Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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Will Downing: Still supreme

Wil Downing
Wil Downing Wil Downing

Having already enjoyed a remarkably consistent two-decade-plus career, New Yorkâs jazz-inclined baritone soul man Will Downing this month impressively celebrates the release of his fifteenth (!) LP with the interestingly-different concept album âLust, Love & Liesâ. 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 hometownâs 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 âWill Downingâ immediately, and unexpectedly, catapulting him into the UKâs mainstream consciousness, pioneered by its classic Top 20 uptempo single âA Love Supremeâ.

While his 1989 sophomore set âCome Together As Oneâ found Will largely continuing the uptempo soul/R&B vibe that had first provided him with British pop success, its critically-acclaimed follow-up - 1991âs âA Dream Fulfilledâ - 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 1993âs big-selling âLoveâs The Place To Beâ; 1997âs âInvitation Onlyâ; 2000âs Grammy-nominated âAll The Man You Need;â plus 2007âs âAfter Tonightâ, 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 âLust, Love & Liesâ. Which - subtitled âAn Audio Novelâ - finds him hooking up with co-producers Rex Rideout and Chris âBig Dogâ 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 Willâs new concept album âLust, Love & Liesâ - which he refers to as âan audio soap operaâ - first came about

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

The thinking behind the title (âLust, Love & Liesâ) itself

âMy 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 thatâs where the LUST aspect comes in. Then, if the two people concerned continue on the road theyâre on, thereâs a âlikeâ and a âLOVEâ 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 âLust, Love & Liesâ comes from!â

His thoughts on the actual story-line that the albumâs overall theme is based around

âWell, itâs not like Iâve reinvented the wheel! I mean, Iâd say anyone thatâs 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, Iâve certainly had an experience like that in MY lifetime, and Iâd assume a lot of other people have as WELL! So itâs hardly like some really far-fetched story! Itâs just something that people LIVE - and something that, right now as I speak. Iâm sure is going on in SOMEONEâs life SOMEWHERE!â

How âLust, Love & Liesâ musically represents Will returning to the more soulful R&B vibe he pursued at the start of his career, through albums like 1988âs âWill Downingâ and 1989âs âCome Together As Oneâ

âWell, itâs funny. Because, as youâve just said, musically over the last six or seven projects at least Iâve 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 âYou 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 DOâ⦠And so thatâs 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.â

His ideas on the albumâs entertaining inter-song dialogue, which has been described as âvignettes of intimate conversation that help the story alongââ¦

âWell, 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 âHey man, come on in and be a voice!â, or âCome on in and make some noise in the background!â, or âCome on in and be a lead character!â... 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, whoâs a radio personality in Philadelphia and also used to be married to (Seventies Philly-soul super-producer-cum-songwriter) Kenny Gamble!.. So itâs 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!â

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 âA Love Supremeâ

âMan, 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, Iâd never really BEEN anywhere before, travel-wise - Iâd 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 wasnât 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 âHey man, we want you to go overseas!â⦠And Iâm like âFor WHAT?.. âOh, they like your RECORD over thereââ¦. I mean, at that point I didnât 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 didnât 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!â

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

âI think it was just a natural progression. You know, musically I donât like to be put into a box at all, and Iâve never really repeated anything Iâve done before. I mean, when I put out âA Love Supremeâ ( in 1988), the record was so huge and did so well that back then the record company (Island) was like âOK, for the next record, give me 10 tracks just like that!â⦠But at the same time I was saying to myself âNah, thereâs more to me than songs like thatâ... So - while I did try to kinda emulate that a little bit on the second album with tracks like âCome Together As Oneâ - what Iâve 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 peopleâs minds off that album (1989âs âCome Together As Oneâ) was my version of âWishing On A Starâ! So from there it was like âOK, there ARE people out there who kinda like me singing these souly/jazzy type of balladsâ⦠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 Dianaâs favourite balladeer!)... And, you know, here we are TODAY!â

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

âWell, I mean itâs funny how life can change. You know, you think that youâre gonna stay young, healthy and strong, and that nothingâs 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 Iâd never, in my wildest dreams, ever envisaged HAPPENING to me! I mean, with my (2007-released) âAfter Tonightâ album - the first one I cut after the illness struck - Iâd 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 Iâm eternally grateful for, and is one reason why today Iâm a spokesperson for everything positive! Like, for example, the American Stroke Association - where I try to bring stroke awareness to anyone whoâll LISTEN! Because, you know, it is a killer.â

Willâs parallel âcareerâ as a budding photographer, which has already resulted in his self-published coffee-table book âUnveiled Series 1â

âAs far as the photography is concerned, I basically just think you should live life to the fullest - and taking pictures is something that Iâve always enjoyed doing! And, so when I felt Iâd got decent enough to release a book, I put out âUnveiled Series 1â, which actually features a lot of my contemporaries! I mean, youâll 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, Iâve 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, itâs a fun book! Itâs something Iâd always wanted to do, and eventually DID do! And who knows, there may even be a âPart 2â coming!... Though itâs definitely the promotion of this new album thatâs Priority One for me right now! You know, with it being so different Iâm definitely very excited and really anxious to see what the public at large is gonna say about it!â

Willâs album âLust, Love & Liesâ is out now through Peak Records

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