Liz Mc Comb
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The Gospel Music Encyclopedia
Uncloudy Days

by Bil Carpenter

Liz McComb

WHAT MAHALIA IS TO gospel music in America, Liz McComb is to France. There is no clear gospel community there, so McComb’s earthy, traditional gospel music is just thought of a classic music, and she’s often spoken of in the same light as Etta James, Nina Simone, Jessye Norman, and other such American song stylists. The improvisation, the syncopated chord patterns, the hushed moans, the cathartic wails, and the aggressively Pentecostal approach to the keyboard makes each one of her performances a truly unique, jazz-like exercise.
Born December 1, 1952, in Cleveland, Ohio, McComb is the sixth of a brood of seven children born to a factory worker and a housekeeper. Her father died when she was very young – McComb doesn’t recall her age. “You remember what you want to remember,” she says. The McComb home was Bible-centered and she began singing at age three. She and her sisters sang in a group called the Daughters of Zion. As a teenager, McComb imbibed jazz artists like Sarah Vaughn and Nat King Cole. After studying for a while at the Karamu House Theater, McComb moved to New York with hope of becoming a Broadway star. Her cousin Annie had lived and worked in Europe and knew a big concert promoter there. She got McComb to send an audition tape to the promoter. In the early 1980’s, he put her to work in Europe as one of the Jean Austin Singers and then, as a member of the Roots of Rock’ N ’Roll revue where she opened for the legendary gospel singer Bessie Griffin.
Over the next decade, McComb performed on bills with Ray Charles, James Brown, Taj Mahal, and other musical luminaries. One of her closest collaborators was Gregory Hunter, a graduate of Dream Girls on Broadway. They struck up an enriching friendship and musical partnership that lasted until his death. “After that I decided not to collaborate with anyone else,” McComb says. “I loved him so much as a person. It was hard. I was taking care of him. His wife had died of AIDS. Then later he died of AIDS too.” For a while, McComb was depressed and didn’t want to perform. However, she had an experience that brought her up from the abyss. “[Gregory Hunter] came to visit me,” McComb recalls. “Most people don’t believe me when I say this. When I really knew it was him, I was laying on my bed watching TV and I had my hand over my head and my hand moved, but I didn’t move it. Greg passed by to say goodbye.”
During this trying period, McComb met Gerard Vacher, owner of the Cotton Club in Neuilly, France. Though theirs is a combative relationship, vacher eventually became McComb’s manager and guided her success through Europe. A relentless promoter, Vacher spent thousands out of his own pocket to promote McComb in America and throughout Europe, where she has recorded a dozen hit albums. Though she records classic music by Dorothy Love Coates and other gospel legends, McComb’s best works are her own compositions, born out of her own experiences. “God has brought me to a level now to really be a vessel for him,” she says. “No matter what has gone on in my life or the steps I have had to take to get there, and some have not been beautiful…. I fell in love with a European man. I loved that man and that man made me sing the blues and that’s not what God wanted for me. I loved him and my mind was on him, so the Lord fixed it so that I had to get out of that. My mother said, ‘God isn’t pleased with what you’re doing.’ I had to hear her telling me about that. She was praying and speaking in tongues and said, ‘You better wake up’ and I did. I can truly say my steps have been ordered by the Lord. Sometimes we have to walk that walk in order to be assured in God. I think a lot of the young people want to do gospel… or they want to do a record just to do a record, but it doesn’t have any substance. The word that I say now is real.”
In 2001, Vacher negotiated a deal with the EMI-distributed, Detroit-based Yellow Rose Records to release McComb’s first American CD. The eponymous album was comprised of a dozen songs from McComb’s various European releases. The most outstanding were the original “What Happened to the Love ?” and “Time Is Now”, which both oozed a seductive after-hours feel as the lyrics probed into deeper elements of man’s existence. The album reached No. 21 on the gospel chart, but did not build an American audience for this gifted singer with the voice that slides from smoothness to raspiness quicker than a blink. Vacher was frustrated that his six-figure marketing investment in McComb failed to make her an American star and gave up on America. He instead concentrated on maintaining her stature in Europe where she followed up with an EMI France Dixieland gospel CD entitled Spirit of New Orleans that received rave reviews from the French press and sold respectably through the Continent. “I lived a real story here,” she says of her success. “I’ve made it thus far by the grace of God. I’m a flawed woman. I haven’t lived everything that God said but I am now. I believe he took me through those things to bring me to where I am now.”

While McComb was a young woman performing in the Karamu House in Cleveland, a cousin based in Europe wanted a tape of McComb singing, in order to pass it along to an agent that she knew in Switzerland. McComb thought she was giving the agent what he wanted when she sent him a studio demo, but it failed to spark a positive reaction. Instead, he requested a tape of her more enthusiastic gospel songs, the type she sang while growing up. That did the trick and McComb headed to Europe accompanied by the Karamu House's director, who had worked previously as a blues singer. She went on to record an album, which received an enthusiastic response in Germany and Switzerland. Among her European adventures was an appearance at the 1981 International Festival of Montreux, where she shared the stage alongside Bessie Griffin, Koko Taylor, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Taj Mahal, and Luther Johnson Jr. McComb went on to more triumphant festival performances, which led her to work as the opener for such heavyweights as James Brown and Ray Charles. By then she was making her home in Paris, where she performed at the Champs-Elysees Theater and the Casino, as well as the Opera of Lyon. The Olympia, also in Paris, was the site of McComb's free shows for the City of Light's homeless, and some of those performances appear on the recording Olympia 1998 Live. EMI also released a film of the concert titled Live at the Olympia. Another recording, Time Is Now, was honored with the Mahalia Jackson Prize.

McComb went home to the U.S. in 2001 for a New Year's Day show in Houston's Astrodome, which was followed by a performance at New York's Lincoln Center less than a week later. She followed up with the release of her debut U.S. recording, Fire, which was put out by Crystal Rose/EMI. The album landed on Billboard's gospel Top 40, barely missing the Top 20. ~ Linda Seida, All Music Guide

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