Will Downing has won a loyal audience of contemporary jazz and R&B fans with albums and concerts that have showcased his rich baritone vocals and unique interpretations of R&B and pop classics. Often compared to Luther Vandross, Downing has released nine solo albums in a recording career that stretches back to the early 1980s. Several record label changes left him without the momentum to achieve breakthrough commercial success, a situation he attempted to change with the more R&B-directed 2000 album All the Man You Need. Although the album won Downing a Grammy Award nomination for Best Traditional R&B Album, the experience left the singer frustrated with the interference by his record label on his music. Signing with legendary jazz label Verve, Downing returned to his initial focus on contemporary jazz music. “Times have changed,” Downing reflected in an interview with Billboard’s David Nathan in May of 2002. “I think of Luther Vandross as the standard-bearer for adult vocalists, and there aren’t many of us around. Musically, I may straddle the fence between R&B and contemporary jazz. I’m just happy with what I’ve got as an artist and that I’m working with a company that lets me make the kind of music I want to make.”
Will Downing was born around 1963, in Brooklyn, New York. His mother worked as a school teacher and his father toiled as a skycap at one of the airports in the New York area. Downing started his musical education in junior high, where he took part in the school chorus. He also enjoyed listening to Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, and Earth, Wind & Fire at home; along with Nat “King” Cole, Hathaway became one of Downing’s later inspirations and role models. Although his parents did not encourage Downing to pursue a career in music—preferring that their son prepare for a more secure profession—he enrolled in Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. The high school had one of the strongest performing arts programs in the city and included among its alumni singers Barbra Streisand and Stephanie Mills, and record company executives Clive Davis, who founded Arista Records and J Records, and Kedar William Massenburg, who later became president of Motown Records, Downing, who eventually recorded for Motown, graduated with Massenburg in the class of 1981. Downing then attended college at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia.
Downing’s college career was short-lived. After just one year in Virginia, he returned to New York City to pursue opportunities as a recording session backup singer. His success was immediate and by the mid-1980s he had worked on albums by Jennifer Holiday, Kool & the Gang, Billy Ocean, and Erasmus Hall alumna Mills. He also joined the lineup of Wally Jump Jr. and the Criminal Element, a band put together by Arthur Baker. The group did not stay together long, though Downing later retained Baker as his producer on some of his solo work.
Born c. 1963 in Brooklyn, NY.Education: Attended Virginia Union University, early 1980s.
Worked as studio backup singer, early 1980s; sang with Wally Jump Jr. and the Criminal Element, early 1980s; signed recording deal, released first album, 1988; moved to Island Records for second album, Come Together As One, 1989; released Dream Fulfilled, 1991; signed with Mercury Records, released Love’s the Place to Be, 1993; released Moods, 1995, and Invitation Only, 1997; switched to the Motown label by Mercury’s parent company, Polygram; released All the Man You Need, 2000; signed with Verve Records, 2001; moved to GRP Records, released Sensual Journey, 2002.
Awards: International Association of African-American Music Diamond Award, 2002.
In 1988 Downing signed a recording contract with 4th & Broadway Records, and his first solo album, Will Downing, was released that same year. The album did not make much commercial headway, though critics singled out Downing’s version of the John Coltrane classic jazz piece “A Love Supreme” as one of its highlights. Downing stayed with 4th & Broadway for just one album and switched to Island Records for his second release, Come Together As One, in 1989. Like his first album, Come Together As One was a pop- and dance-oriented collection of R&B songs that also reflected Downing’s love of jazz. The album failed to make an impact on the charts in the United States, though the ballads “Wishing on a Star” and “Too Soon” received some airplay on smooth jazz and R&B stations. Downing had better sales in Great Britain, where his first two albums earned gold records for sales of over 100,000 copies each. Downing also appeared with British soul singer Mica Paris for a remake of the Roberta Flack-Donny Hathaway song “Where Is the Love.”
For his third album, Downing focused on a more jazz-oriented sound. The result was 1991’s A Dream Fulfilled, which the singer considered the high point of his early career. As he recalled in a 2002 interview with Monica India Johnson for JazzReview.com, “Since then, people have always said, That’s your best album.’… My goal is always to surpass that album. Every time I do an album… I think, ‘Okay, this is going to be the best album. This is going to be better than A Dream Fulfilled”’ Although the album solidified his fan base, it did not signal a commercial breakthrough for Downing in the United States, where his popularity lagged behind his international success.
Switching labels to Mercury Records for his fourth outing, 1993’s Love’s the Place to Be, Downing scored his best-selling album to date with about 235,000 copies sold in the United States and over 300,000 copies in Great Britain. He remained with Mercury for two more albums, Moods in 1995 and Invitation Only in 1997, both of which sold well to Downing’s core fan base. As Esther Iverem of the Washington Post asked about Downing’s career in a July 1996 profile, “How do you fuse the all-but-lost cool singing tradition of bebop crooners like Johnny Hartman, the sexy soul man persona of a Teddy Pendergrass, the rich vocal quality of Luther Vandross and then—with a jazz groove not designed for dancing or stacked with sampled beats—try to market yourself to your peers in the hip-hop generation?”
The answer came with Downing’s 2000 release, All the Man You Need. After being switched to the Motown label by Mercury’s parent company, Polygram, Downing went into the studio to make a more R&B-oriented album with greater commercial potential than his past releases had realized. As Downing admitted in a May 2002Billboard profile, the attempt to refashion himself as an R&B artist was “a mistake…. We may have confused listeners, and we paid a price for it.” In the JazzReview.com interview, Downing explained, “It was a matter of satisfying quite a few kinds of entities. We thought that we could solidify ourselves in the R&B arena. So I kind of made the record a little more R&B tinged.” He added, “It was a good record and I think there were some real gems on it musically.” Despite his disappointment with the album, it received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Traditional R&B Album in 2000.
Downing’s signing with respected jazz label Verve Records in 2001 signaled a return to his contemporary jazz direction. He had already released one album on the label, 1998’s Pleasures of the Night, a collaboration with saxophonist Gerald Albright. He later changed labels yet again, signing with GRP for the release of Sensual Journey. “Whereas in the past I have kind of vacillated between R&B and contemporary jazz, I think this album [Sensual Journey^ is bringing me more toward that place that I need to be,” Downing stated on his website. “In the grand scheme of things, we have a complete album here. There is great continuity from song to song. I’m really ecstatic.” In 2002 Downing received the Diamond Award from the International Association of African-American Music for his help in promoting and preserving African American music. Retaining his artistic integrity remained an important goal of Downing’s work, as he explained on his website: “I try to look at my performance from an emotional stand-point. Are the words that I’m saying being portrayed the right way? Is the person on the other end of the speaker getting it, is it touching them, did it make them think? If I did that, then the mission’s accomplished.”
Will Downing, 4th and Broadway, 1988.
Come Together As One, Island, 1989.
A Dream Fulfilled, Island, 1991.
Love’s the Place to Be, Mercury, 1993.
Moods, Mercury, 1995.
Invitation Only, Mercury, 1997.
(With Gerald Albright) Pleasures of the Night, Verve, 1998.
All the Man You Need, Polygram/Motown, 2000.
Sensual Journey, GRP, 2002.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 25, 1998, p. P3.
Billboard, September 27, 1997, p. 26; May 4, 2002, p. 24.
Cincinnati Post, July 18, 1996, p. 18.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), July 20, 2001, p. 14.
Virginian Pilot, November 19, 1997, p. E1.
Washington Post, July 26, 1996, p. D1.
“Review: Pleasures of the Night,” ContemporaryJazz.com, http://www.contemporaryjazz.com/reviews/downingalbright.html (July 9, 2002).
“Will Downing,” African American Publications, http://www.africanpubs.com/Apps/bios/0588DowningWill.asp?pic=none (July 9, 2002).
“Will Downing,” BlakeRadio.com, http://www.blakeradio.com/html/videoJounge/vLwill.shtml (July 9, 2002).
“Will Downing,” GRP Records, http://www.vervemusicgroup.com/grp/artist.asp?aid=2941 (July 9, 2002).
Will Downing Official Website, http://www.willdowning.com/index.asp (July 9, 2002).
“Will Downing: Sensual Journey,” PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/d/downingwillsensual.shtml (July 9, 2002).
“Will Downing’s Sensuality, Music, and Other Matters of Fact,” JazzReview.com, http://www.jazzreview.com/articleprint.cfm?ID=748 (July 9, 2002).
"Downing, Will." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/downing-will
"Downing, Will." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved September 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/downing-will
Downing, Will 19(?)(?)–
Will Downing 19(?)(?)–
Rising from anonymity as a journeyman session singer in the 1970s to become a popular solo crooner in the 1990s, Will Downing has been a popular fixture on the mellow jazz music scene since releasing his debut album in 1988. Serving as “a reliable source for potent R&B music that nourishes the mind,” according to Billboard magazine, he successfully bridged the gap between contemporary jazz and rhythm and blues with hits such as “In My Dreams” and “A Love Supreme.” Downing has been especially popular in the United Kingdom where, for over a decade, he has been a big draw in major concert venues and his albums have frequently gone gold or platinum.
Downing’s crossover appeal helped him build audiences in both the jazz/adult and uptempo rhythm and blues genres. The singer frequently covers R&B classics and jazz standards on his albums, and has had hits with remakes of songs such as Deniece Williams’ “Free,” Rose Royce’s “Wishing on a Star,” Nat King Cole’s “When Sunny Gets Blue,” and Phyllis Hyman’s “I Don’t Want to Lose You.” In a 1993 article in Billboard, Downing referred to his singing as “warm, sensitive, and sensual at the same time. Very inviting and trusting. There are a lot of singers who sing at you and not to you. That’s the kind of vocalist I try not to be.” Because he likes to create an intimate mood with listeners, Downing prefers performing in small settings rather than large arenas.
“I grew up listening to jazz and I was born when soul music was at its height,” said Downing, according to the Mercury Records home page on the Internet. While attending Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, he listened fervently to singers such as Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Nat “King” Cole, all of whom influenced his style. In Billboard, Downing said that he is also a long-time fan of D.J. Rogers, Stevie Wonder, and Phil Perry.
Downing kept busy in the recording studio in the 1970s as a background singer for Rose Royce, Billy Ocean, Jennifer Holliday, Stephanie Mills, Kool and the Gang,
At a Glance…
Born in Brooklyn, NY.
Career: Was background session singer for Jennifer Holliday, Kool & the Gang, Billy Ocean, Stephanie Mills, and others, 1970s; began working with producer/performer Arthur Baker, mid-1980s; contributed vocals to recordings by Wally Jump Jr. & Criminal Element, mid-1980s; solo albums: Will Downing, 1988; Come Together as One, 1989; A Dream Fulfilled, 1991; Love’s the Place to Be, 1993; Moods, 1995; Invitation Only, 1997.
Awards and honors: Best Album of the Year (A Dream Fulfilled), Vocalist of the Year, and Best Live Performer of the Year, all from Blues & Soul magazine, 1992.
Addresses: Record company —c/o Mercury, 825 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10019.
Nona Hendryx, and others. His career got a major boost after he met the producer/performer Arthur Baker in the mid-1980s. At that time Downing teamed up with Baker’s group, Wally Jump Jr. and the Criminal Element, whose members included Wally Jump, Craig Derry, Sonny Calvin, Dwight Hawkes, Jeff Smith, and Michigan and Smiley. Downing’s voice contributed to a number of dance hits by the group, including “Don’t Push Your Luck.”
After recording songs for Baker’s label as part of Wally Jump Jr. and the Criminal Element, Downing signed a deal with Island Records. Success came quickly with his first album as a solo artist—a self-titled LP released in 1988. The album generated two hits in England that launched the LP into the Top 20 overseas, including the chart-topping “A Love Supreme.” Downing assumed more control over his next album, Come Together as One, serving as producer, as well as co-writer on many of the songs with Brian Jackson. While skimming the edges of popularity in the United States, this 1989 release was very popular abroad and increased the singer’s following across the Atlantic. Each of Downing’s first two albums sold over 100,000 copies in the United Kingdom, and built up legions of fans for the new solo star. Their popularity resulted in Downing playing numerous sold-out shows at the Hammersmith Ballroom, a renowned concert hall in London.
Downing’s career soared with his acclaimed A Dream Fulfilled, which hit the stores in 1991. This album made him an even bigger concert draw, and he toured on a steady basis for nearly three years after its release. His popularity even drew the attention of England’s royal family, resulting in an invitation for him to perform for Prince Charles and Princess Diana in the renowned Prince’s Trust Concert in England. In 1992 Blues & Soul magazine bestowed three major awards on him: Best Album of the Year, Vocalist of the Year, and Best Live Performer of the Year.
The singer continued riding the crest of fame in 1993 with his first release on the Mercury label, Love’s the Place to Be, which remained a fixture on Billboard magazine’s Black Album Chart for an entire year. In her review of the album in Billboard, Danyel Smith wrote that “the soulful croonings of Will Downing are bluesy, romantic, and most of all, formidable.” Joan Anderman’s review in the Boston Globe added that the singer is “blessed with a warm voice and sensible enough to avoid excess ornamentation.” Downing’s first single release from the album, “Have I Told You,” was referred to as “a pulsating strong song” by Talise D. Moorer in the Amsterdam News. Once again, Downing struck a major chord with British listeners, with buyers bringing home 300,000 copies of Love’s the Place to Be to make it a certified platinum release.
In 1995, Downing created the album Moods, which reflected his own experiences and observations on everyday life and relationships. The album was a highly personal one for the singer, not only because its subject matter was a compilation of his thoughts on life, but also because it featured many of Downing’s long-time friends and creative collaborators, including Rex Rideout, Ronnie Foster, and Art Porter. He tapped into the talents of his musician friends again for the 1997 release, Invitation Only, an album that continued the evolution of his observations on love and relationships.
In recent years Downing has often appeared in concert with his long-time friend, the gifted saxophonist Najee. During the 1990s he lamented changes on the music scene that have reduced his listening audience on the radio. “Within the last six years, the music has changed so much,” he told Ebony Man in 1998. “What I used to do was considered the norm and rap was the specialty. Now it’s just flipped. Radio stations look at what I do as quiet storm-type of music. They only play it at night, and then I don’t get the radio and listener play that could be possible.” Despite the trends working against him, Downing continues to stay the musical course he originally charted for himself. As he told Billboard in 1993, “There’s a definite place for my type of music. The public has to make a concerted effort to let the radio stations know that they really want to hear it. This music was once the mainstream. Now it’s becoming alternative.”
Will Downing, Island, 1988.
Come Together as One, Island, 1989.
A Dream Fulfilled, Mercury, 1991.
Love’s the Place to Be, Mercury, 1993.
Moods, Mercury, 1995.
Invitation Only, Mercury, 1997.
Larkin, Colin, ed., The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 3, Guinness Publishing, 1992, p. 976.
Amsterdam News, October 30, 1997, p. 49.
Atlanta Constitution, November 19, 1997, p. B2.
Billboard, August 14, 1993, p. 18; September 27, 1997, p. 26; April 4, 1997, p. 65.
Boston Globe, November 26, 1997, p. E6.
Ebony Man, January 1998, p. 6.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Web site of Mercury Records on the Internet, as well as from the Motown Records Publicity & Media Relations Division.
"Downing, Will 19(?)(?)–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/downing-will-19
"Downing, Will 19(?)(?)–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved September 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/downing-will-19