|Big Al Downing, The Poe Kats Connection
We regret to inform you that on July 4th, 2005 at approx. 6:45pm, country music legend and Rockabilly Hall of Famer, Big Al Downing, passed away from complications stemming from Leukemia. Please keep his family in your prayers. Big Al's music and warm personality shall surely live on forever!
Big Al Downing was born on January 9th, 1940, in Lenapah, Oklahoma, about 30 miles out in the country through muddy roads off the old Route 66. Al's family were sharecroppers. He had nine brothers and two sisters. One of his earliest recollections of music was when the family had a spiritual quartet. He started playing the piano at the age of 13. He found his first piano at a junkyard, only about 40 keys worked, but Al loved it. Al tuned in to WLAC Radio out of Nasville listening to black r&b - early Fats Domino, Joe Turner and them guys. Al recalls, "And so I used to sit up late at night and listen to em, then I tried to pick out the notes on the piano from the songs they played. When Fats Domino came on, his piano was kind of a thumpin style, y'know, it was kinda easy to pick up. I got to liking country music as well. My dad liked The Grand Ole Opry and on Saturday nights we wanted to listen to rock 'n' roll on WLAC, but dad said 'No way'."
From these musical roots Al progressed and was talked into going in tor a talent show run by Radio KGGF just across the state line in Cotteyville, Kansas. Not only did Al win the show but he immediately got into a band. Bobby Poe, who had a rockabilly band going at the time, heard the show and persuaded Al to join. The idea was to cover the whole spectrum of rock 'n' roll music - Bobby would do the 'white' Elvis and Jerry Lee numbers while Al would do the 'black' Fats Domino and Little Richard. Although such an arrangement may have made sense artistically, it was nevertheless quite a radical move in the days when segregation was still very strong. Al remembers all the humiliations of having to hide under a blanket to get into hotel rooms and of having to eat at the poorer end of the restaurant while the whites ate at the other. But he figured that it was worth sticking it out for the sake of the music.
At first the band was called The Rhythm Rockers and then later on they called themselves the Poe Kats abd they started sending demos to various record labels. Of all the record companies that they approached, including Sun in Memphis, it was White Rock in Dallas that showed the most interest. Significantly that was the first time the band submitted one of their own songs, none other than "Down On The Farm." Out of the first session at White Rock in January 1958 came "Down On The Farm" and "Oh Babe," which were credited to Al, and "Rock 'n' Roll Boogie" and "Rock 'n' Roll Record Girl" credited to Bobby Poe & The Poe Kats, although, of course, Al played on all the tracks. Rock 'n' Roll Girl typified the somewhat split personality of the band. In what is essentially a white teenage rock 'n' roll number sung by Bobby, Al throws in a chorus of Good Golly Miss Molly. Under the watchful eye of Lelan Rogers (Kenny's brother) things were going well at White Rock, not only that, the boys got themselves noticed by Jim Halsey who was booking Wanda Jackson at the time. As a result The Poe Kats went on the road for about a year with Wanda and backed her on sessions at Capitol's famous Hollywood Studios.
Meanwhile back at White Rock another session was set up. Although Challenge seemed to have lost interest, the equally prestigious Carlton label of New York, who had Jack Scott, stepped in to lease Big Al's "Miss Lucy" and "Just Around The Corner" for national distribution. From the same session "Piano Nellie," credited to Bobby Poe & The Poe Kats, was sold to the Atlantic subsidiary East West. In 1959 Carlton came back for more but this time they really pulled out the stops, setting up a session for Al at Cosimo Matissa's studio in New Orleans. Al turned it on Fats Domino style. Indeed, with backing from Alvin 'Red' Tyler, Mac Rebbenack (Dr. John) and Charles 'Hungry' Williams, all top New Orleans session men, he had all the encouragement he could have wished for in copying his idol. An even bigger thrill was to come for Al, when Fats recorded four of his songs.
The recording sessions continued for a variety of labels under a number of psuedonyms, all in the search for that elusive hit. In 1960 Al recorded in Washington with original Poe Kat, Vernon Sandusky. Al and Vernon remained in Washington and in 1962 put out The Saints and Heartbreak Hill on their own Kansoma label. By this time rock 'n' roll as we know it was having a hard time. A year after a recording session with Little Esther in Nashville, Big Al was to make his last and some would say one of his greatest rock 'n' roll records. "Georgia Slop," a Jimmy McCracklin number, was recorded in New York in 1964. From then on Al turned to soul music and came up with the occasional minor hit. In the late 1970s Al went back to his roots with country and western music. But Al has by no means given up on Rock 'n' Roll. Like Fats Domino, Al is a totally lovable guy who enjoys his music - even the sad songs come out happy.
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Story adapted from an interview by Chris Woodford, 1994