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Big Al Downing was born into a family of 12 brothers and two sisters on January 9th, 1940. At the age of 10, he taught himself to play an old upright piano with 40 working keys that was given to his parents, Tollie and Flora Downing. Inspired by Big Al’s talent on the piano, his two sisters Mardella and Lilly (now deceased) learned to play Gospel piano and two of his brothers, Walter and Don, both became well known entertainers.
Big Al spent his early childhood tending to horses and cattle his family raised, and singing with two of his brothers, his father, and a sister in a Gospel group. He spent his early years listening to Country music and saw no reason why a black man couldn't achieve success as a Country musician. He told the Boston Herald in 1998, "I grew up in Oklahoma hauling hay, riding horses and doing all the things country folk do. So how can anyone say Country music is white?" By the age of 14, he was performing at community functions and high school proms. His greatest influence early on was Fats Domino, and it was his impression of his idol singing “Blueberry Hill” that won him first prize at the local Coffeyville, Kansas radio station. After the contest, Bobby Poe, a local singer who heard him play in the contest, asked him to join his band. Big Al forfeited a basketball scholarship to Kansas State University and accepted Poe’s offer. They played locally in Kansas and Oklahoma, in VFW halls and Country beer joints. At the age of 17 he became a professional entertainer with the Bobby Poe and the Poe Cats making $2-$5 a night. This was the beginning of his 52 year career.
Big Al’s big break came when Country entertainer Wanda Jackson needed a back-up singer to tour with her and contacted Poe’s band. While touring with Wanda, Big Al performed in all the West and Midwestern states opening for Marty Robbins, Bobby Bare, Red Sovine, Pete Drake and Don Gibson. In California he played piano on one of Wanda’s biggest recordings, “Let’s Have a Party”, released in 1960, with back-up provided by Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps. The single was an enormous hit in Japan and Europe, reaching No. 32 in the U.K. and the Top 40 on the U.S. Pop charts.
After finishing the road tour with Wanda, Big Al and others in the band left Oklahoma for Boston where they worked seven days a week, including two jam sessions on Saturday and Sunday, from 1:00 pm until 1:00 am, for $90.00 a week. "That’s what I really called payin’ dues," recalled Big Al. It was then that he began recording under the name Big Al Downing.
From 1957 to 1964, Big Al played with the band and, in addition, had recordings released as a solo artist for White Rock, Columbia and Carlton. His best effort was a cover of Marty Robbins´ “Story of My Life”. In subsequent years, Big Al embarked on tours of his own, travelling to England, Spain, Holland, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Italy, France, Luxembourg, Greece, Bermuda, Isle of Malta, Libya, North Africa, the Far East, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, and Thailand, where he played for the King. During these overseas tours he played with Johnny Mathis, Dottie West, Lou Rawls, the Drifters and Fats Domino, his early idol and his friend. Fats Domino even recorded two songs Big Al wrote, "Mary, Oh Mary" and "Heartbreak Hill".
In 1973 Big Al signed with Lenox Records and recorded the Top 80 Pop hit, “You’ll Never Miss The Water (Till The Well Runs Dry)”, a duet with Little Esther Phillips. Later he signed with Warner Brothers and in 1974 released the hit single, “I’ll Be Holdin’ On”, making the disco charts in America and Europe and reaching No. 1 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart in 1974.
Even though he achieved success with “I’ll Be Holdin’ On”, Big Al’s journey into disco was about to end. Up to that point in his career, R&B hits such as "Down on the Farm", "Miss Lucy" and another disco hit, "Medley of Soul" proved Big Al’s versatility and ability to succeed in different genres. His heart; however, remained in Country music so in the mid-70’s Big Al decided to permanently change his lifestyle and musical direction. He created a stockpile of songs he wrote himself and presented to Warner Brothers, who wasted no time and soon helped launch his country music career. Big Al recorded a number of country hits under different labels between 1978 and 1989. In 1978 his first country hit “Mr. Jones” reached the Top 20, and then the following year “Touch Me (I'll Be Your Fool Once More)”, also reached the Top 20.
These songs showcased his ability as a vocalist to soar and then drop to an emotional sill. That same year also produced “Midnight Lace”, charting in the 50’s, and the flip-side, “I Ain’t No Fool”, which reached the upper 70’s. “The Story Behind The Story” charted the following year, reaching the Top 40 and then “Bring It On Home” reached the Top 20. Two years elapsed before he saw another hit, this time on the Team label. “I’ll Be Loving You” went to the Top 50, followed by “Darlene”, which reached the lower 60s, both in 1982. The following year, “It Takes Love” went Top 40, followed by “Let’s Sing About Love”, which peaked in the mid-60s. The “Best Of Families” reached the Top 50 in 1984, and that year saw Al’s final Team hit, “There’ll Never Be A Better Night For Being Wrong” which made the Top 80. In 1987, Big Al signed with the Vine Street label which released “Oh How Beautiful You Are (To Me)” and “Just One Night Won’t Do”, both reaching the Top 70. Two years later he signed with Door Knob Records and had the 1989 Top 100 hit “I Guess By Now” which was Al’s only chart entree with that label. Artists Bobby "Blue" Bland and Tom Jones even recorded Big Al's songs. In all, his music style spanned the full spectrum of Disco, Pop, Rock 'n' Roll, R&B, Blues, Roots, Gospel and Country. He performed Rhythm and Blues and Disco in the 1960s and 1970s while living in the Washington DC area, but he eventually reclaimed his musical roots by turning to Country.
Big Al had one of the most chequered careers in show business, with stardom always slightly out of reach. However, he is one of a few black performers to foray across the musical spectrum of Disco, Pop, Rhythm and Blues, Rock 'n' Roll, Gospel and Country. He became one of the country's most prominent African American country artists, along with Charley Pride and Stoney Edwards. He had 15 songs that made Billboard's Top 100 country music chart, including three that reached the Top 20, and he appeared on hundreds of records. Big Al's impact on the country genre is far-reaching as his music, a soul-based "True" country sound, won this veteran songwriter, musician and performer fans around the globe. He appeared several times on Hee Haw and was a favorite on Nashville Now. From Germany to England, from Canada to Switzerland and The Whole USA, millions knew and loved to watch the "Big Al Downing Show". As far away as the Virgin Islands and Australia the "Big Al Downing Show" was the act to see
He loved his fans and always gave his very best which was better than most. He never forgot his roots in Oklahoma and made it a point to go "back home" to perform in his home state. Not only was he an example to many, providing encouragement for many entertainers, he did it with all of his heart and soul.
Big Al built a five-decade career around his powerful singing voice and his hard-driving Rockabilly-style piano. With his brothers, Don and Walter and his sisters, Lilly, Big Al recorded a Gospel CD in which he wrote and sang songs such as "Jesus, It's Only Me, Johnny" and "Heaven is the Place to Be". Big Al's early work has been re-released around the world. In Europe, Crazy Music obtained exclusive rights for his original Team recordings and released these in the form of a 2-CD box "Classic Collection", containing his earlier hits including “Mr. Jones”. In 2003, Big Al released the album "One of A Kind” featuring 14 memorable tracks, which has received favorable radio and print reviews worldwide (3rd rank on American Roots Country). He performed frequently at the Grand Ole Opry and has been inducted into several music hall-of-fames, most notable the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. A beloved entertainer, Big Al would perform over 75 key dates per year, and appeared at Ontario's prestigious Havelock Country Jamboree with Kenny Rogers and Roy Clark.
A true legend, Big Al was also an avid woodworker, gardener and fisherman. He passed away on July 4th, 2005 at the age of 65 from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. He leaves two children (Jason and Debbie) from his first marriage with Mabel Downing, his wife of 27 years Beverly A. Downing, four step-sons (Michael, Peter, Steven, and Jeffrey), five brothers (Donald, Clay, Marvin, Sylvester, and James), five grandchildren (Kara, David, Jacky, Lindsey, and Alyssa). He is pre-deceased by six brothers and two sisters. His lengthy career was a testament to his many talents.
Al believed in the Lord, Jesus Christ, as his personal Lord and Savoir. Most assuredly society and the music world have lost a great legend but heaven has gained a true friend.
We love you Big Al. You will forever be that 'special person' deep within our hearts.