but her mother is here
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Plain Dealer Reporter
The appointment is for 3 p.m. at a Cleveland Heights
coffee shop. Wires cross. An hour later, there is singer Liz McComb, dark curls flying, black coat buttoned against a
She apologizes once, twice, three times. "I owe
you," she says.
She doesn't owe me; I'd been vague about the
location. But being kind is part of what McComb sings about in her bluesy gospel repertoire. It's what shows up on her
new CD, "Soul, Peace & Love" (GVE/Sunnyside Records).
It's how she lives. Her mother, a Mississippi-bred
minister with a strong, Southern voice, confirms this.
"She always believed in the right way, from a
child," says the Rev. Fannie McComb. "She loved to go to church, to do the things that is right. Yes indeed, I can
truly say that."
Well into her 80s, the Rev. McComb still preaches on
Sundays at First Church of St. Luke in Cleveland, and she won't shy away from an opportunity to brag. Her Liz is the
sixth of seven children and the one who has made a career belting out smoky praises for God.
"She's always been sincere, whatever she do," Fannie
McComb says. "She love to sing, play her own music. It's been all of her life."
This sincerity has traction with more than just her
mother. Liz McComb's last four CDs have hit France's "hot 100" pop-music charts, and she regularly fills 2,000-seat
Her publicist, writer Bil Carpenter, is the author
of "Uncloudy Days," a gospel music encyclopedia. Carpenter has seen both sides of McComb - the demure, private woman
and the fearless performer. "When she hits that stage, she becomes another person. Bold. Authoritative," he says. "She
can slay dragons onstage."
Yet in the last 20 years, most of those dragons have
been of European heritage.
Born and raised in the Glenville neighborhood,
McComb has a show-business pedigree that includes theater work at Karamu House in the 1970s.
"I remember we did ‘The Hymie Finkelstein Used
Lumber Company,'¤" McComb says.
The point? "There is no point, I've just always
remembered the name," McComb says with a laugh.
After high school, McComb and a friend were offered
a chance to tour cities in Europe with a group that performed "The Roots of Rock." They played and sang in Switzerland,
France, Spain and Italy.
The experience fulfilled a fantasy. As a kid, when
it was McComb's turn for chores, she'd turn the broom handle into a microphone and imagine singing around the world.
She believed she was destined to do that.
After the tours in Europe, McComb found gigs there
at arts and music festivals and as an opener for big names, including James Brown and Ray Charles. She began to make
Paris her home in the 1980s, and has found a niche among what Carpenter calls "an artsy, intellectual crowd of
roots-music aficionados." Now she lives in Paris part time to nurture her art and in Cleveland part time to nurture her
family and her relationship with her mother. Ask her about her love life and McComb, who is not married and has no
children, replies, "Music. That's my real love, and that's the truth."
The new CD reflects her tendency to make alliances
wherever she goes. Its 12 tracks were variously recorded in Paris, Guadeloupe, Chicago, Indianapolis, New Jersey and
Cleveland. McComb found collaborators for all of them, including the Blind Boys of Alabama on "For Your Love Is Better
Than Wine" and members of the choir at First Church of St. Luke on "Can't Nobody Know My Trouble." Nephew Clarence
McComb, a Plain Dealer security guard, plays drums and tambourines on that track. Rapper Tony Dorsey joins her on an
electrifying version of "Oh! When the Saints Go Marching In."
"I have such great friends from all cultures," says
European life has done this for her. She's at home
in Paris because the culture feels open.
"The French are more accepting of people and races,"
she says. "Artists have always been welcome."
Her work has a higher profile there in part, she
believes, because there's a huge appetite for roots music. To the French, blues and gospel music all fall under the
heading of "jazz," and they welcome it all.
McComb surmises that her U.S. profile is smaller
because blues and jazz fans think she's too gospel while in the gospel world she's "not gospel enough." Still, she has
hopes for "Soul, Peace & Love," only her second CD released in the United States. She played the Whiting auditorium
in Flint, Mich., on Saturday; after that, her concert dates are all overseas.
She has no shows scheduled for Cleveland, though
she'd like to. She's often here, spending time with her mother.
"I work like a slave when I'm home," McComb teases,
though it's true she helps her mother with household chores. If you ask the Rev. McComb what she does for her daughter,
she says, "I raised her from a child."
When they're together, they shop, go to church, see
movies. "Just being around her, my energy is revived," McComb says of the time with her mother.
The Rev. McComb says she has become at ease with the
fact that her daughter comes home but always leaves. It was difficult at first, but she says "I considered through the
years that this is her life and this is what God wants her to do. It's much easier now."As for McComb, it has gotten
easy to think of France as her second home. It is where she can be a singer, a writer and an artist. "When I'm there,"
she says, "my soul breathes."
To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:
Mc Comb, what a thrill !
Liz Mc Comb, who has been living in France for a few years, has made quite a name for herself on the French
jazz scene. Her last record, " Acoustic Woman ", and her recent appearances on TV have enabled her to display the many
sides of her talent and have attracted a lot of attention. Soul Bag asked her about her career.
- Tell us about the way you started...
I've always been fascinated by music. When I was a little girl, I used to look and listen to my sister playing
the piano at church. Eventually, I took lessons with a music teacher. We studied classical music, but like all
youngsters I'd rather listen to soul music. I sang in church. We belonged to the Pentecostal Church, as every other
member of my family did. As a child, I already had a very powerful voice and I always performed as a solist, first in
church, then with the Jean Austin Singers. Jean Austin had sung with Dorothy Norwood and Shirley Caesar. Then I started
touring with the Barrett Sisters and Shirley Caesar. Most of the time, material conditions were difficult but we loved
playing our music.
- What were your first influences ?
Naturally, I've been influenced by the main figures of gospel, such as Clara Ward
or Aretha Franklin, and most of all by Mahalia Jackson, which I still regard as a model. I was also singing in clubs
and I liked listening to Gladys Knight, Lou Rawls, Tony Bennett and Mel Torme, one of my favorite singers, and of
course to Sarah Vaughan who will always be the greatest of them all. I found Billie Holliday fantastic, but I was too
young then to sense the full meaning of her message.
- How did you manage to conciliate the two sides of your art - gospel and jazz
Both religious and secular styles of music - or if you care for labels, gospel and jazz - are easy to
conciliate as far as music is concerned. They're so close actually that they make only one. As the phrase goes, some
say " baby " instead of " Jesus ". Both styles are deeply linked with afro-american life. All our music and all our
feeling come from the church. Before she became famous, Sarah Vaughan played the organ in her local church. Ray Charles
was among the first blues singers to imitate gospel's vocal mannerism. His hit 'I Got a Woman " actually plagiarizes an
old spiriual. However, it's difficult for audiences back in US to conciliate both styles, merely for religious and
ethical reasons. Let me tell you an anecdote on this subject. I belong to the Pentecostal Church. We were first to
admit all music instruments such as guitars, drums, saxophones... Everybody does the same now, but in these days, it
was no common practice. The Baptists, particularly, allowed only the organ and piano to be played during service. If
you listen to the first Aretha Franklin records, you can hear that " Baptist Sound ". We have our own way to show our
faith, which has little to do with how the Europeans show theirs. This kind of outlet for our sufferings has helped my
people to survive the hard times it has experienced troughout its history. However, at a moment during a church service
when there was a lot of exaltation, some guy started to sing the blues - and to sing it very well indeed - instead of a
gospel song. The excitement suddenly fell away and the audience seemed completely indifferent. A church wasn't the
right place for this music. For similar reasons, Sam Cooke had to stop singing gospel after his first rythm'n'blues
hit. As for myself, I can sing either blues or gospel, but I don't like mixing both styles.