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

Ken Burke, September 2003


It's the one word Big Al Downing uses to sum up his career. One of only three relatively well-known black country singers, the Oklahoma-born piano pounder has persevered through 45 years as a professional entertainer.

Although not a household name, he enjoys an overseas rockabilly following, had a number 1 disco hit and scored with a neat string of late '70s/early '80s Top 40 country hits.

Now 63, Downing has released his first album of new material in over a decade, "One Of A Kind," on the Arizona-based Hayden's Ferry label. The self-penned album personifies the musical diversity first shaped in the Oklahoma hayfields.

"All my family, my brothers and everybody, we were all sharecroppers," explains Downing from his Leicester, Mass. home. "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."

"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 them 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 if it. We were very poor. But you know, we didn't really know it until we went somewhere like the store."

One of 15 children, 12 who survived into adulthood, 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 the hay. However, when he and his brothers stumbled upon a discarded piano, his commitment to music firmly took hold.

"We had a tractor trailer, not a flat bed, and one day we were coming home from loading that hay, and we went by the junkyard, and there was an old upright piano there," recalls 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 (disc jockey) John R. on WLAC out of Nashville because he would play Fats Domino and Louis Jordan and them people. So, we listened of 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 his 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 a 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.'"

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 '50s.

"Bobby Poe...was a white guy in town that had a band called the Rhythm Rockers," explains Downing. "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 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."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •