Frank McComb possesses one of the smoothest, silkiest, and most soulful voices this generation has ever heard. As a novice to this amazingly talented vocalist, I was amazed at Frank's natural ability. There's a smoothness and purity to his voice. In addition to being a talented singer, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer, his collaborations with A list artists such as Prince, Chaka Khan, Will Smith, Najee, Branford Marsalis, George Duke, Frankie Beverly, Gamble and Huff, Phyllis Hyman, Lalah Hathaway, Fred Hammond, and John P. Kee have earned him top accolades. Here is what I learned from speaking with this future legend.
Good afternoon, Frank. How are you doing? I'm good.
That’s awesome! Well, Frank, God has given you an amazing voice! In fact, I think your talent transcends all limits! Awe, God bless you. Thank you!
You’re welcome. You know Frank, I saw you live in LA, and I was just blown away! Out of all the concerts that I've seen in my life, there are two that I’ll never forget. One is Sade and the other is yours. Wow, thank you. What an honor!
Yeah, I'm not easily impressed because I come from that generation of real singers and good music. I'm old school so it takes a lot for me to say that, but you are amazing! So underrated! Thank you so much! That means a lot.
You’re welcome. So Frank, let’s get into it.
What part of the world did the stork drop you off? The stork dropped me off in Cleveland, OH. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio.
At what point did you know that you loved music? When I was about 2 years old. My memories of music date back that far. As a child, I remember my mom bringing Stevie Wonder's "Key of Life" and "Innervisions" albums home. I've always known what I wanted to do for a living from the time I could hear (laughs).
How did you get started in your professional career? In September 1991, I moved to Philadelphia to work for Kenneth Gamble and Leon A. Huff, Will Smith, and Jazzy Jeff. In 1992, I signed a deal with Motown.
Who signed you? I was signed to MoJazz Records by the same guy who signed Jill Scott to Hidden Beach Records.” It’s that jazz division of Motown.
How did you end up in Los Angeles? November 9, 1992 was the day I moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, and I never looked back. I grew up in a place where the snow came to me and left when it wanted to. Now I live in a place where I can go to the snow and leave whenever I want. (laughs)
I know that’s right! The weather is beautiful in California. How does the music scene in Cleveland differ from California's? I knew living in Cleveland wouldn't allow me to do what I wanted to do with my music career. It's nothing against my hometown, but I didn't receive the support that I needed. Neither my family nor industry supported me. While I love my hometown, 93.1 FM WCAK did not promote my music, despite the fact that I was a well-known independent gigging artist throughout Cleveland.
It was disheartening because I was a homeboy. Still, I could not get the support of the local radio station. Then I started playing in bars and writing music, trying to establish myself as an artist. It was always my intention to go down to the radio station and become involved, but I was just that nerdy kid. I think people underestimated me.
I'm so sorry to hear that, because you're so talented. It's extremely difficult for some artists to make it in this industry. Sometimes it can even be downright exhausting, especially when you don't have support. Exactly. You mentioned earlier about me being underrated, but I feel that my biggest issue was that I was underexposed. I would not have even been considered by big-name artists like Prince, Fred Hammond, etc. if I was underrated. The rating was there, I was just underexposed.
I was signed to two major labels and one independent label, but neither of them exposed me to anything. I released “Love Stories” on March 7th of this year. The day Love Stories was released on Columbia Records was 22 years ago yesterday. Sadly, Columbia did not push the album. They didn't put any love behind it.
Those in charge of the project said, "Sure, we'll put it out, and if it sticks, but if it doesn't, it doesn't" I thought to myself, how do you give birth to a child and tell it to create itself? It isn't possible. Nevertheless, my fans love the record.
In the past, I had been with a major black label and a major white label, but neither of them gave me any radio or television exposure. ZERO! This is why I decided to become an independent artist. It was clear that I could not accomplish what I wanted to do in Cleveland, so I had to leave. The support was simply not there. Ultimately, they were not interested in hearing what Jesus had to say to them when He returned home.
What happened after that? I moved to Philadelphia and toured with the Rude Boys, LeVert, and the O'jays. I was the Rue Boys' musical director. Those were my first touring experiences. Prior to that, everyone knew me for playing at bars.
What caused your musical interests to develop in your childhood and young adult years? I began playing piano at 12 after taking only three piano lessons. Surely that was God's doing. At the age of 15, I was performing in bars. When I was 17, I had my first trio and at 19, I was playing with the rude boys. It was at that time that I became their musical director. I met Jazzy Jeff while on tour in September 1991. When the tour ended, I was talked into moving to Philadelphia.
After moving to Philadelphia, what happened? I moved to Philadelphia in order to work with Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince. In addition, I had the pleasure of working with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
My journey to finding myself as an artist began then. Since I never worked a traditional 9 to 5 job, I consider myself blessed. From the time I was a baby, I knew I wanted to be a singer. I have nothing against those who do, but working a regular job was not something I had to do. I will say this, I have the utmost respect for those who hold those types of jobs. Because of them, we are able to create music that is beautiful and has integrity. I have always used my hands and voice to complete everything I have ever accomplished.
It's interesting that you mentioned that because I had mentioned that to someone else previously. The difference between those who make it and don't is support, not necessarily their talent. Yes
You are an amazing pianist; do you play any other instruments besides the piano? I play the Hammond B3 organ, as well as drums. It was my late cousin Clarence who taught me how to play the drums. We lost him about a month ago.
Oh no, I'm so sorry. Thank you. Oh yeah, he inspired me to play drums. During my childhood, I attended a small holiness church led by my grandmother in Cleveland, Ohio. My cousin Clarence played drums. While in church, I would watch my cousin play the drums while I played the organ. Sometimes I would play the piano while my aunt played the organ.
Who taught you how to play the piano? My aunt Evelena taught me how to play the piano. She's the person who gave me the three lessons. One day after the service, I watched my aunt Evelina write a blues tune while church members were greeting one another. Her focus was on writing that song, no matter what happened around her. She was a huge lover of Nancy Wilson and Isaac Hayes. After watching her for a while, I said, Lena, you're making it look so easy, "teach me." She replied, OK, Red, I'll show you how to play.
Is Red your family nickname? Yes, Red is my nickname. She called me "Red," but my grandma called me "Red Boy."
Why is that? Because, I turned red whenever I laughed or cried. You know, I'm a yellow boy. As a side note, yellow boys are still in you. (laughs)
How was your experience taking lessons with your aunt? Once we returned from church, I used to change out of my church clothes, put on my play clothes, then prepare my school clothes for Monday. After that, I was ready to go outside and have fun, but my aunt wouldn't let me. The instant I hit the door to go outside, she would say, "No way, Red!, "come over here and SAT down!” (laughs) Not sit down but, SAT down! She would say, "Sit right here!". I’m going to teach you how to play. I replied, "I don't want to learn how to play today." She then would reply, "Don't mess with Auntie Lena about no music. You SAT down here and learn how to play!" After that I thought to myself, "Wait, what have I done?" Not knowing those three Sundays, teaching with Aunt Lena for one hour each, would ultimately result in me having the best career I have ever had.
That's awesome! Yes, only three lessons.
Incredible! So that's how you began to play the organ in the church? Yes, but I'm about to share with you a crazy story.
Okay. The church advisers at my grandmother's church told her that I played too jazzy. Consequently, she said to me, “Frankie, you play too jazzy, so have to get off the organ.” (laughs) So they sat me down and instructed me to get off the organ. I said to myself, “no, I just remind you of those days when you played in the juke joints. That's exactly what that is!” I tell you Gina, I've had so much adversity.
Now that was around 1988 when I was around 17 years old. Fast forward to 2004. During the recording of my second album, "The Truth", Billy Preston walks in. Now, before Billy shows up, I noticed that the engineer had this amazing, B3 organ. I should point out that the studio was actually a house that had been converted into a studio in Hollywood, CA. To ensure that his B3 would suit him well as soon as he arrived, I sat down to sound check it for him. As I was tweaking and sound checking, I heard the doorbell ring. Because I was closer to the door, I opted to answer it. I was surprised to find Billy standing face-to-face with me when I answered the door. Gina, my mouth dropped!
Was that your first encounter with him? Billy and I first met in 1995. The song he played on was one that I thought would make it on my first album when I was signed to Motown. While the record never was released, I am proud to say that I was once Stevie Wonder's label mate. In my opinion, that was the best thing that came of that experience.
OK, I want to hear what happened when Billy came to the door. So, throughout the years, Billy and I stayed in touch. Fast forward nine years later, Billy rings the doorbell. When I opened the door, my mouth dropped, and Billy looked at me with a smile and said, “boy, I didn't know that you played ARGAN (laugh) not organ but ARGAN.” (laughs) I told him that I was no Billy Preston. He said, “no, you can really play ARGAN!” I was elated because Billy Preston, the one that put B3 organ on the map next to Jimmy Smith, endorses me as a B3 player.
That was huge! I'm saying this to encourage someone. If anyone ever tells you that you're no good, and you know you are, take it as a compliment. Since I've experienced negativity in my life, I feel qualified to say this.
Could you tell me about your experience? As my aunt Lena taught me to play piano, a man who lived in our house tried his best to discourage my mother from teaching me. His opinion was that I was dumb and stupid, and I would never be able to learn the piano.” He continued by saying that I had about the sharpness of a butter knife, and that teaching me would be a waste of their time.
That's horrible. What kind of person would say such a thing to someone who is trying to achieve their dreams, especially a child! I'm disgusted by that! It breaks my heart to hear someone tell you something like that! Yeah, that's what someone told me. That's why I always say that people who tell you you're too stupid are just jealous of your intelligence. That's what the devil does. He uses people to talk you out of the purpose that God puts you here for. The sad part is many people don't realize they're being utilized as Satan's tools. God uses you as his tool to build you, and Satan uses you as a tool to tear you down. Satan's job is to get into your mind and discourage you from doing the will of God.
This is why Satan tries to discourage you from using the very gift that people say you aren't good at. My mind is far from being preoccupied with being a superstar and all the foolishness that comes along with it. In the past, I have worked with superstars like Prince and other well-established A-list artists that don't have to work anymore. As for me personally, I enjoy having a job I like. The pursuit of wealth does not always lead to freedom.
The real tragedy is, I've seen people become prisoners in their pursuit of wanting to have abundant wealth. As Bishop Noel Jones once said, "Money allows you to be more of who you really are." they can't do anything. They can't walk down the street, go to Disneyland, have a meal, eat at a restaurant or, anything. They’re prisoners in their own homes. Simply because they are very wealthy. I've seen it happen. While I do not mind having it, I just don't want the rest of the world to know. Additionally, being popular can be a blessing, but if you don't handle fame properly, it can hurt you. Life becomes a public spectacle in that world. On the other hand, I have tremendous respect for people who can handle it.
That is true, indeed. This occurs frequently with celebrities. With fame and money comes a cost, and that cost is your personal freedom. I totally agree. Absolutely. Ask carefully because it might be granted. Most of the time, we aren't ready for what we ask for. People want to have the house, but not many want to have the means to maintain it. When you pray for it, you should also pray for the means to deal with it, because it will come. Always remember, everything has two parts.
Exactly. The other day I posted on social media that it's okay to fly alone as Eagles fly alone, but Pigeons flock together. I love it! Likewise, the chicken isn't too far off the ground himself. Chickens don't have the strength to get off the ground, so they stay there. Many people are afraid of flying because of the uncertainties they may face. I can't help someone who does not want to be helped. People often ask me to get behind something, but I say no, because I feel like they'll waste my time. They're just not serious. Money can be retrieved, but time can't. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it thirsty," said the late Ellis Marsalis. If you're thirsty, you'll want to drink it. Irrespective of how many times you take him to the water, if he isn't thirsty, he won't drink. Because of that, I don't waste my time with people who waste their own.
Amen to that! What do you think it is about music that draws so many people to it? Music is said to soothe savage beasts, surely it can do the same for us. In my opinion, Melody is more relatable to most people. For example, if I tell someone I can't stand their guts, they might have a hard time accepting that. It will be more effective if I sing that statement to them. No idea why, but it's true. I believe music is a universal language. "His eyes on the Sparrow" got a standing ovation when I sang it in Japan. That's a Buddhist country, so you know it's God.
What is your responsibility toward the next generation of musicians? Education about the industry and how not to be exploited. My aim is to teach them not to get stuck in one genre. Diverse musical influences are crucial. Don't compartmentalize yourself based on today's music. I find it difficult to find music that moves me anymore.
I only sing what I can feel. 'This is the music I grew up listening to. I grew up in the 70's. To me, that was the finest music era. I loved R&B and rock music. Believe it or not, I've always wanted to work with Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers and Conway Twitty. I loved White Man Blues and country.
So, I would tell young people, go back and educate yourself on this good music. That's what I love about DJs. They always do their homework on music.
There are so many younger singers who are unaware of this magnificent music that preceded them. I spoke with a young person not too long ago, who didn't even know who Aretha Franklin was. How do you not know who Aretha Franklin is? I couldn't believe it. I had to ask them if they were serious? I was done then. I said this is over! We ain't talking any more. You need to go home to your Mama and your daddy and ask them who Aretha Franklin is. Go get some education! (laughs)
I know what you mean. I talked to a younger person who had never heard of Michael Jackson. I couldn't believe it! I thought I was being pranked! (laughs) I know, nowadays you have microwave stuff. It's popcorn! (laughs) But no, I need some substance. They are few and far between, but there are a few of them.
In fact, I wrote this tune that’s on my album, “Another Love Story”. It’s a tune called, We're Gonna Be On Our Own” Although the lyrics say, "once the music's gone, we're gonna be on our own", the word music refers to legends. Once our legends are gone, we're gonna be on our own. We must continue to carry the torch. This is revealed at the end of the song.
Yes. Music has changed drastically through the years, but I'm afraid it's not going in the direction that I thought it would. I was also losing faith in music until I had a conversation with Stevie Wonder a few years ago. Stevie said, "they're out there, they just need to be exposed. However, exposing people to great music takes a lot of money, support, and leverage. Without these things, it's a lot more difficult. I'm just keeping it real. After moving from label to label and not seeing success, I changed my approach. I've always said that I wouldn't chase labels. It was for this reason that I went independent in 2004.
Out of all the amazing songs that you wrote, which song would you say was the most meaningful to you? I'll be honest with you. I look at all my songs as my kids. I find it difficult to choose one over the others. However, there has been one that has affected me lately. In fact, I had to stop listening to it for a minute. The song is called, “Another Love Story." The song is from my “Soulmate” album. I don't know what it is about that song, but lately, it's been affecting me emotionally. When I listen to it, towards the end, I can't hold back the tears. So, I stopped listening to it for a while. I think I'm OK now. On this song, I utilized all the song titles from my “Love Stories” album, and I created lyrics. I literally made a story out of it.
Can you tell me what the story was about? It’s about a man who's trying to inspire the woman that he's in love with to get serious with him. He wants her to stop all the foolishness. There's a man standing right in front of you who wants to be that man, but as long as you keep fooling around with someone who's not your soul mate, you're wasting your time. If you keep pushing for it, you'll soon find the right one, but the right one is standing in front of your face. I really like the fact that, coming out of the first verse, the man is saying “I will have found my soulmate, and the second time around you will have found yours. But in the end, I found my future love, my love naturally.
I've listened to my heart, and I kept pushing on. I never gave up.” At the ending of the chorus, it says, "now we have become the item." The chorus starts with you being alone, then I am alone, before ending with, we won't be alone anymore. The lyrics are powerful. I would love for many people to listen to this song. I think it is one of my all-time favorites. I put a lot of thought into this song before writing it.
What sparks your inspiration to write a song? Mostly the sunrise and sunsets. Sometimes my inspiration comes from my family, my wife, and my kids. Usually, it comes from the sky. Man can build streets through mountains and even make beaches but one thing he cannot manipulate is the sky. When I look at the sky, it is evident that men didn't put it together. Whenever I look at the sky, it's like seeing a new work of art. Men can only go through the sky, but they can't manipulate it. Men can pollute it, but they cannot manipulate it. That's God's handywork. I get a lot of inspiration from the beauty of nature.
Frank, who was your most embarrassing moment performing live? It's hard for me to feel embarrassed because I'm one of those guys who can't get embarrassed easily. I'm pretty, personable onstage. I've played with 2,000 people in the audience, and I made each one of them feel like they were in my home. I'm not even embarrassed by the loudmouths that sit at the front of the stage hollering (laughs) Yeah, those are usually my favorites! (laughs) The only thing I can think of is, one time, while performing in San Diego, I messed up the lyrics. I told the audience I was going to do this song because my wife says I don't do it often. So, if I mess it up, I'm going to blame it on the band, and I'm going to blame it on her. (laughs) so, when you're that honest, you open the door to let people see your human side.
This way they're not so harsh on you. In an effort to avoid their judgment, I let them know I'm human right at the beginning of the show. However, I don't let them bother me because everyone makes mistakes sometimes. At the end of the day, I'm a person just like the people I'm performing for. We're all human.
Do you have any newly-released music out right now? Yes, currently I have 3 singles out. That's a goal that I wanted to accomplish and I'm so happy that I have done that. My goal was to release three songs simultaneously in three different formats. I'm seriously considering adding a fourth song which will be a gospel or inspirational song. I would like to release music in every genre that I am proficient in. That’s what I'm planning to do.
Right now, I have a single out for Urban AC called, “We Were Made For Us.” additionally, I have a smooth jazz single out called, “Moving In Traffic” With this song I'm remastering an instrumental album that I put out December 1, 2006 Is called Moving In Traffic. It's a tribute to the masters. There are no vocals, it's all instrumental.
"A Tribute To The Masters" pays tribute to Patrice Rushen, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, George Duke, Joe Sample, Ramsey Lewis, and Russell Ferrante (of the Yellowjackets). While writing this album, I thought to myself if I were to write a tribute album, this is what it would be.
I’m preparing to re-release Moving In Traffic and add 3 or 4 new songs to the collection. Because the song didn’t get a lot of radio support, I'm planning to re-release it because my fans are requesting it. So that's circulating throughout the smooth jazz industry right now.
Pivoting to London, A man by the name of Tom Leroy did a house remix version of one of my songs from an album I recorded 22 years ago called “Love Stories”. The song is called, “Listen To Your Heart.” Overall, there are three house remix versions of this song. This third house re-mix made #1 on Traxsource. I'm excited about that. So, I've got three songs out in three different formats right now.
Wow, that's amazing! Do you have any tours coming up? Yes, I’ll be performing in London at The Jazz Cafe on April 19th and 20th.
Awesome! I’ll have to let my husband know so he can come out and show our support! I’ve seen you in concert so I know you will have a successful show! Thank you. I'll always have a special place in my heart for Jazz Cafe because that was the first place, I ever performed under my own name in 2000. Before that, I toured with big-name artists such as Chaka Khan and others but playing behind them. However, it was an honor to be invited to perform at The Jazz Café in London under my own name, Frank McComb. It was an unforgettable experience.
What's your dream? I would love to have more support, more financial support, and more exposure. If it is not in God's will for me to become a superstar, then so be it. I'm not tripping about that because I still want to have a lifestyle. I will take what He gives me. That's what I would like to see happen.
Do you have any regrets? Yes, back in Cleveland, when I was a teenager. Sometimes after gigging, I would get home at 2:00 AM. The problem was that I was still attending Glenville High School and had to be in class by 7:30 am. That was the deal I made with my principal because sometimes I had to leave early to work on cars and then at night I would gig. He said to me, “I'll help you make your money if you help me make mine.” He also said to me, “no matter what time you get done playing your gigs, you better be in your seat by 7:30 AM because I get paid for every head that comes into that school. So, I agree to that deal.
What is one of the most profound moments of your career? Occasionally, I would drive to Lake Erie after a performance, usually around 3am. Sometimes I would go there, sit on the rocks and listen to the water. When I had nothing to do, I would sit on rocks, watch the sunset, and stare out into the distance. There, I could watch the water meet the sky.
While I was there, I loved listening to jazz artists like Herbie Hancock, Patrice Rushen, Joe Sample and Chick Corea. So, there was this song by George Duke on one of his albums called "Don't Let Go”. The song is called, “The Future.” I loved that song so much that I would rewind that cassette tape repeatedly.
I will always treasure the friendship I had with George Duke. In fact, he was my mentor. I told him that when I was a teenager, I would go down to the lake at 3 in the morning and listen to his music. Also, I shared with him how his music helped me through the tough times. As a result, he invited me over for coffee and lyrics writing. What a great opportunity!
Unfortunately, we didn't get the chance to write together because of schedule conflicts. Time passed, and so did he. It's a shame that I won't get another chance to write a song with him. One thing that I will always hold dear to my heart is that George Duke asked me to come to his house and put lyrics on not my song, but his! He even wanted the song to be released once we were done. That's an honor! That's something I'll never forget.
I sometimes ask myself, why didn't I cancel that gig? That was an opportunity I’ll never get back. In some cases, if you let opportunities pass you by, they're lost forever. And this was one of them. I know I'll never get that opportunity again because he's never coming back. Even if I decided to redo the song, it would not be the same without George Duke.
George and I were the only ones at the table because everyone else had left. That was our thing. No matter where we met up, we always had coffee together. Therefore, if you ever get an opportunity, don't let it pass you by, because it may never come around again.
Finally, what would you consider to be one of the greatest lessons you've learned to date? Never be a control freak, always stay in control, and count your own money. I watched Kenny Gamble sign everyone's check, including mine, every Saturday when I worked with him. In fact, I regret not making at least one photocopy as a souvenir signed by Kenny Gamble. I really should have done that. Nevertheless, I recommend that artists keep track of their own earnings and not rely on others. This is because, at the end of the day, there may be people working for you who do not represent your interests.
Isn't that the truth? We see it every day. It's sad how many celebrities get jailed for incorrectly filing taxes, while on the road. You cannot afford to neglect something so serious. Sadly, everybody else gets paid, but they suffer the consequences of their own negligence. You have to be aware and sharp in this business. That’s true because nobody’s going to look out for you like you.
Frank, I want to thank you. Frank, I want to thank you for this amazing interview and thank you for your time. You are a remarkable musician, and I am a fan of your work. I pray that God will bless you, your beautiful family, and your career. Thank you, Gina, and same to you.
All photos are courtesy of Frank McComb
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