up and took her to his favorite Chicago restaurant, Tavern on Rush, and she gave up her diet. “We had three appetizers and two entrees that night, and I loved it,” she said.
“When I met Fred, my youngest son still had two years to go in high school,” Ms. Cartwright said. “I said, ‘I’m not going to date. I’ll wait.’ Because I wanted a storybook love affair.”
But after she and Mr. Nelson had gone on four dates, “he asked me if we could have a committed relationship,” she said. “I had read all these books about how to have a relationship, and there’s a process. I didn’t want it to happen so fast.”
Still, there was no denying she was falling in love.
Ms. Edwards, her friend, picked up on it immediately. “I went out with them several times, and every time she talked to Fred she would use her LaToya Jackson-whisper voice,” she said. “It was all baby-sweetie. They took off so fast.”
Mr. McKenzie recalls the couple holding hands when he first met Ms. Cartwright. “I was like, man, you’re 50, not 15,” he said.
Within months of their first date, Mr. Nelson was bringing Ms. Cartwright to concerts he conducted for Ms. Franklin in cities including Indianapolis and Detroit, and Ms. Cartwright was thinking long term. “I said, ‘I’ll give him two years to give me a ring,” she said. “I was praying to God. I wanted us to be empty nesters together.” After a year she grew impatient: “He told me several times he wanted to marry me. I never said it to him, but I started thinking, Why doesn’t he put his money where his mouth is?”
On Dec. 24, 2016, a year before their wedding day, he did. Between gigs in the waning months of 2016, Mr. Nelson and Mr. McKenzie had gone ring shopping in Chicago. As Ms. Cartwright ordered her second chocolate martini that night at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab, Mr. Nelson excused himself and went to his car, where he had left the princess-cut diamond solitaire ring that he and Mr. McKenzie had picked out.
Mr. Nelson said, “I could tell she was getting tipsy, and I thought, Oh, God,” but by the time he returned she had taken only a sip. He asked her to marry him from across the table. Ms. Cartwright, reserved even under the spell of a martini, quietly said yes. A flurry of waiters clapped, and they were engaged.
The couple chose to get married in a simple ceremony just after regular Sunday morning services. Of the more than 1,000 congregants who filled New Faith’s pews that snowy day, around 150 people — some who knew about the wedding in advance and some who didn’t — stayed behind.
Dionte Cartwright walked his mother down the aisle to a church stage set with Christmas poinsettias while a full band performed the “Dreamgirls” song “When I First Saw You.” Mr. Nelson, in a black tuxedo with a gold bow tie, was waiting with Kyle Hinton, the ring bearer. Before Dr. Felder, the officiant, completed a short, traditional marriage ceremony, there was a musical interlude: the platinum-selling gospel artist Percy Bady, who has known Mr. Nelson for more than 20 years, performed an original composition, “Love Never Dies,” on keyboard. Tears flowed.
After the final “I do,” another gospel star, Terisa Griffin, followed Mr. Bady’s performance with a burn-the-house-down rendition of “I Hope You Dance.” The country artist Lee Ann Womack made the song a hit, but Mr. Nelson had his own ideas about how he wanted Ms. Griffin to sing it.
“He called me and said, ‘I want you to do this song at my wedding. Make it the Gladys version,’” she said.