Vocalist/pianist Big Al Downing considers himself neither a trailblazer nor a pioneer. He understands that as an African-American artist whose music is predominantly country, and whose career stretches over parts of six decades, he is widely viewed as having zero commercial potential, as a relic doing music that’s too black for the white folks and too white for the black folks.
But none of that deters Downing, who much prefers talking about his fine new album One Of A Kind (due July 29) to dwelling on past slights or industry ignorance. Indeed, Downing’s unflagging optimism keeps him from ever becoming bitter, even when he recites stories and incidents that aren’t surprising to anyone who grew up in pre-Civil Rights America but still qualify as shameful and shocking.
“I remember once when we were in Butte, Montana, and I was playing with Wanda Jackson,” Downing says matter-of-factly. “There were no blacks anywhere in the town. They put a blanket over my head and we went into the hotel. Once we got to the show, people were hurling food and other things at me on the stage and we had to go back to the dressing room.”
He barely finishes that story before quickly adding that everyone in the band was extremely supportive of him during those days, and that he remains in contact with Jackson. “We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and I performed at her birthday party last year. Neither her, nor Bobby Poe, no one in the band ever treated me with anything but dignity, and they often risked their lives playing with me.”
Resilience has been a recurring theme in Downing’s life and career. Though he’s not an exceptional vocal stylist, his voice has a deep, resonant, highly expressive quality, equally suited to narrative exposition and soulful elaboration, whether sentimental or rollicking. His two-handed, pumping piano style is heavily influenced by Fats Domino (one of his idols) with plenty of Jerry Lee Lewis interspersed.
Over the years, Downing has placed 27 singles on various charts; today he maintains an active touring schedule, including annual appearances at festivals in the United States, Japan and Europe. His audience combines rockabilly fans who remember him from the 1950s, a smattering of soul cohorts who treasure his sides for Shelby Singleton and labels such as Lenox in the ’60s, and country buyers who appreciated tunes such as “Mr. Jones” and “Touch Me”.
What still surprises and disappoints Downing is that many people find it strange he’d ever want to sing country in the first place.
“Man, I grew up in Oklahoma [Lenapah],” he says, “and when we were working in the fields, the truckers would be loading up the rigs from Texas and all you’d hear were country songs on the radio. My Dad always listened to the Grand Ole Opry on this beat-up radio he had, along with gospel. We wanted to switch the station and catch some of that boogie that was coming out of Nashville on WLAC at night, especially John R. But my father wanted his country and if he caught you messing with that radio, he’d slam your hand real good.
“Well we found an old piano out in the junkyard one day. It was pretty messed up, and at first we were going to smash it for kindling. But I convinced my father to bring it in the house, and we put that old radio on top of it. In no time, I started banging on that thing, and whenever I heard Fats Domino, that’s what I’d try to imitate.”
Downing’s first vocal performances came as part of a family gospel group with his father, two brothers and sister. In 1958, he joined the Rhythm Rockers, an integrated band led by Bobby Brant. They soon changed their name to the Poe Kats and cut a regional hit, “Down On The Farm”, for Lelan Rogers’ White Rock label in Dallas. Downing’s booming voice and stomping piano were featured on tunes such as “Yes, I’m Loving You” and “Georgia Slop”, while his piano was front-and-center on Wanda Jackson’s seminal hit “Let’s Have A Party”.
During the ’60s, Downing had sporadic soul successes, including the duet “You’ll Never Miss Your Water” with Little Esther Phillips in 1963, but he truly wanted to sing country. He finally got his chance in the late ’70s, signing with Warner Bros. He was selected New Artist of the Year by Billboard in 1979, and subsequent songs such as “Mr. Jones” were critically acclaimed. Yet while he’s been an established attraction on the oldies circuit since the 1980s, Downing has never made substantial inroads in Nashville, something he hopes One Of A Kind will change.
The album stands as both a career retrospective and a seasoned pro’s attempt to tap current trends. The rousing “Boogie-Woogie Roll” hearkens back to the rockabilly era, while Downing shows his facility with foot-stomping honky-tonk on “A Cigarette, A Bottle And A Jukebox”. “Joe’s Truck Stop” recalls his youth in Oklahoma, while “Home Town America” blends patriotism and Americana without a hint of jingoism.
Of particular significance is “I’m Too Green To Be Blue”, which offers a poignant spin on cultural stereotyping and racial hatred sans any buzzwords or rhetoric. “That song’s gonna be the title of my autobiography,” Downing reveals. “There’s a whole lot more I could tell you, but I’m saving it all for that book.” He’s hoping to finish it before the end of the year, and to find a publisher in time for a 2004 release.
While One Of A Kind is a wonderful album, the story behind it speaks volumes about Downing’s problems in the country arena. One Of A Kind is coming out on Platinum Express Records, a Cayman Islands label, although it is being distributed in the United States by Hayden’s Ferry Records.
“Errol Watler put up the money for the session, and we released it first in the Cayman Islands in March. Nashville wasn’t interested,” says Downing. “I had some conversations with producers over four years, but never could get anyone to go ahead and get things started. I’ve done a lot of touring in the Cayman Islands and always gotten good response. The album’s already doing great over there. It’s not that I didn’t want a Nashville label to do it — they just weren’t interested.
“I’ve had many people tell me over the years, ‘Al, why, with all that soul, would you even waste your time singing country?’” Downing continues. “I’ve had other people in Nashville say to me that there’s nothing they can do with a black country singer. It’s amazing to me that over the years I could open for Marty Robbins in Texas and get rave reviews, I can do shows everywhere and the fans love it, but the people in Nashville don’t think there’s an audience for my music. I guess it’s strange to me because in Oklahoma, all my friends, no matter what color, they love country music.
“I know that there’s a feeling that urban blacks aren’t interested [in country], but there are so many black people who grew up in the country like me, grew up with the Opry, and love the music. Why don’t they at least give it a shot and see if they might reach some of them? I know that there’s people out here who enjoy my music and will support it.”
Downing brightens back up when he’s asked about his favorite artists. “Well, Fats Domino of course, and Nat King Cole. Jerry Lee Lewis was always one of my favorites, and a major idol is Tom T. Hall. The way he tells a story, he’s one of my all-time favorite writers and singers. He writes the kind of songs I’d like to write. Otis Redding is a big favorite as well. One of my all-time thrills was when Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland recorded ‘Touch Me’; that’s one of Tom T. Hall’s songs.
As for his own material, “I would like to have Tony Bennett or someone like that cut one of my songs, that would be a thrill,” he confides. “That would make me feel like I really belong in the pantheon. Billy Bob Thornton and I have been talking for a long time about doing something, and that’s a dream I hope comes true eventually.”
In the meantime, One Of A Kind serves due notice that Downing can still deliver as a recording artist in his own right. “The fans have always supported my music, and I think they’re going to really enjoy this record,” he says. “The audience has never been a problem for me in country; all that stuff I told you about happened in the rock ‘n’ roll era, and was done when this country was quite different.
“It seems like the country music audience is out ahead of the industry when it comes to people like me. All they care about is what you sing and how well you can sing it.”