Lonesome Onry and Mean: The Rockabilly Country Soul of Big Al Downing
Maybe the most successful African-American country artist of the post-Charley Pride period was Big Al Downing. Talk about a guy who could blur the line between country and soul. An affable Oklahoman, Downing had a huge baritone voice that could melt hearts. Downing's career began in rockabilly. After winning a talent show in Coffeyville, Kansas, with a cover of Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill," Downing joined Ronny Poe's band. Rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson saw him and asked him to play piano and sing in her touring band in 1957, and he plays on one of Jackson's biggest hits, "Let's Have a Party." His exposure through the Jackson gig landed him his own recording deal with the White Rock label.
Always moving with the times, Downing moved from rockabilly to soul and found himself in the Billboard charts for the first time with his duet with Little Esther Phillips, "You'll Never Miss The Water (Till The Well Runs Dry)." Downing moved into the soul field and had several songs in the charts and, always adapting and changing with the times, even for a time moved into disco before coming to what he felt was his true calling in country music. Signed to Warner Brothers in 1978, Downing hit the Billboard country charts 15 times in ten years. He is probably most remembered for "Mr. Jones," "Touch Me (I'll Be Your Fool Once More)" and "Bring It On Home." His "Touch Me" is reminiscent of one of the South's most emotive singers, Brook Benton. Downing was Billboard's New Artist of the Year in 1979, as well as receiving their award for Single of the Year. He was nominated as New Artist of the Year by the Academy of Country Music.
Downing was a very hot commodity in the early '80s, as he continued to chart regularly. Fats Domino recorded two of his compositions, and Bobby "Blue" Bland and Tom Jones both cut Downing songs. Downing's final recording was 2003's One of A Kind . He died of leukemia on July 4, 2005.
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