His voice has reached millions via television and the internet, but for Freddie Combs, it’s the pews of small-town churches like Shiloh Baptist in Sharon where the singer often finds his best audience.
“This makes me more nervous than singing for 10,000 people,” Combs said of performing in front of dozens of locals in a rural town with a population of under 500 on a Sunday night. “I like singing for folks, but my singing is in vain if I don’t minister.”
Combs rose to fame in September 2012 when his televised audition for the national singing competition, “The X-Factor,” garnered millions of views online. Weighing more than 400 pounds and wheelchair-bound at the time, Combs said his story wasn’t just about fame.
“As y’all can well tell, I’m a healthy, healthy boy,” the 42-year-old North Carolina native told the crowd at Shiloh Baptist Church, where he performed a medley of songs while recounting his life-long struggle with weight. “My life almost ended.”
At his heaviest in 2009, Combs weighed 920 pounds when a near-death experience sent him to the hospital and doctors told him he wouldn’t survive. A stint at a bariatric rehabilitation facility months before had left Combs in a depressed state and he shut himself in a room for seven months where his weight “swelled.”
In the hospital, Combs said he suffered from carbon dioxide poisoning, a medical condition where the body can no longer expel the chemical properly during breathing. Doctors also told him he was suffering from anemia, a result of malnutrition.
“I didn’t want to be a story on the news,” he said of his size. Weeks later, Combs began his ongoing weight loss, shedding 475 pounds so far, and in 2012 he made the news.
His rendition of “The Wind Beneath My Wings” on the reality show surprised the audience as well as the judges, who voted to moved him onto the next round. He dedicated that performance to his wife of almost 18 years, Kay, who took care of him and wheeled him out to the stage.
Combs didn’t win, but he credits the show with giving him exposure and allowing him to do what he says he does best – ministering.
“His personal testimony is what really does it,” said David Payne, 40, of York. Payne’s sister is a good friend of Combs and asked about having the singer come down to Bullocks Creek Cowboy Church, where he will perform this New Year’s Eve.
The singer and his wife traveled from their home in Tennessee to York County this past weekend and decided to also make a stop at Shiloh Baptist Church.
Pastor Larry Nunn called Combs’ decision to come perform “a blessing.” He said Combs didn’t seek a fee for his appearance, but urged churchgoers to donate what they could.
Karen Inman, 61, of Sharon called the performance “wonderful” and “the word of God.” Inman has been with the church for more than 40 years, remaining there even after she moved across state lines to Union County in North Carolina.
Inman had only heard of Combs’ name in passing prior to the performance Sunday night, but said she was moved by his personal story. “Anybody that received this service and did not receive a blessing – something’s wrong with them.”
Raised on Southern gospel music, Combs said it’s the small churches like Shiloh Baptist that make him “feel at home.” “This is my heart,” he said.
But Combs is ready to go back to the big stage at least one more time.
When X-Factor judge Simon Cowell voted Combs onto the next round of the competition in 2012, it was under the condition that Combs be able to perform standing up. “I’ll back you if you back yourself,” Cowell said.
While Combs said he has no intention of entering the competition again, he plans to “go back and stand and sing,” as a way to come full circle.
The singer keeps a photo of himself at his heaviest on his phone to remind himself of how far he’s come. He also told the crowd that since the competition, he can now stand without support.
He said he has managed to lose weight without the help of gastric bypass surgery, which permanently reduces the size of the stomach and may be dangerous for those with a history of heart conditions.
He intends to continue shedding the pounds with nothing but dieting, exercise and his faith. “I want to be 250,” he said. “I think that would look good on me.”