Big Al Downing never considered himself a pioneer, nor an oddity, although being arguably the most successful black country music performer after Charley Pride certainly distinguished him. But Downing, who died July 4 at age 65 from leukemia, felt he was doing what came naturally, performing the music he had heard and absorbed growing up in Oklahoma. Downing also loved Fats Domino, and his approach combined honky-tonk country, gutbucket soul and boogie-woogie piano.
Downing got his first major break as a rockabilly pianist backing Wanda Jackson. His pumping licks were heard on one of her biggest hits, “Let’s Have A Party”, in 1960. However, Downing also began developing his solo career in the ’50s and ’60s. A cover of the Marty Robbins tune “Story Of My Life” spotlighted his rich sound and authentic country leanings.
Still, throughout the ’60s and into the ’70s, Downing often performed songs in other styles. He scored a soul smash in a duet with Esther Phillips, “You’ll Never Miss The Water (Till The Well Runs Dry)”, and a mid-level disco chart hit with “I’ll Be Holdin’ On”.
Downing took a host of his own tunes to Warner Bros. in 1978 and eventually garnered the Top 20 country singles “Mr. Jones” and “Touch Me (I’ll Be Your Fool Once More)”. He concentrated on country for the rest of his career on records for the Team, Vine Street and Door Knob labels, plus the 2003 release One Of A Kind on Hayden’s Ferry. He excelled on confessional pieces and story-song numbers, letting his deep, robust voice alternately soar or dip, creating compelling moments in such singles as “I Ain’t No Fool”, “Bring It On Home”, “Let’s Sing About Love” and “Just One Night Won’t Do”.
“I’m too blessed to be blue” would often be Downing’s reply when asked about his struggles as an African-American in a genre that’s still mostly white in 2005. He made a triumphant final appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in May, and was particularly proud of being inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2000.
Big Al Downing’s impact went far beyond sales figures and chart positions. He was an inspiration to everyone who believes music truly has no color.