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Issue 1067

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Feature

Will Downing: Still supreme

Wil Downing @bluesandsoul.com
Wil Downing @bluesandsoul.com Wil Downing @bluesandsoul.com

Having already enjoyed a remarkably consistent two-decade-plus career, New York’s jazz-inclined baritone soul man Will Downing this month impressively celebrates the release of his fifteenth (!) LP with the interestingly-different concept album ‘Lust, Love & Lies’. Which - its 12 songs interspersed with spoken dialogue between the characters involved - entertainingly tells an intriguing tale of boy-meets-girl-and-then-also-runs-into-old-fame via a mixture of smoothly undulating R&B grooves and mellow, melodic ballads.

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1963, Downing first made his mark in the music industry in the mid-Eighties as one of his hometown’s most in-demand session vocalists. Nevertheless, after singing backgrounds on hit albums for stars-of-the-day like Billy Ocean, Jennifer Holiday and Kool & The Gang, it was in 1988 that he would launch his own solo career - with his debut album ‘Will Downing’ immediately, and unexpectedly, catapulting him into the UK’s mainstream consciousness, pioneered by its classic Top 20 uptempo single ‘A Love Supreme’.

While his 1989 sophomore set ‘Come Together As One’ found Will largely continuing the uptempo soul/R&B vibe that had first provided him with British pop success, its critically-acclaimed follow-up - 1991’s ‘A Dream Fulfilled’ - would however see him moving further into the field of contemporary-jazz-flavoured soul balladry. A style which would go on to garner him a remarkably-consistent American chart career, via a succession of hit albums including 1993’s big-selling ‘Love’s The Place To Be’; 1997’s ‘Invitation Only’; 2000’s Grammy-nominated ‘All The Man You Need;’ plus 2007’s ‘After Tonight’, which was admirably recorded while Downing was tragically suffering from a debilitating muscular disorder which for 18 months found him unable to walk.

… Fast-forward to autumn 2010, meanwhile, and a thankfully-now-recovered Will is on the line from his New Jersey home to long-time industry acquaintance Pete Lewis, eager to discuss his aforementioned, intriguingly-titled new LP ‘Lust, Love & Lies’. Which - subtitled ‘An Audio Novel’ - finds him hooking up with co-producers Rex Rideout and Chris ‘Big Dog’ Davis to deliver a 20-track set whose storyline depiction of the romance, passion, joy and heartbreak involved in a love affair are accompanied by a smoothed-out, sensual vibe that harks back to the more soulful R&B flavours of his early solo work.

How Will’s new concept album ‘Lust, Love & Lies’ - which he refers to as “an audio soap opera” - first came about

“Well, I’ve actually had the concept for this record for the last five or six years - I just didn’t know how to go ABOUT it at first. But then I finally just said to myself ‘Listen, at what point in your career are you gonna be able to DO something like this - I mean, when is the right TIME?!’... And so with this album I eventually decided to just put the work in and do something completely DIFFERENT! You know, when you’ve done as many projects as I have, after a while people start to say ‘Oh, it’s just another Will Downing record - it’s nothing special’... So at this stage I felt I really needed to kinda just stir up the pot a little bit and do something I’d never done BEFORE! I basically wanted to let people know that creatively I’m not dead yet, and that I still have something to say!”

The thinking behind the title (‘Lust, Love & Lies’) itself

“My take on the title is quite simple. When you first meet someone, there can be a physical attraction. You know, the man may see the woman as being very attractive, and vice versa. So that’s where the LUST aspect comes in. Then, if the two people concerned continue on the road they’re on, there’s a ‘like’ and a ‘LOVE’ aspect that can develop from it. But then in this particular story - or, if you like, in this audio novel - something goes very wrong in the relationship when a LIE gets told... So that right there is my simple explanation of where ‘Lust, Love & Lies’ comes from!”

His thoughts on the actual story-line that the album’s overall theme is based around

“Well, it’s not like I’ve reinvented the wheel! I mean, I’d say anyone that’s over the age of 25 has almost certainly lived this story - maybe not verbatum, but probably just in terms of its overall CONCEPT. In that they met someone they thought was the right person for them; they had similar interests; they started laughing a lot and going out together; they ended up falling in lust-slash-love... But then something along the way happened that made the relationship go a little askew... I mean, I’ve certainly had an experience like that in MY lifetime, and I’d assume a lot of other people have as WELL! So it’s hardly like some really far-fetched story! It’s just something that people LIVE - and something that, right now as I speak. I’m sure is going on in SOMEONE’s life SOMEWHERE!”

How ‘Lust, Love & Lies’ musically represents Will returning to the more soulful R&B vibe he pursued at the start of his career, through albums like 1988’s ‘Will Downing’ and 1989’s ‘Come Together As One’

“Well, it’s funny. Because, as you’ve just said, musically over the last six or seven projects at least I’ve been kinda known synonymously for doing like R&B-slash-contemporary-jazz, or something-with jazz-overtones, kinda records. And as a result people have labelled me as being that type of artist. So this time around I basically just said ‘You know, I can always swing it back the other way. I can add a little more hardness to it, and put a little more emphasis on the R&B aspect of what I DO’… And so that’s exactly what I did with this album! I basically just made it a little bit more radio-friendly and gave it a little more edge.”

His ideas on the album’s entertaining inter-song dialogue, which has been described as “vignettes of intimate conversation that help the story along”…

“Well, I actually think the dialogue plays a really important role in completing the story. I mean, I could have just sung 20 songs. But what happened was that, as the project went along, I began to find it increasingly difficult to just write songs that would specifically fit the concept of the record. Which is why I thought it would make more sense for me to have these little one-minute spoken vignettes on there, to pull everything into place. So I basically decided to just call all my friends and say ‘Hey man, come on in and be a voice!’, or ‘Come on in and make some noise in the background!’, or ‘Come on in and be a lead character!’... You know, the person who plays the female character Vanessa on there is actually my wife! Then the woman who actually plays the lead role - Dee - is a lady by the name of Dyana Williams, who’s a radio personality in Philadelphia and also used to be married to (Seventies Philly-soul super-producer-cum-songwriter) Kenny Gamble!.. So it’s like these people are all good friends of mine! And so the fact they were all able to help me by lending their voices to this project was GREAT!”

How Will now looks back on the time he spent in London in the late-Eighties, around the unexpected UK breakthrough success of his 1988 self-titled debut LP and its classic Top 20 single ‘A Love Supreme’

“Man, it was SO exciting! I wish I could find the words to explain how I FELT! Because, when I first started out, I never even THOUGHT about the rest of the world! I mean, I’d never really BEEN anywhere before, travel-wise - I’d always just stayed Stateside! So when I started working on my recordings, I was more concerned about whether or not I was gonna hear it on NEW YORK radio! I just wasn’t even THINKING about overseas - the UK and Europe were never in the plan! But then all of a sudden I get this telephone call saying ‘Hey man, we want you to go overseas!’… And I’m like ‘For WHAT?.. ‘Oh, they like your RECORD over there’…. I mean, at that point I didn’t even know people over there even listened to the same type of MUSIC as we did! But then I suddenly started finding myself over there in London CONSTANTLY - doing TV shows, radio, concerts… And my memories are extremely fond of the UK! In fact, I was actually gonna move there at one point and become a resident - except that my ex-wife didn’t wanna go!... So yeah, it was just an exciting, exciting time - and I made some great friends over there! Like Mica Paris, who even made me Godfather to her daughter, Monet!”

How, after succeeding in the UK with uptempo soul/R&B on his first two albums, Will gradually made the move into more jazz-tinged balladry - a style which has given him consistent US success from the early-Nineties on

“I think it was just a natural progression. You know, musically I don’t like to be put into a box at all, and I’ve never really repeated anything I’ve done before. I mean, when I put out ‘A Love Supreme’ ( in 1988), the record was so huge and did so well that back then the record company (Island) was like ‘OK, for the next record, give me 10 tracks just like that!’… But at the same time I was saying to myself ‘Nah, there’s more to me than songs like that’... So - while I did try to kinda emulate that a little bit on the second album with tracks like ‘Come Together As One’ - what I’ve always found is, when you try that hard, it never really WORKS! So even back then I was actually starting to mix it up musically. You know, alongside the uptempos I was also doing midtempos and ballads. And one of the songs that really stuck in people’s minds off that album (1989’s ‘Come Together As One’) was my version of ‘Wishing On A Star’! So from there it was like ‘OK, there ARE people out there who kinda like me singing these souly/jazzy type of ballads’… And so I just started going down that road; more folks fell in love with me singing that style of music (Will was reportedly Princess Diana’s favourite balladeer!)... And, you know, here we are TODAY!”

Being struck down with a muscular disorder in 2006 that left him unable to walk and confined to a wheelchair for 18 months

“Well, I mean it’s funny how life can change. You know, you think that you’re gonna stay young, healthy and strong, and that nothing’s gonna happen to you - and then something DOES! And back in late 2006/early 2007 I did contract something called polymyositis. Which is a muscular disease, and it basically took away my ability to work, and it took away my ability to function using my arms. So it basically put me in a wheelchair and a hospital bed for about a year-and-a-half! Something that I’d never, in my wildest dreams, ever envisaged HAPPENING to me! I mean, with my (2007-released) ‘After Tonight’ album - the first one I cut after the illness struck - I’d literally be recording lying on my back in a hospital bed singing a couple of lines here and there!.. So yeah, it did alter my life in a MAJOR WAY! But then thankfully God, in my opinion, did find it fit for me to stay here, and to be able to come back physically and do what I DO. Which is something I’m eternally grateful for, and is one reason why today I’m a spokesperson for everything positive! Like, for example, the American Stroke Association - where I try to bring stroke awareness to anyone who’ll LISTEN! Because, you know, it is a killer.”

Will’s parallel “career” as a budding photographer, which has already resulted in his self-published coffee-table book ‘Unveiled Series 1’

“As far as the photography is concerned, I basically just think you should live life to the fullest - and taking pictures is something that I’ve always enjoyed doing! And, so when I felt I’d got decent enough to release a book, I put out ‘Unveiled Series 1’, which actually features a lot of my contemporaries! I mean, you’ll open it up and see portraits of people like Jill Scott, or personal friends of mine like Gerald Albright, Jonathan Butler, Gerald Levert, Eddie Levert... You know, I’ve basically photographed my contemporaries either working or posing for portraits - I might have gone to their home, they may have come to mine... So yeah, it’s a fun book! It’s something I’d always wanted to do, and eventually DID do! And who knows, there may even be a ‘Part 2’ coming!... Though it’s definitely the promotion of this new album that’s Priority One for me right now! You know, with it being so different I’m definitely very excited and really anxious to see what the public at large is gonna say about it!”

Will’s album ‘Lust, Love & Lies’ is out now through Peak Records
Words PETE LEWIS

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz
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