BIG AL DOWNING
Born Alexander Downing, 9 January 1940, Lenapah, Oklahoma
Singer / pianist / songwriter / producer.
Al Downing certainly deserved the name big. He had a big body, a big voice, a big stage presence, a big smile and a big heart. No really big hits, but his records sold enough copies to keep him in the music business for almost half a century. He was one of the few African-Americans to enjoy success in the white-dominated realms of rockabilly and country.
Downing was born into a large sharecropping family of ten brothers and two sisters. He grew up listening to the powerful WLAC station out of Nashville where he heard R&B acts like Fats Domino (who would become his idol and biggest influence) and Joe Turner. Al developed a liking for 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'. So we'd have to listen to an hour or two of the Grand Ole Opry. Pretty soon I got to liking it." Gospel was another early influence ; with his father, two brothers and a sister he would often sing gospel songs.
Downing's first piano, missing several keys, was found on a junk pile when he was about thirteen. That's when he started learning the instrument. A trip to Coffeyville, Kansas, in late 1956 to appear on a talent contest on KGGF-AM led to his professional career. Al played "Blueberry Hill" (Fats Domino's then current hit) and won the contest. Bobby Poe (aka Bobby Brant) heard him on the radio and asked him to join his band, the Rhythm Rockers, soon to be renamed the Poe Kats. Downing accepted, turning down a baseball scholarship offer from Kansas State University. At the live shows of the biracial Poe Kats, Al sang the 'black' Fats Domino and Little Richard numbers, while Poe took care of the 'white' Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis songs.
The band then started sending out demos to record labels across the nation. The only label to show an interest was White Rock in Dallas. A four-track session was cut there in January 1958, with Downing and Poe taking the vocals on two tracks each. Al's songs were "Down On the Farm" and "Oh! Babe", first released on White Rock 1111 in March and then (for national distribution) on Challenge 59006 in April. "Down On the Farm", now justly considered a classic, has everything that makes rock 'n' roll great : a high-energy vocal, crazy lyrics and two wild instrumental solos (piano and guitar). You hardly notice that the record lasts only 91 seconds, so much is happening in that short time. "Oh! Babe" was another powerhouse rocker. Nevertheless, sales must have been few, for Challenge showed no interest in leasing subsequent White Rock singles. "Miss Lucy"/"Just Around the Corner" (White Rock 1113) was picked up by Carlton Records in New York, who next sent him to New Orleans for a session at Cosimo's Studio in early 1959, with Red Tyler, Mac Rebennack and Charles 'Hungry' Williams. This resulted in the Fats Domino-styled single "It Must Be Love"/"When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again", which even saw a Dutch release (London FL 1899).
But let's go back to 1958. After "Down On the Farm", the Poe Kats were noticed by Jim Halsey, who was booking Wanda Jackson at the time. Halsey and Jackson were looking for a band that could play both country and rock n roll to back Wanda at gigs and the Poe Kats went on the road with her for about a year. They also backed her in the studio, during four days of sessions in April 1958, which produced Wanda's most famous rockers, like "Let's Have A Party", "Mean Mean Man" and "Long Tall Sally". Life on the road was hard in those days and by mid-1959 Bobby Poe and drummer Joe Brawley had had enough. But Downing and guitarist Vernon Sandusky carried on, relocating to Scranton, PA. In 1960-61, Al had three releases on the V-Tone label, of which the first one, "Yes I'm Loving You" (with a blistering guitar solo by Sandusky) was the best by far. Towards the end of 1961, Al and Vernon formed their own Kansoma label, on which Downing had two singles released in 1962. "Heartbreak Hill" would later be covered by Fats Domino (who recorded a total of four Downing compositions during his tenure at ABC-Paramount) and a remake of the 1957 Marty Robbins hit "The Story Of My Life" was picked up by Chess. A 1963 duet with Esther Phillips, "You Never Miss Your Water" (Lenox 5565) gave Al his first chart entry (# 73 pop). His last great rock n roll record was "Georgia Slop", a Jimmy McCracklin number, recorded in New York City on September 21, 1964. Not surprisingly, it didn't stand a chance against the British Invasion of those days.
After this session, Downing would not record for five years, though he kept on performing, moving to soul. He returned to the charts in 1975, with a disco-styled number, "I'll Be Holding On" (Chess 2158, # 31 R&B, # 85 pop). A 1978 move to Warner Bros brought him back to his country roots. His first two singles for the label, "Mr. Jones" (# 20) and "Touch Me" (# 18) were his biggest country hits, leading to a string of 15 country chart records over the next decade and many performances on the Gran Ole Opry. He was even named Billboard's # 1 New Male Country Singles Artist in 1979. Though Al was now the second most successful black country artist (after Charley Pride), he never turned his back on rock 'n' roll. Beginning in the mid-1980s, he was a regular visitor to R&R weekenders all over Europe. In 1994 he released the CD "Back To My Roots", a return to the sound of his early recordings, with "Be Bop Cat" as the standout track. His final collection of new material, "One Of A Kind", came out in 2003. After battling leukemia, Downing died on July 4, 2005, aged 65.
Acknowledgements : Chris Woodford (liner notes for the Eagle CD, obituary in Now Dig This 269), Jason Ankeny (All Music Guide), Shaun Mather.
More info : http://www.rockabillyhall.com/bigal.html
CD recommendations :
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