Big Al Downing proves he's still "One of a Kind" – September 2003
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Big Al Downing proves he's still "One of a Kind"  Print

By Ken Burke, September 2003


It's the one word Big Al Downing uses to sum up his career. One of only three relatively well-known black country singers, the Oklahoma-born piano pounder has persevered through 45 years as a professional entertainer.

Although not a household name, he enjoys an overseas rockabilly following, had a number 1 disco hit and scored with a neat string of late '70s/early '80s Top 40 country hits.

Now 63, Downing has released his first album of new material in over a decade, "One Of A Kind," on the Arizona-based Hayden's Ferry label. The self-penned album personifies the musical diversity first shaped in the Oklahoma hayfields.

"All my family, my brothers and everybody, we were all sharecroppers," explains Downing from his Leicester, Mass. home. "What we did was if somebody needed a field of hay brought in, we'd go out and mow it and stack it and put it in the 50-foot-high barns or whatever they needed. Also, we'd go up and get permission from the big farms to look for herbs on their property, down by the river or whatever, and we sold those to the market in Coffeyville, Kansas where they made medicine and things like that."

"Oh, I've been hungry many times. Not only hungry, but sometimes during the school year, we got laughed at because we had to go to school barefooted. Out of the five or six of them that was going to school, we only had one or two pairs of shoes. So we had to trade off. One day my brother would wear the shoes, the next day my sister would wear them to school. Then I'd go to school barefooted that one day. That's just the way we done if it. We were very poor. But you know, we didn't really know it until we went somewhere like the store."

One of 15 children, 12 who survived into adulthood, Downing's first musical experiences came via a gospel quartet his father and brothers started. Later, he learned to love the country music the truckers would listen to while the family loaded the hay. However, when he and his brothers stumbled upon a discarded piano, his commitment to music firmly took hold.

"We had a tractor trailer, not a flat bed, and one day we were coming home from loading that hay, and we went by the junkyard, and there was an old upright piano there," recalls Downing fondly. "So, we loaded it on the back of the old truck and took it down the road home. Once we got it there, we just started banging on it, and we found that about 50 or 60 of the keys still worked. Then, we decided to put the radio on top of the piano. Dad would come in and listen to the Grand Ole Opry and everything with the radio blaring on top. Then I started liking that (disc jockey) John R. on WLAC out of Nashville because he would play Fats Domino and Louis Jordan and them people. So, we listened of that and I started picking out Fats Domino music. He'd come on, and I'd start trying to find those notes on the piano, and that's how I learned to play."

Initially, Downing's parents wanted him to take his piano lessons.

"They paid this old black lady, about 80 years old, I guess she was then. I never will forget it. I was like a 13 or 14 years old. I walked in, and she had long, strong bony fingers, and I said, 'Whoa man, I'll bet she can whip a piano to death.'"

"She said very, very gruff, 'Play something for me.'"

"So, I sat down, and I played something for her."

"Then she said, 'Now get up, and get out of here."

"I said, 'I thought you were going to teach me.'"

"She said, 'Look, that's a gift that God gave you what you're doing, and I'm not going to touch it.'"

Encouraged, the young pianist played local dances and proms during his teen years. After his imitation of Fats Domino singing "Blueberry Hill" won him an amateur contest sponsored by radio station KGGF, Downing was asked to join a mostly white group hoping to cash in on the rock 'n' roll craze of the late '50s.

"Bobby Poe...was a white guy in town that had a band called the Rhythm Rockers," explains Downing. "After he heard me win that amateur hour thing, he drove out to my house the next day. He said, 'Look Al, here's what I want to do. I heard you last night on the radio, and I'd like for you to join a band I'm going to be putting together. You'll be doing Fats Domino and Nat King Cole and Ray Charles and all them people and all us boys will do the Everly Brothers and people like Jerry Lee Lewis, and we'll cover the whole spectrum of the music that way. Nobody has ever done that before.'"

"He said, 'I want to warn you that it won't be easy. Because some of the places we're going to be playing, a black person has never been in, or they've never seen a black person play music there. It's going to be kind of rough on you.'"

"I said, 'Ahh, let's do it, man. I can take it.'"

Re-christened Bobby Poe & The Poe Cats, the band earned "pass the hat money" at local VFW halls before manager/producer Lelan Rogers got them into a studio to record for the Texas-based White Rock label. Combining Downing's Little Richard imitation and Domino-inspired piano licks, with Vernon Sandusky's wild rockabilly guitar riffs, they fashioned the classic rocker "Down On The Farm."

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