Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1084

Welcome to B&S

BRINGING YOU THE STORIES BEHIND MUSIC + ESSENTIAL NEWS, REVIEWS AND INTERVIEWS...

Feature

WILL DOWNING: WILL POWER

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

Iâm 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, âA Dream Fulfilled.â

There has barely been a time when Mr. Downing has been in Los Angeles when we havenât 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 Lutherâs 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 heâs 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 âAfter Tonight,â his first Peak Records album, Will explained, âI 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 didnât 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 didnât 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 itsâ symptoms is to bells palsy. It takes away all your muscle functions and you canât do anythingâ¦â

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 âtough, very humbling. Of course, I went through a whole âwhy me?â stage but you gotta wake up everyday and you gotta fight back. I would say, âMaybe Iâll do something today that I couldnât tomorrow,â and I finally came out of the hospitalâ¦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 didnât do that much listening but I did a lot of reading. I read The Bible more than anythingâ¦â

Prior to his first hospital stay, Will had begun work on his new album by recording four songs, there original tunes, (âAfter Tonightâ), âFantasy (Spending Time With You), âAll I Need Is Youâ and a cover of âNo One Can Love You More,â the Skip Scarborough song first recorded by the late Phyllis Hyman (with whom Will toured during the â90s) on her debut Buddah album 1977. âIâm a real music lover and this is one of my all time favorite songsâ¦and a friend of mine suggested I record it. âFantasyâ has what I call that âMarvin [Gaye]â flavor lyrically and âAfter Tonightâ is a nice, radio-friendly jam with that âIâm the best one for youâ line that every guy has! âAll I Need Is Youâ (which features saxman Kirk Whalum) was written by one of my band members, Michael Logan and myself.â

Unbelievably, much of the âAfter Tonightâ album was recorded during Willâs time in hospital, with longtime producer Rex Rideout setting up a studio there so that Will could work: âI literally did some of my vocals from the hospital bed. I recorded the Bill Withersâ song âYou Just Canât Smile It Awayâ â which is a deep song that Iâve loved for years â lying flat on my back from 2am 7am in the morning. I think that was the hardest thing I ever did in my life.â 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 âblack chairâ) with tracks that producer Rideout had cut in Los Angeles and using the modern technology to âflyâ them into Willâs computer.

Other key cuts on âAfter Tonightâ include âSatisfy You,â based on a song which singer/producer Danny Madden âhad written about twenty years ago,â Will recalls; while âWillâs Grooveâ had its genesis in the method that Will and Rex used to write together: âWeâll 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.â Another Downing-Rideout collaboration, âLoverâs Melodyâ was the last song Will recorded for the project: âI was physically worn out by the time we got to that song,â Will says. âJust as we got to the last note on that song, my voice started to goâ¦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, âif this ainât God working, I donât know what is.â

Expressing that sentiment is the song âGod Is So Amazing,â written by Will with his wife Audrey Wheeler and Noel Goring (the musical director at Willâs church): âI wanted to do a gospel song, particularly because my mother has been on me for years to record oneâ¦and she now wants me to do a whole gospel album! Well, you never know!â Making this album under such challenging circumstances was indeed amazing and says Will, âIt demonstrated the trust everyone had and how all the pieces fit togetherâ¦and Iâm ecstatic over what weâve done...â

Noticeable on âAfter Tonightâ: Willâs voice seems a little higher than usual. He chuckles in response, âWell, 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 Peaboâs âReaching For The Skyâ and I wasnât hitting the notes!â

As it is, Willâs 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 âfull of good grooves,â he notes, âThe musical climate is very strange these days. What with bootlegging and downloading, itâs hard to get a sale out here and this is still a ânumbersâ business. Iâm 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 todayâs marketplace.â

Will has nothing but praise for his new record label, Peak Records â known more as a jazz-oriented imprint: âThey have been excellent. Theyâre 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.â 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 âaround Valentineâs Day, 2008.â Meanwhile, in the spirit of entrepreneurship (which has included the publication of his first book of photography, 2005âs âUnveiled Series I, Photography of Will Downing and Fine Art by New and Emerging African American Artistsâ), 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. âIâve been promoting these kind of shows for the last three years. Hey, man, in this business youâve got to diversify!â

Acknowledging that itâs âall about pacing,â Will says heâs âready to get back to work! And until then, all I can say to all my folks is âgo get the record!ââ Not just because itâs an amazing demonstration of his personal fortitude and faith but because Will Downing, one of soul musicâs enduring artists, has - once again - delivered a record that is musically sound and emotionally satisfying, âAfter Tonightâ indeed deserves the support of everyone who appreciates solid good music. Like the man said, go get it!
Words David Nathan (First Published on soulmusic.com)

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

Join the B&S Mailing List

Blues and Soul on Twitter