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Big Al Downing had one of the most checkered careers in show business,
with stardom always slightly out of reach, but he is one of the few black
performers to foray across the musical spectrum of Disco, Pop, R & B, Gospel
Page updated, March 2007
Born in rural Oklahoma into a family of 12 children, Big Al spent his early
childhood tending the horses and cattle his family raised, and singing with
two brothers, his father, and a sister in a Gospel group. By the time he was
10, he was teaching himself to play on an old, upright piano that had 40
working keys. Four years later, he was performing at community functions and
high school proms. His great influence at this time was Fats Domino, and it
was his impression of his doing 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.
Downing forfeited a basketball scholarship at Kansas State University and
accepted Poe's offer. They played locally in Kansas, Oklahoma, in VFW halls
and Country beer joints.
Big Al's 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 Jackson's biggest recordings Let's Have A Party,
released in 1960.
The single was an enormous hit in Japan and Europe, reaching No. 32 in the
U.K. and Top 40 on the U.S. Pop chart. After coming off the road, Big Al and
others in the band left Oklahoma for Boston where they worked seven days a
week and that included 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 Downing in an earlier interview.
From 1957 to 1964, Downing played with the band and had recordings released
as a solo artist for White Rock, in 1958 and later 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, traveling to England, Spain,
Holland, Germany, Sweden, Isle of Malta, Libya, North Africa, Italy, France,
Luxembourg, Greece, the Far East, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, 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 Fat's Domino, his early idol. Domino even recorded two songs
Downing wrote, Mary, Oh Mary and Heartbreak Hill.
1973 brought a recording contract with Lenox Records, and 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. In 1974, Al
released a single, I'll Be Holdin' On, that made the Disco charts in America
and Europe. Disco and Big Al Downing, however, were not meant to be. He had
compiled a stockpile of his own songs that he presented to his producer at
Warner Brothers and Country was the consensus vote of what he did best. 1978
brought Mr. Jones, which charted in the Top 20, then Touch Me (I'll Be Your
Fool More), the following year which went Top 20. The song showcased his
ability as a vocalist to soar, and then drop to an emotional sill. The 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 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 only 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 that only reached the Top
70. Two years later he was 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
In 2003, Downing released his first new album (many different compilations
of earlier work has been released around the world over the last couple of
decades), titled "One of A Kind." This album has received favorable radio
and print reviews worldwide, and features 14 memorable tracks. Today,
Downing resides in Massachusetts and continues to tour the globe; performing
for a die-hard following of Big Al fans... you may even see him at one of
his regular performances at the Grand Ole Opry! He has been elected to
several music hall-of-fames, most notably the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
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