Roots in the home of gospel
The sixth of seven children, Elizabeth McComb grew up in an African-American family that originally came from Mississippi. Her father, a factory worker, died when she was very young. Her mother was very religious, as was the whole family, and she became a preacher and the pastor of a Pentecostal church. Three of her sisters formed a vocal group called The Daughters of Zion, which was very popular in local churches. Many years later, they would sometimes accompany McComb during her concerts. McComb started singing at the early age of three. At home, the children grew up listening to the great gospel singers: The Staple Singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and above all, Mahalia Jackson who became McComb’s idol and her role model. The young girl learned Jackson’s entire repertory by heart. In the meantime, her only brother played jazz trumpet and introduced McComb to the great jazz musicians – Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Max Roach as well as Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan.
McComb began with violin but decided to switch to the piano, an instrument with which her “heartstrings feel perfectly in tune”, in her words. She learned to play the piano on her own and one day she decided to take the plunge and replace her pianist at a moment’s notice. Gradually, she became one of the best pianist-singers of her generation. While still young, she joined the Karamu House Theater school and then the cultural center’s theater company.