I love old school rhythm and blues music,” says vocalist-keyboardist Frank McComb while taking a break from working on his debut Columbia CD. “Man, Stevie Wonder, now, he put a dent in the ’70s for r&b. Same with Donny Hathaway. I guess the best way to describe my album is Stevie and Donny meets Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.”
Attired in an oversized beige t-shirt, jeans and a New York Yankees baseball hat, McComb is camped out in Sony Studios on West 54th Street in New York fine-tuning his recording. Today he’s working on keyboard overdubs with a Fender Rhodes and Moog Prodigy. After crossing a few t’s and dotting a couple i’s on the fat-grooved track “Wasting Your Time,” McComb reflects on the long road he’s taken to get here.
Born in 1970, the Cleveland native started playing piano at the age of 13. It was a life-changing experience for him. When he was 15, he met Willie Ross, an r&b guitarist who was so impressed by the youngster’s playing he enlisted him for his local gigging group. “Willie was my musical father,” McComb says. “That cat was so influential.”
By 17, McComb had his own trio that played around Cleveland and at 20 became musical director of Cleveland pop group Rude Boys. While touring he met up with D.J. Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince and not long after moved to Philadelphia to do session work with the group. While there he signed a production deal that eventually went sour, resulting in two recordings that never saw the light of day.
Fast forward a couple of years to 1995. Living in southern California, McComb heard from keyboardist Patrice Rushen that Branford Marsalis was looking for singers to perform in his funky jazz project Buckshot LeFonque. “Branford called me, and I said just say where and when,” McComb recalls. “Not long after I met him at Sony Studios in Santa Monica and worked on a song. Right then, Branford and I got cool.” McComb went on the road with the band and continued working with Marsalis on subsequent Buckshot projects. “Once Branford got locked in at Columbia as a music consultant, he pulled me in. I’m still trying to digest it all. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been fighting this battle since I was 15. Then again, it’s always better to get war scars before success. Otherwise you set yourself up for a fall.”
Even though McComb and Marsalis had become tight, the former was still nervous about what the latter would think of his music. “I kept saying to myself, I’ve got to be me,” McComb says. “I’ve got to do what I do. I’m not making sacrifices any more. So I started sending demos of songs to Branford, thinking, oh, no, he’s going to think these are too soulful or too deep in the r&b vein. But everytime he called back and said he loved what I was doing. He only offered small bits of very constructive advice. In fact, talking with Branford, who serves as executive producer of the album, while I’ve been recording has helped me to focus and not get sidetracked.” One of the big lessons McComb has been learning to apply is the less-is-more approach to recording. “Branford’s taught me that. But I also remember listening to Herbie Hancock’s 1973 album Headhunters and hearing Herbie play that fat bass line at the beginning of ‘Chameleon.’ It’s perfect less-is-more. And that tune is a jazz masterpiece. It’s the same as in life. I’d much rather hear someone give me one sentence of wisdom than a whole paragraph of nothing.”
As for why Branford isn’t blowing one of his horns on the album, McComb replies, “He says he doesn’t need to. He’s not sugarcoating me. He’s speaking the truth. He says what’s here stands on its own without any guest appearances.”
McComb developed most of the material in his home studio before coming to New York to record. “When you’ve got your homework done, it guarantees you that things will run smoothly. Plus, having the right personnel makes all the difference. The most important person is the drummer and I’ve got that great old school r&b drummer Rocky Bryant. Ray Fuller plays the guitar. He doesn’t need a tape to hear ahead of time. He comes into the studio and just applies himself to the track. He brings the seasoning to the steak.” McComb also uses two bass players, Eric Revis for the hard-hitting funk tracks and Richard Bona for the tunes that require a softer touch. Does McComb have a favorite from the fifteen tunes he’s tracked so far? “I don’t have one,” he says adamantly. “They’re all my favorites. I don’t love one more than the other. These songs are like my children. They’re all equal.”
I learned a long time ago that being an artist means you’re going to have to make sacrifices…but the most important thing is not to sell out. You have to believe that, in the end, it’s all going to work, its going to be beautiful.” Even though he’s still in his twenties, the multi-talented Frank McComb has experienced the full spectrum of life in the music business, the ups and downs, the challenges and rewards.
One listen to “Love Stories,” his stunning debut album for Columbia Records and its obvious that he is a very special artist. It’s apparent from the very first few bars of the album’s opener, a highly personal, emotively soulful piano-and-vocal rendition of the time-honored hymn “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” There are echoes of Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, maybe a touch of Billy Preston and a hint of Ray Charles – all artists that Frank readily admits have been primary musical influences – but by the end of “Some Other Time,” the album’s wistful, poignant closing track, it is clear that Frank McComb, wise beyond his years, is very much his own man.
Produced by jazz legend Branford Marsalis and co-produced by McComb(who wrote all but two tracks on the album),”Love Stories is an extraordinary tour-de-force, a fine mix of jazz, r&b, gospel-rooted old school soul. You can hear the McComb magic on the jazzy, head-boppin'”(They’re Gonna Be) Looking At You,” an ode to some of the shady characters he’s encountered in his years of dues-paying. The mellow “Gotta Find A Way,” which Frank notes “is the story of a man who doesn’t know just how to approach a woman he’s in love with because he’s afraid of rejection” has an easy-going, natural flow; while “Love Natural” is a sensual love ballad that moves with rhythmic grace. “Wasting Your Time” is a lyrically biting jazz’n’funk piece while soaring “Future Love,” has echoes of vintage Wonder. “Keep Pushin’ On” is a strictly old school soul anthem that Frank explains “is dedicated to starving musicians! So many guys are worthy of recognition but feel like they have to sell out or leave the country to get it. That song is my own testimony…”
Frank’s personal testimony began back in Cleveland, Ohio in a family where music was a fomidable force: “One of my aunts, Liz McComb is a gospel singer, my mother also sang, so it was all in the blood! I started playing piano when one of my aunts was goofing aroun at a keyboard after a church service one day and I asked her to teach me to play. I was just kidding…but my aunt wasn’t! She brought over this little tinker toy piano and she taught me some basics…and I liked what I learned. Before I knew it, I was all of twelve years old and I was picking out melodies from songs on the radio and from records we had by Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Donny Hathaway, George Benson, Billy Preston…you name it! Aretha, Natalie, Ray Charles…I was listening and learning…”
After “woodshedding at home,” Frank felt he was ready to start playing in local clubs. “A guy who was fixing out roof one day happened to be a drummer and he heard me playing. Next thing, I was getting on the job training working with a local musician Willie Ross who really got me into the local scene in Cleveland. I got a Fender Rhodes through a friend and I was on my way.” By the time he was seventeen, Frank had his own trio, playing some original material,”turning some hits of the day into instrumentals, doing tunes like Donny’s “Valdez In The Country,” Herbie Hancock material…”
It didn’t take long before word got out about young McComb’s musical skills and in 1990, he got a call from fellow Cleveland natives The Rude Boys, who were then signed with Atlantic Records. “I joined the band and after a year we went on the road and I was their musical director. I got the chance to make contacts on that first tour and I met a lot of people who were really helpful like Jazzy Jeff(of Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince Fame). He persuaded me to move to Philadelphia in 1991…”
A year in Philly gave Frank the chance to work with industry legends Gamble & Huff and to do sessions with the likes of Teddy Pendergrass, Regina Belle, The Dells and others. Signing with a local production company, McComb found one of the many songs he’d been writing and recording in the hands of noted producer and director Robert Townsend. The tune,”Somebody Cares For You”(co-written by Gerald Levert who also co-produced it) made it to the soundtrack of Townsend’s 1992 movie,”Meteor Man” along with a second Mc Comb Composition,”Your Future Is Our Future,” a duet with gospel great Daryl Coley.
A less-than-positive stint with a personal manager and a few years with Motown’s MoJazz label yielded plenty of recording but no record releases and Frank diplomatically notes,”The company didn’t really know what to do with me so I just asked them to let me go!”
Paying dues became the name of the game as McComb extricated himself from contractual ties but word of mouth in and around Los Angeles – which had become his home in 1992 – led to various gigs. “Teena Marie hired me for my first show since arriving in L.A. from Philadelphia. That was New Year’s Eve of ’93 going into ’94 and while I was still recording at Motown, I went out on the road with (Earth, Wind & Fire member and artist in his own right) Phillip Bailey for a year or two… Fortunately, I got to know great musicians in Los Angeles like Patrice Rushen, Ndugu, Harvey Mason…and then I got a call from Branford…”
Marsalis was specifically looking for a vocalist for a rendition of Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” for his 1994 groundbreaking “Buckshot LeFonque” album for Columbia Records. “Branford heard me sing in the studio and once he found out I played keyboards, he put me in his band on the spot.”
While touring with Marsalis, McComb continued writing material: when the jazz superstar was ready to go back into the studio for a second Buckshot LeFonque project, a couple of collaborations with Marsalis – notably “Better than I Am” and “Another Day” – were included in the 1995 release “Music Evolution.” Further touring with Marsalis followed along with a promise that Marsalis would secure a recording contract for McComb.
Free of previous contractual commitments, Frank signed with Columbia Records in 1998. He recalls,”Things were a little rough. Iwas literally down to my last $11.00 when I got the call saying my contract with Columbia was complete and I could come pick up a check. It was another example for me of the importance of faith – which is why I have “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” as the first track on my album – and of hanging in there, holding on, believing in yourself and your gift…”
Frank McComb’s extraordinary gift is fully evident through “Love Stories,” so called “because every title is love-related. The subjects on the album are real, many based on my own experiences. Working with Branford, I had complete freedom to do what I wanted…and truly, I consider this to be the best work I’ve ever done.” In addition to Marsalis’ own contribution on two tracks, musicians on McComb’s auspicious Columbia debut include Richard Bona and Eric Revis(on bass), Ray ‘The Weeper’ Fuller on guitar, Russel Gunn on trumpet, Rock Bryant on drums and Sylver Logan Sharp(background vocals).
Ever present throughout the album are Frank’s skills on piano and Fender Rhodes and then of course, his soulful vocals. While comparisons with the likes of legends like Hathaway or Wonder immediately come to mind. McComb considers such comments “as a superb compliment. To be honest, I’m more like a male version of my mother as a singer but as George Benson once told me, if anyone should ever say you sound lika a legend, take it and run with it!”
Whether it’s “If This Is Love,” a heart filled song about a man asked to choose between his passion for music and the affections of a woman, the beautifully tender “The Wedding Song”(written, he says,”because I got tired of cheesy songs people sang at weddings!”), or the musical interlude “Return To Lake Erie,” his tribute to the music of Chick Corea, Frank McComb has created a distinctive album full of performances that touch the heart and soul. Finally, with the 1999 release of “Love Stories,” what superstars like Branford Marsalis, Chaka Khan and others have known for so long is about to be revealed to music lovers everywhere: Frank McComb is truly an extraordinary, gifted talent and, dues paid, its his time.