By Michelle J. Mills
Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz
Larry McZeal sinks into the overstuffed couch against the back wall of the Coffee Gallery in Altadena with a smile that exudes confidence. It’s not surprising, as this man has his hand in a range of endeavors and is always looking for even more ways to spread his talents, all while maintaining an irrepressible positive attitude.
The 28-year-old Altadenan is a singer/songwriter, the frontman of the blues/rock band, Mr. McZeal & the Late Nights, and the creator of Fusion, a bi-monthly variety night at the Old Towne Pub in Pasadena.
“The hardest thing, especially with trying to sell yourself as a black artist, is that a lot of times my own people don’t know how to perceive me because of the commercial onslaught that they absorb,” McZeal said.
“The radio stations geared to us are all R&B and hip-hop, and the idea of anyone picking up a guitar is almost taboo in our culture. Only certain artists are even given that respect because they have to earn it first and be recognized as a performer before they can be lovingly absorbed by their own people.”
McZeal performs solo as often as he can during the open mic and Artisan Alley nights at the Coffee Gallery. For his band, he handles the vocals and guitar with Pasadena guitarist David Johnathan Smith, bassist Daniel Higgins of Arcadia and drummer Johnathan Tweedy of Alhambra. Mr. McZeal & the Late Nights play throughout the San Gabriel Valley and will be featured during an open block party on Halsted Circle in Alhambra on July 4.
McZeal is the main writer for his projects. He draws lyrical ideas from everyday life, imagining what it would be like to be in different situations. And in all cases, his words are optimistic, hopeful and inspiring.
“A lot of people confuse the idea that blues music has to be about feeling down or feeling bad,” he said. “There are plenty of inspirational blues songs that are campy and upbeat. It just depends on where you want the listener to go.
“I’ve been able to express myself pretty well in terms of pain and anger, but that part of my life is over, I’m really more focused on the positive lifestyle.”
McZeal began singing after receiving a radio for Christmas when he was 12. He would buy singles of the songs he liked, such as tunes by Toni Braxton and Michael Jackson, and play them over and over, singing along. His father died from a heart attack when McZeal was 13, but not before instilling him with good values.
“You cannot grow up in a black household with two loving parents and not get a solid upbringing,” McZeal said. He always thinks his father is “somewhere watching me, making sure I am becoming the man he wanted me to be.”
A year after his father’s death, McZeal’s mother bought him an acoustic guitar, but it took three years before he got good at it. Today he still plays his new songs for his mother before he shares them with anyone else.
McZeal works as an IT consultant to pay the bills. In his free time, he is looking for a space to launch a dinner theater showcase with spoken word performances and short plays. He also wants to connect with charities, especially organizations associated with disadvantaged youth.
“You have to try, you have to speak to be heard,” McZeal said. “No one thing will get you through it, every aspect of everything you do has a path and there are pratfalls and there are obstacles and you have to plan for these things and move around them. A lot of people’s biggest obstacle is themselves.”