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Big Al Downing proves he's still "One of a Kind"

By Ken Burke, September 2003

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Leased to the Challenge label, it only scaled the lower regions of the national Hot 100.

However, the record garnered gigs for the band on the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars and secured steady work backing Capitol rockabilly star Wanda Jackson. Downing had faced racial taunts before, but once he began touring with Jackson, the abuse was kicked 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," recalls Downing. "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.'"

"Several places, she had to tell 'em that. I think there were even a couple of places we even walked out of because they didn't want to do it, so we just packed up and left."

When 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 on Jackson's breakthrough hit, "Let's Have A Party" and several less successful 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.

Downing earned a small measure or 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.

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 in 1975. It was at 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," discloses Downing "Tony Bongiovi, who is Jon Bon Jovi's (second cousin), 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 Bongiovi stayed in the engineering room there with the mike open. So, I sat down at the piano and started doing songs 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, featuring Dee Dee Warwick and Cissy Houston singing back-up, made Downing one of the rarest of all performers, a black country star. Yet despite several Warner Brothers releases hitting the charts, none rose higher than number 18.

"There was a reason for that," says Downing earnestly. "That thing raised it's 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."

With his country career stalled, Downing 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. He foreshadowed his own return to recording by producing French rockabilly J. Ryan Beretti in 2002.

Co-produced by Bob Babbitt, who played the catchy bass line on the 1978 hit "Mr Jones," the new album 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-tinged "Goodbye My Love," and hard core blues of "Rock Me Baby."

Asked if he meant to be this eclectic, Downing chuckles.

"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. Ever hopeful, he feels the disc could receive radio airplay in this new era and plans to tour extensively behind it.

Other veteran artist's wouldn't allow their expectations to rise so high, but for Downing it all boils down to one word: dedication.

"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."

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