Downing, Big Al
Big Al Downing
Big Al Downing is one of only three relatively well known African-American performers able to sustain a career in country music. Versatile and engaging, the Oklahoma-born piano pounder has persevered and even thrived through 45 years as a professional entertainer. Although not a household name, he enjoys an overseas rockabilly following, had a number-one disco hit, and scored with a neat string of top 40 country hits during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"All my family, my brothers and everybody, we were all sharecroppers," Downing explained from his Leicester, Massachusetts, home in an interview with Contemporary Musicians. "What we did was if somebody needed a field of hay brought in, we'd go out and mow it and stack it and put it in the 50-foot-high barns or whatever they needed…. [Also] we'd go up and get permission from the big farms to look for herbs on their property, down by the river or whatever, and we sold those to the market in Coffeyville, Kansas, where they made medicine and things like that."
Recalling his childhood as one of 15 children—12 survived into adulthood—Downing talked of lean times: "Oh, I've been hungry many times. Not only hungry, but sometimes during the school year we got laughed at because we had to go to school barefooted. Out of the five or six of [the Downing siblings] that was going to school, we only had one or two pairs of shoes. So we had to trade off. One day my brother would wear the shoes, the next day my sister would wear them to school. Then I'd go to school barefooted that one day. That's just the way we done it. We were very poor. But you know, we didn't really know it until we went somewhere [else]."
Exposed to Music through Family
Downing's first musical experiences came via a gospel quartet his father and brothers started. Later, he learned to love the country music the truckers would listen to while the family loaded hay. When he and his brothers stumbled upon a discarded piano, his commitment to music firmly took hold.
"We had a tractor trailer, not a flatbed…, and we were coming home from loading that hay and we went by the junkyard and there was an old piano there," recalled Downing fondly. "So, we loaded it on the back of the old truck and took it down the road home. Once we got it there, we just started banging on it and we found that about 50 or 60 of the keys still worked…. Then, we decided to put the radio on top of the piano. Dad would come in and listen to the Grand Ole Opry and everything with the radio blaring on top. Then I started liking that [famed R&B disc jockey] John R. on WLAC out of Nashville, because he would play Fats Domino and Louis Jordan and them people…. So, we listened to that and I started picking out Fats Domino music. He'd come on and I'd start trying to find those notes on the piano and that's how I learned to play…."
Initially, Downing's parents wanted him to take piano lessons. "They paid this old black lady, about 80 years old, I guess she was then. I never will forget it…. I was like 13 or 14 years old. I walked in and she had long, strong, bony fingers and I said, 'Whoa man, I'll bet she can whip a piano to death.' She said, very, very gruff, 'Play something for me.' So, I sat down and I played something for her. Then she said, 'Now get up and get out of here.' I said, 'I thought you were going to teach me.' She said, 'Look, that's a gift that God gave you what you're doing and I'm not going to touch it.'"
Joined a Rockabilly Band
Encouraged, the young pianist played local dances and proms during his teen years. After his imitation of Fats Domino singing "Blueberry Hill" won him an amateur contest sponsored by radio station KGGF, Downing was asked to join a mostly white group hoping to cash in on the rock 'n' roll craze of the late 1950s.
"Bobby Poe … was a white guy in town that had a band called the Rhythm Rockers," Downing explained. "After he heard me win that amateur hour thing, he drove out to my house the next day…. He said, 'Look Al, here's what I want to do. I heard you last night on the radio and I'd like for you to join a band I'm going to be putting together…. You'll be doing Fats Domino and Nat King Cole and Ray Charles and all them people and all us boys will do the Everly Brothers and people like Jerry Lee Lewis and we'll cover the whole spectrum of the music that way. Nobody has ever done that before.' He said, 'I want to warn you that it won't be easy. Because some of the places we're going to be playing, a black person has never been in or they've never seen a black person play music there. It's going to be kind of rough on you.' I said, 'Ahh, let's do it, man. I can take it.'"
Re-christened Bobby Poe & the Poe Cats, the band earned "pass the hat money" at local VFW halls before manager/producer Lelan Rogers got them into a studio to record for the Texas-based White Rock label. Combining Downing's Little Richard imitation and Domino-inspired piano licks with Vernon Sandusky's wild rockabilly guitar riffs, they fashioned the classic rocker "Down on the Farm." Leased to the Challenge label, it only scaled the lower regions of the national charts, though it is considered a classic today.
Worked with Wanda Jackson
"Down on the Farm" garnered gigs for the band on the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour and secured steady work backing Capitol rockabilly star Wanda Jackson. Downing had faced racial taunts before, but touring with Jackson kicked the abuse up a few notches.
"When we decided to go on the road and back Wanda, we went into places like Butte, Montana, and different off-the-wall places that we never even heard of," recalled Downing for Blue Suede News. "They didn't like it that I was on the stage with Wanda, a black guy on the stage with a white girl. That's how they saw it. They didn't see it as entertainment, they saw it as a black guy being uppity. So they would say catcalls and things like that. Finally, Wanda would say, 'Look, if he can't be here, I'm not going to play either because he's my piano player and we work together. So, if y'all want me you'll shut up and let us do our show.'"
Asked if those types of experiences ever made him feel like giving up, Downing's response is adamant. "No. I didn't like it but I felt that the music was more important. Working with Wanda and taking the music to the people like that was more important than the two guys out of the whole audience calling names and saying something bad about it."
As a sideman, Downing played piano on Jackson's breakthrough hit, "Let's Have a Party," and several other hard-rockin' sides. Recording for a variety of labels, including East/West, Carlton, V-Tone, and Kasoma, the pianist found that hit singles were an elusive commodity. Subsequently, he and the band latched on to a steady five-year gig in Washington, D.C., at Rand's Nightclub.
Country Breakthrough Came via Disco
Downing earned a small measure of renown by teaming with Little Esther Phillips on some of the soul singer's 1963 Nashville crossover sessions. The following year, he cut a blistering rock 'n' soul side called "Georgia Slop" that came out just as the Beatles were pushing most American acts off radio playlists.
For the Record . . .
Born on January 9, 1940, in Centralia, OK.
Joined Bobby Poe & the Poe-Kats, recorded "Down on the Farm" for the White Rock label, 1958; became a sideman for Wanda Jackson, 1958-61; reached number 73 on pop charts with "You Don't Miss Your Water" with Esther Phillips on the Lenox label, 1962; recorded rock 'n' soul cult classic "Georgia Slop" for Columbia, 1964; recorded number-one disco hit "I'll Be Holding On" for Chess, 1975; began three-year association with Warner Bros. where he recorded six charting country singles, 1978-80; recorded six more country chart records with Tony Bon Giovi's Team Entertainment label, 1982-84; recorded charting country hits with the Vine Street label, 1986, 1987; recorded for Platinum Express label, 2003.
Awards: Billboard, Single of the Year for "Mr. Jones," 1979; Billboard, New Artist of the Year, 1979.
Addresses: Record companies— Platinum Express Records, P.O. Box 1705, George Town, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, phone: (345) 949-6131, e-mail: [email protected], website: http://www.platinumexpressrecords.com; Hayden's Ferry Records, 710 E. Lodge Dr., Tempe, AZ 85283, phone: (480) 752-8937, website: http://www.haydensferry.com. Management— Albe Management Corporation, 65 Watson St., Leicester, MA 01524. Publicist— So Much Moore Media & Marketing, P.O. Box 120426, Nashville, TN 37212, phone: (615) 298-1689, website:http://www.somuchmoore.com.
Eventually, members of Downing's band departed to form a Beatles knock-off group called the Chartbusters, and the pianist became a solo act. Recording country-soul for Shelby Singleton's Silver Fox label and briefly for Columbia, he stayed active but didn't really taste commercial success until his waxing of "I'll Be Holding On" became a number-one disco hit for Chess in 1975. It was during a fruitless follow-up session that Downing was able to realize his lifelong dream of recording country music.
"In the back of my heart I always had wanted to go back and do the simpler kind of country," Downing divulged. "Tony Bon Giovi, who is Jon Bon Jovi's uncle, was producing me at the time, and we couldn't come up with an idea for a new disco song…. So, they all took a break to have some lunch, but I stayed in there at the piano. I didn't know it, but Tony Bon Giovi stayed in the engineering room there with the mike open. So, I sat down at the piano and started doing [future hit singles] like 'Touch Me,' 'Mr. Jones,' and 'Let's Sing about Love,' and he was listening to it. All of a sudden I heard him say, 'Hey Al, what's that stuff you're playing?' I said, 'That's the kind of stuff I want to do if I ever do a country album.' He said, 'Well, the hell with disco, let's do that.'"
The sessions that followed, featuring Dee Dee Warwick and Cissy Houston singing backup, made Downing one of the rarest of all performers, a black country star. Yet despite several Warner Bros. releases hitting the charts, none rose higher than number 18. "There was a reason for that," Downing said earnestly. "That thing raised its ugly head again—the racism thing. Once I got in the top 15, there was about 12 of the biggest radio stations around in the South and places that didn't want to play me, simply because I was black. They said, 'We're not going to play any black records on our show.' They're some of the same people who wouldn't even play Charley Pride. So, that's what stopped my records from going into the top ten, because I needed these radio stations to do it."
Although he recorded six chart singles for Warner Bros., remarkably, the company did not issue an album. As a result, Downing's management bought up the masters and released them on the Team label. Subsequent releases for Team and Vine Street records hit the lower region of the charts, but by 1987 his career momentum had played out.
Renewed Fame as a Rockabilly Revivalist
With his country career stalled, Downing has concentrated mainly on touring over the last two decades and is especially popular overseas where rockabilly revivalists glory in his early sides with Bobby Poe. Overseas, he performs 90 percent rock 'n' roll and ten percent country, while in the U.S. country music dominates his live shows. He foreshadowed his own return to recording by producing French rockabilly J. Ryan Beretti in 2002. The following year he signed with the Cayman Islands-based Platinum Express label, which leased the album One of a Kind to Arizona's Hayden's Ferry label.
Co-produced by Bob Babbitt, who played the catchy bass line on the 1978 hit "Mr Jones," One of a Kind blends the sawdust-floor honky-tonk of "A Cigarette, a Bottle, and a Jukebox" and "I'm Raisin' Hell" with the piano histrionics of "Boogie Woogie Roll," the Jamaican feel of "Goodbye My Love," and the hard-core blues of "Rock Me Baby."
Asked by Contemporary Musicians if he meant to be this eclectic, Downing responded with a chuckle. "Yes. I wanted it that way, which is why it's titled One of a Kind, because I knew there was nothing on the market like it. Everybody is so afraid to cut themselves when they go into the studio. They say, 'We're going to cut something commercial, something that's out on the market. We're going to follow the trend of Tim McGraw or Travis Tritt.' But … I wanted people to know that I'm an individual. This is me. There's nobody out there like me who would take a chance to cut records like this."
Never a smoker or a drinker, Downing still sounds as good as he did when he cut his first country hits. "I think that the whole word that describes what I'm about is dedication. I've been dedicated to this music since the beginning and it has taken me all over the world. It really has been great to me."
Big Al Downing, Team, 1983.
Rockin' 'n' Rollin' with Big Al Downing, Schoolkids/Rollercoaster, 1996.
(With J. Ryan Beretti) Runaway Heart, J.O.R., 2002.
(With Wanda Jackson) Wanda Rocks, Bear Family, 2002.
Big Al Downing's Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, Orchard, 2003.
One of a Kind, Platinum Express/Hayden's Ferry, 2003.
McCloud, Barry, editor, Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers, Perigree, 1995.
Blue Suede News, Fall 2003, p.10.
Country Standard Time, September 2003.
"Big Al Downing," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 5, 2003).
"Discography: Downing, Big Al," Rockin' Country Style, http://rcs.law.emory.edu/rcs/artists/d/down2000.htm (November 5, 2003).
Additional information was obtained from So Much Moore Media & Marketing and from an interview with Big Al Downing on August 11, 2003, from which quotations used in this entry were drawn.
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