‘A leader always pays the price, a leader never stops running’
Words: Allegra Winton
These days, the word ‘legend’ is very seldom used to describe modern day artists. And by that I mean, of anything to have caused a glitch on the musical radar within the last 20 years, nobody seems to have to have made their mark. Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield – there’s more, there’s more: in fact too many to mention – were the last ones standing to have left such a legacy and raised the bar so high (or put it so low, if we’re talking about limbo) that even today we fail to produce such sweet sounding sounds.
And by the way, John Legend, doesn’t count… [see what I did there?!] Frank McComb IS a legend. He has worked with some of the greatest names this century and the one just gone. Don’t make me mention names just yet, they’ll come, they’ll come! He is busy man who oozes happiness. Only in London for a few days, Frank limited his performance to just three days at legendary Jazz venue Pizza On The Park. I catch up with him at the venue itself, a dark and mysterious room situated in the restaurant’s basement. Never having been to a stuffy and smoky US lounge like the ones you see in films, where many intimate gigs take place or stand up comics well, stand; I only have my imagination to go by and this is what I picture them looking like: compact, dark and sexy; oozing spirituality and tranquillity.
Frank has worked with this century and last century’s greatest musicians, and blessed many people’s lives through his music. His musical journey started when he was 12 when saw his aunt play at the local church. “My aunt, Liz McComb, was an amazing gospel singer, her voice and music made her famous in France.” Frank comes from a family of very musical people, which probably also explains the fact that just after receiving three lessons from his aunt who taught him the ‘major/minor chords, the keys on the piano and the use of the pedals’. At 15, Frank was already going in clubs in Cleveland and by the age of 17 he was playing all around town, he’d play at any opportunity with his band ‘The Frank McComb Trio’. “I always wanted to be a leader, but as a leader you pay the price; you always have to stay on top, stay later after rehearsal trying to check and perfect everything for your next performance.”
His many gigs around time introduced him to ‘The Rude Boys’, a typical ‘Jodeci-sounding’ RnB band, who’d been discovered by Gerald Levert and were signed to Atlantic. Through them he also explored his voice. “Hanging out with ‘The Rude Boys’, they really pushed me to explore what I had vocally and the more I worked with them [Frank was Musical director on their 1991 tour] the more comfortable I got and saw that my talent didn’t only lie in musical composition, but I had good vocals too!” This was to be the beginning of his career; everything after that happened in a whirlwind, and he met DJ Jazzy Jeff who convinced him to move to Philadelphia. He did in September that year. Projects with Jeff and Will Smith followed. He was part of the in-house band, but never one to be satisfied with only one thing happening at a time, Frank’s other project was to play with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Philadelphia International Records.
His Philadelphia residency didn’t last long though, after going on the 1992 in ‘The Biggest Rap Tour Ever’, which saw Queen Latifah, Kid’n Play, Public Enemy, and MC Lyte all touring on the same bus. Frank decided to head for the bright lights of L.A and got signed to Motown by November that year. But at 22, Frank admits that he didn’t sign the best deal: “Hey, I was just a kid, but I recorded two projects with them but I was at the forefront of people’s minds when I was there. They had other artists like Jonny Ill, Norma Brown who was at MoJazz [the sister company] at the time, and they were bringing in a lot of money. In my case, I was just the next one coming up. I felt I wasn’t being taken seriously and nothing was being done with my material”. Not one to waste time, Frank called a meeting with the company’s president of Motown, Gerald Busby, and the MoJazz president, where he said he wanted out of the contract. Whilst he was signing his release, he received a call from Branford Marsalis asking him to go touring with him and his band Buckshot LeFonque. “He was looking for a singer and I’d sung vocals on three of his tracks on ‘Music Evolution’. One of which became a huge hit in Europe. It was called ‘Another Day’. That was THE track; that was it. It opened doors for me and him and allowed me to go on another bigger and better tour which then got me signed to Columbia Records”. Through them, Frank put out his first album ‘Love Stories’ which Branford Marselis and he produced.
And how long did that take to record? “Twwwwennnntyyy ssssixxx days”, he says mouthing the numbers slowly so that I register the time scale properly. “Mixing, mastering, recording, vocals…The whole thing just took twenty six days”. He does admit to having stuff ready before, but the project taught him that the producer he was looking for was himself. “I was cutting music at home all the time, tracking records all the time”, and that was how ‘Straight from the Vault’ was born. Tracks were all hand picked from Frank’s personal, private collection that he’d been working on and perfecting since the day started to see music as a way of life.
‘Love Story’ wasn’t supported much by Columbia Records, but the fans loved it. Frank shakes his head, and like many artists he seems disillusioned with the whole role of labels. They talk much more then they do; in fact, his record got known by word of mouth and the people he knew within the industry. So once again he found himself dealing with label politics and opted out of the agreement with Columbia, quickly. They had only printed up 25,000 worldwide, “but still to this day there’s still demand for it”, which Frank deals with himself directly.
In a last bid to get his music out, Frank signed the last contract he would ever sign with Malibu – where Steve Harvey was the sessions producer, a man Frank had known since his Mo’Town days, and the brainchild of the company. But, unfortunately not every producer is a business man and “that company wanted to own me, but at least I can say that I got my second album out (‘The Truth’) and was able to get out of there quickly ‘cause they breached the contract, they did something bad, which they had to rectify within 15 days. I used their tools against them. They weren’t able to solve the problem so I was lucky with that. I was able to walk free again.”
It seems that freedom is a good thing for Frank. These days he deals with things single-handedly. “I tried Motown, who was a major black company, headed by a black man and they weren’t able to help. Then I headed over to Columbia, a ‘white’ company and they didn’t help and when I finally saw the light and realised that even after going with an independent label like Malibu, there’s no need to go through a million different people to get your music out.” Franks has his own website where people can buy all of his records. MySpace has also helped sales. “If you just go to www.frankmccomb.info, I’ll get a copy over to you”. His albums are also available to buy from CDBaby.com where, for the past 4 or 5 months, it has been the highest selling record. He won the album of the year award on soultracks.com and is working on a fifth album; a live album. “There’s a lot of studying to do. I have to check out who the best musicians are, the best places to record, which tracks I want to release from the mounds of material that I have.”
So what label does he operate under now? “Well, my wife used to have a cute name for my daughter; she used to call her ‘Boobeescoot’. We used that because we needed a name fast and we knew that one would clear quickly. I had it registered since ’97 when I released stuff with Malibu, so now it only seems logical to just use that one.”
It hasn’t been easy for the soul man, especially since when promoting his album ‘The Truth’ in Europe, Japan and the US, he came across a bootleg copy of material which he had put together in 1995. “I’d have fans come up to me asking me to sign this bootleg copy they’d bought form the internet for $50. They’d done their own artwork on the albums.” Does he know who the person to make it available was? “Yes, I know who he is and I know how he did it, but I won’t give him the satisfaction to mention his name.” Please? “No.’”
Frank has worked with this century and last century’s greatest musicians. He has blessed many people’s lives through his music. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but he’s finally where he wants to be: in charge. “Sometimes taking matters into my own hands can change a life. Mine certainly did.”