Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Will Downing Pic 1
Will Downing Pic 1 Will Downing iv Will Downing Pic 2 Will Downing Pic 3

I’m sure my longtime pal Will Downing will be cool with the title I gave this article. He and I have known each other for a good seventeen years from the time I was fortunate to be assigned to write the bio for his 1990 career breakthrough album, “A Dream Fulfilled.”

There has barely been a time when Mr. Downing has been in Los Angeles when we haven’t gotten together for breakfast and I still recall with much joy, the time we were driving down La Cienega Boulevard and I put him on the phone with one of his musical heroes, the late Luther Vandross. It was a moment of real happiness for Will since he had long admired and been inspired by Luther’s music. Bottom line, Will and I have had many a great conversation on all manner of subjects, sharing about our favorite soul music tunes, laughing about some of the artists he’s worked with and their antics!

It was with a sense of real shock that I learned of his recent health challenges. In fact, it was an e-mail from a recording artist that prompted me to ask questions. Unbeknownst to me, since the end of 2006, Will had been dealing for months with a debilitating viral condition known as polymyositis which results in loss of muscular control. In a recent interview celebrating the release of “After Tonight,” his first Peak Records album, Will explained, “I was doing my usual Christmas shows at the end of 2006, I got on the plane and noticed I was having a hard time trying to put computer in the overhead bin. I started walking slower and slower and I thought of everything under the sun other than the possibility of being sick. Then, I was taking my wife and daughter to the movies and I didn’t have the strength to turn the steering wheel. My wife rushed me to the hospital and I stayed there for about three months. To begin with, the doctors didn’t know what it was. Then, it was diagnosed as polymyositis, a viral disease that affects about 50,000 people... and no one knows what kicks it off. The closest I can compare its’ symptoms is to bells palsy. It takes away all your muscle functions and you can’t do anything…”

Needless to say, for a man like Will who has always been active and who always puts a good deal of energy and love into his onstage performances, the experience was “tough, very humbling. Of course, I went through a whole ‘why me?’ stage but you gotta wake up everyday and you gotta fight back. I would say, ‘Maybe I’ll do something today that I couldn’t tomorrow,’ and I finally came out of the hospital…I was out for about a month and then I got pneumonia so I was back in there. I really thought I was outta here: I got down to about 115lbs. During the time I was in hospital, I didn’t do that much listening but I did a lot of reading. I read The Bible more than anything…”

Prior to his first hospital stay, Will had begun work on his new album by recording four songs, there original tunes, (“After Tonight”), “Fantasy (Spending Time With You), “All I Need Is You” and a cover of “No One Can Love You More,” the Skip Scarborough song first recorded by the late Phyllis Hyman (with whom Will toured during the ‘90s) on her debut Buddah album 1977. “I’m a real music lover and this is one of my all time favorite songs…and a friend of mine suggested I record it. “Fantasy” has what I call that ‘Marvin [Gaye]’ flavor lyrically and “After Tonight” is a nice, radio-friendly jam with that ‘I’m the best one for you’ line that every guy has! “All I Need Is You” (which features saxman Kirk Whalum) was written by one of my band members, Michael Logan and myself.”

Unbelievably, much of the “After Tonight” album was recorded during Will’s time in hospital, with longtime producer Rex Rideout setting up a studio there so that Will could work: “I literally did some of my vocals from the hospital bed. I recorded the Bill Withers’ song “You Just Can’t Smile It Away” – which is a deep song that I’ve loved for years – lying flat on my back from 2am 7am in the morning. I think that was the hardest thing I ever did in my life.” To keep himself active, Will says he worked every day, writing and recording, resuming recording for the album in his home studio in July and August from a wheelchair (which he refers to as his ‘black chair’) with tracks that producer Rideout had cut in Los Angeles and using the modern technology to ‘fly’ them into Will’s computer.

Other key cuts on “After Tonight” include “Satisfy You,” based on a song which singer/producer Danny Madden “had written about twenty years ago,” Will recalls; while “Will’s Groove” had its genesis in the method that Will and Rex used to write together: “We’ll start out with him humming to me or vice-versa. Rex had this idea, he put it on tape and sent it to me and I thought it would make a good intro song for the album.” Another Downing-Rideout collaboration, “Lover’s Melody” was the last song Will recorded for the project: “I was physically worn out by the time we got to that song,” Will says. “Just as we got to the last note on that song, my voice started to go…we put Roy Ayers on there as a way of taking the pressure off me. Overall, the record is a testament, my willingess and faith to make it happen and [many times] I had to say, ‘if this ain’t God working, I don’t know what is.”

Expressing that sentiment is the song “God Is So Amazing,” written by Will with his wife Audrey Wheeler and Noel Goring (the musical director at Will’s church): “I wanted to do a gospel song, particularly because my mother has been on me for years to record one…and she now wants me to do a whole gospel album! Well, you never know!” Making this album under such challenging circumstances was indeed amazing and says Will, “It demonstrated the trust everyone had and how all the pieces fit together…and I’m ecstatic over what we’ve done...”

Noticeable on “After Tonight”: Will’s voice seems a little higher than usual. He chuckles in response, “Well, I always wanted that! When I was in high school, I used to be a real tenor, singing along with Peobo Bryson and Donny Hathaway. I remember one year, I realized my voice had changed. I was singing along with Peabo’s “Reaching For The Sky” and I wasn’t hitting the notes!”

As it is, Will’s soothing baritone has been a staple on quiet storm and urban radio in the U.S. for well over a decade and although he describes his new record as “full of good grooves,” he notes, “The musical climate is very strange these days. What with bootlegging and downloading, it’s hard to get a sale out here and this is still a ‘numbers’ business. I’m interested in seeing if people will really support the record and if real music can still stand up. Certainly, the older you are, the tougher it gets in today’s marketplace.”

Will has nothing but praise for his new record label, Peak Records – known more as a jazz-oriented imprint: “They have been excellent. They’re very enthusiastic about getting into the R&B world and with this record, I tried to give them an opportunity to
be competitive and they are making a concerted effort with it.” In the past, Will would hit the record just prior to the release of a new album and continue touring for some time after; still working on gaining back his strength every day, he predicts that he will be back onstage “around Valentine’s Day, 2008.” Meanwhile, in the spirit of entrepreneurship (which has included the publication of his first book of photography, 2005’s “Unveiled Series I, Photography of Will Downing and Fine Art by New and Emerging African American Artists”), Will also promoted a series of Christmas shows which started at the end of November with a package of Freddie Jackson, Ledisi, Najee and Norman Brown. “I’ve been promoting these kind of shows for the last three years. Hey, man, in this business you’ve got to diversify!”

Acknowledging that it’s “all about pacing,” Will says he’s “ready to get back to work! And until then, all I can say to all my folks is ‘go get the record!’” Not just because it’s an amazing demonstration of his personal fortitude and faith but because Will Downing, one of soul music’s enduring artists, has - once again - delivered a record that is musically sound and emotionally satisfying, “After Tonight” indeed deserves the support of everyone who appreciates solid good music. Like the man said, go get it!
Words David Nathan (First Published on

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