When God brought two visually impaired musicians together — Michael Mitchell, of the local COMN Funk Band, and former Wiley College Music Director Gregory A. McPherson — something magical ensued.
McPherson, a Grammy award-winning producer, and Mitchell, a multi-talented drummer, reflected on their journey with the News Messenger as the national observation of Black History Month wrapped up last month.
“I thank God everyday for putting the brother in front of me,” said McPherson. “Sometimes there are times we [as a society] begin to recognize there are challenges that preclude our ability to be able to collaborate and to work together; but, literally, God brought two blind guys together. And you can’t explain it any other way.”
After making introductions in 2021, the pair decided to partner together to produce the Marshall-based band’s debut single, “Humpin 2.0,” which just celebrated the global release of its first music video under distribution company, Sony Orchard. The song, which is a remake of the legendary Gap Band’s 80’s jam “Humpin 2.0’,” celebrates the mid-work week, Wednesday, commonly known as “Hump Day.”
Not only has the video drawn over 1,400 views, but the partnership with Sony has also allowed the band to make history, becoming the first African American band from Marshall to reach international success.
McPherson, who currently serves as the director of choral activities and music professor at Delaware State University and boasts a host of accolades — from Soul Train Awards to Grammys to Tony and Oscar nominations — is excited to have helped the local band realize their dreams.
“I have to say coming to Marshall I did not even remotely know that the COMN Funk band even existed,” said McPherson, noting he became familiar with the band during a performance for the Wonderland of Lights festival.
“Mr. Mitchell was introduced to me, and recognizing right away that he was challenged by visual impairment, I was kind of drawn to what he was doing and also to find out he was such a remarkable instrumentalist and well as musician, overall,” said McPherson.
The award-winning musician was so impressed by the band and especially Mitchell’s zeal that he wanted to pay it forward by offering his services.
“I kept saying to him: ‘Hey man, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to help somebody with a record and do this. He said: ‘Well, help my band,’” McPherson recalled.
“It put me in the light where, again, sometimes God will bring things along the way to remind you of what humility is. And, of course, I’m legally blind as well. And so understanding that, I felt like it was my duty to do whatever was necessary to try to help him and his band.”
The two found that they not only share a love for music, but a drive to succeed despite their disability.
“A lot of people don’t know my situation. They can’t tell,” said Mitchell, who began losing his eyesight to glaucoma and degenerative eye disease in 2012.
“It’s difficult dealing with the eye disease, but I keep on pushing through it,” said Mitchell.
McPherson, who has been legally blind since childhood, echoed his sentiments.
“I’m 64, and so God has continuously blessed the work of my hands,” said McPherson.
McPherson became legally blind as a child after a cleansing agent caused a negative reaction to his eyes.
“It ended up blinding me; and as a result of that, I ended up struggling from a child with everything you could imagine,” shared McPherson.
But thanks to his two loving and supportive parents, McPherson was able to thrive.
“Thank God I had two parents that loved me, who just decided that they were not going to send me away,” said McPherson, explaining how in 1960s South Alabama racism was prevalent and abuse at schools for the blind was on the rise.
“By that time, I was already involved in music. I had started studying and taking private lessons, so they were not going to allow me to go down that road,” McPherson said, recalling he was age 4 or 5, at the time. “And from that, it became such a blessing that God saw me as that brother who, that somebody along the way kept pouring into me and speaking life into me. And I thank God for that.”
McPherson, a skilled pianist, percussionist and composer, began performing as a recitalist at age 7 and touring at age 11. He ultimately obtained his artist diploma and began teaching private lessons at age 15. After earning his degree from Alabama State University, McPherson spent 20 years of his career at Berkeley College of Music in Boston, where he taught some of music’s greatest stars such as singer Lalah Hathaway, singer-songwriter Paula Cole and Canadian jazz pianist Diana Krall — to name a few.
Mitchell, a percussionist, started out playing trumpet but fell in love with the drums around age 10 after spotting a peer playing the snare on the porch after school.
“I walked over across the street and went over to his house and that was the beginning of our friendship,” said Mitchell. “So the very next day when I came through, I stopped at his house and he started me playing drums.”
Mitchell had honed his craft so much that by the time he was 14, he landed his first gig playing for Merging Traffic, the town’s premier Black band at the time. From there, he went on to travel with the Wiley acappella choir.
“When I went off to college to Prairie View, I played for the Baptist Student Movement, the gospel choir at the school. The doors really opened when I moved to Fort Worth and I began to play for different groups and churches,” said Mitchell.
In Fort Worth, Mitchell served as drummer for the DFW Mass Choir. His talent led him to working with several gospel music greats, including Kirk Franklin, The Hawkins family, the Rev. Timothy Wright and Myrna Summers.
“A lot of the artists that would come to town for different functions at the churches, I would end up playing for them,” said Mitchell. “The radio station, KHVN, had a radio mass choir and I was the drummer for that choir, too, and then I had my own group for 20-plus years, Just Praise.”
Mitchell, who is also a minister, said while losing his eyesight has been a challenge, he doesn’t let it stop him from his passion, as music has been a part of his life since birth.
“That’s what was in our house,” he said, sharing his parents and siblings were all either musicians or singers.
“It keeps me going,” he said of music. “I tell them at church all the time, a lot of people would just give up. If they could see behind my eyes what I see or don’t see, you know, it would make them give up, but it doesn’t make me give up.
“I believe that God is a miracle worker,” he said, getting emotional. “He continues to bless me … let me be able to do things.
“I got a wonderful wife. She looks out for me,” added Mitchell.
“And then ‘Doc’ (McPherson) has been an inspiration in holding us up and building us up and pushing us along,” Mitchell said of the impact McPherson’s had on COMN Funk band. “He heard us and said that he believed in us. He gave us the Humpin Gap Band song to redo, so when we put it all together it was just kind of like magic. And everybody, industry people, felt like we had a hit.”
McPherson’s musical gift has earned him a host of honors, he’s worked with musical geniuses, including Quincy Jones, and he has produced stars such as the 1990s boy band sensations New Kids the Block, the Back Street Boys and N’Sync. He’s also one of the producers and arrangers for Sounds of Blackness, a three-time Grammy Award winning vocal/instrumental ensemble.
As a composer, he’s written songs for Disney, Pixar, Sony Pictures, Lionsgate and several others. A lot of his work is inspired by the Afrocentric experience, such as the commissioned piece he wrote in memory of the June 2015 victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church mass shooting in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. McPherson wrote the song at the request of then-President Barack Obama’s office of public engagement.
Through his relationship with McPherson, Mitchell has been introduced to some of the world’s music industry giants such as famed singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder; legendary producer and composer Quincy Jones; and Walter Orange, of the popular Motown band The Commodores.
Through their relationship with McPherson, COMN Funk was also blessed to work with award-winning music engineer Dale Ramsey on their album, as well as Godfather of Soul James Brown’s former longtime percussionist George “Spike” Neely.
As a professional ethnomusicologist, with a great knack for artistry, McPherson noticed a jewel within the COMN Funk Band.
“I just checked them out and I realized that they were just this really wonderful diamond and jewel that was just hidden,” he said. “Every one of those brothers in that band is dedicated to the craft.”
It was refreshing for McPherson to see.
“Live bands are becoming a rarity now in terms of public performances. We’re beginning to turn the corner and going back into that direction, but it’s still a rarity,” said McPherson. “So [it was invigorating] to find these brothers actually seriously being very intentional in getting it in. They are very dedicated to keeping that genre alive and fresh.”
McPherson figured a collaboration with local rapper/lyricist Tyson Manning on the band’s song would be a great way to inspire a new generation through various genres of music.
“He’s the perfect picture of restoration of the human spirit and the whole person is all about,” McPherson said of Manning, who made it his mission to change his life after time in prison. “So, after listening to Tyson, I said you guys should do something together that can merge genres. And in having talked back and forth to some of my friends with the Gap Band and the SOS Band and Larry Blackmon of Cameo, as well as my relationship with Quincy Jones, everybody said well do something that would remind people of the old, and in the meantime, sprinkle a little new in it. So that’s how we ended up saying: ‘OK, we can do this.’ I realized that there was something really wonderful, might even go as far as saying ‘magical’ happening in that moment.”
The musicians are excited about COMN Funk’s future as they continue to blaze their own trail in the music industry with the recent success of their global video release.
“We’ve done several recordings. It’s not just the only single that we’ve done. This is just the only one that Sony Music has agreed. It’s global. And God showed us favor,” said McPherson. “It’s good, clean solid, fun live music.”
McPherson and Mitchell are grateful for their divine connection.
“Who would’ve ever imagined that two blind guys would make a fuss in East Texas?” said McPherson. “We knew that we needed to create something that would make people feel good,” said McPherson. “To have this privilege to stand beside another extraordinary brother and these other group of musicians is just really humbling. I mean that means something to me.”
Also counting his blessings, Mitchell said he hopes their story will inspire others with challenges to never give up on their dream.
“Don’t quit; never give up and trust God for everything, because that’s what I believe,” said Mitchell. “We appreciate all the support that we’ve gotten from people at home and people afar.”