THE PROBLEM with long and winding roads is that they seem to take forever to traverse. Ask Big Al Downing, Who has given 28 years (including 15 in the Washington area), 40 singles, one marriage and a million dusty miles' driving to the point he finally reached last week -- the release of his first album.
Big Al, 42, has on several occasions reached the fringes of success: He had a respectable disco hit in 1975; there were four Top 20 country singles, for which he was named Billboard's "Number One New Male Country Singles Artists" in 1979. He's toured extensively in Europe, Africa, the Far East; wrote two hits for Fats Domino, too.
But Big Al Downing has had to wait, fenced in by styles that made sense at the time but only broached the music he'd first come to love as a child in Oklahoma. Country music never left Big Al, but it wasn't until 1976 that he was able to drop the dressing and celebrate the mournful aches of country music. It might be because Big Al Downing is black and--with the exception of Charley Pride and Stoney Edwards -- black has been almost invisible in country music.
CENTRALIA, Okla., has always been country country, even in the '40s, even for Al, the burliest of 12 Downing children, whose first public singing came at age 10 in a spiritual group with his father, two brothers and a sister. "I was country-oriented even then," Downing says, "but at that time a black person couldn't sing country music, it just wasn't the thing to do."
Black people listened, of course -- it was the most available music on the radio -- "but they didn't look up to country music as much as they did the blues and rock 'n' roll, because it's not something they could do their own kind of dance to," Downing says. "When you go down in the Southwest and Oklahoma where I was born, you find a lot of rodeo cowboys that's black, black farmers, black people that're into country living and country doings. Those people have always listened to country music. But when you're in the city, there's a whole different breed of people. The majority of black country folk love country music, but it was always hard to get 'em to come to shows; I'm still trying to figure that one out."
Downing, who performs at the Horseshoe Restaurant in Fairfax tonight, didn't have any trouble figuring out the discarded upright piano his father brought home one day, though it only had 40 keys that worked. He taught himself to play by listening to and mimicking the live broadcasts from Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, and from Fats Domino records. As a teen-ager, he entered a radio station talent contest in Coffeyville, Kan., 40 miles away; did "Blueberry Hill" and walked off with first prize. One of those who heard him was a young white musician named Bobby Poe, who had a mildly successful local rockabilly band.
"The next day he drove out to see me, took those dirt roads right up to our doorstep," Downing recalls. "We talked about the pros and cons of me being black and all of that and he said, 'Your talent's going to overshadow that because there's nobody around here that's doing Fats Domino or Ray Charles, they're all doing rockabilly.' "
So they joined musical forces, and Downing took off down a side road that led him away from college (he gave up a basketball scholarship to Kansas State) and into the smoke-filled arenas of social halls and honky-tonks. Downing, all 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds of him, would have been easy to spot even if he hadn't been black. In the lily-white honky-tonks, the sideman stood out like a smudged thumb.
He recollects that sigh-by-night era of his career mainly as a series of disappointments mixed with occasional fear.
"We sometimes had to go into the hotels with a blanket over my head, that kind of thing, but once I got on stage, it wasn't all that bad. There'd be one or two comments but nothing you'd want to get upset about. I never did let that bother me because I figured anybody was entitled to their opinion and if they didn't like me or called me nigger or whatever, I'd just say 'Hey, I'm up here doing my job.' Other people got mad at me because I didn't let it bother me; I let it pass over and kept on playing."
Downing generally felt accepted by country fans, "but the people that put the money behind it, they're the ones that were scared to take a chance. Since I've been doing strictly country -- we call it 'country-soul' -- I've not had any negative remarks or comments or anything on any of our work."
In Boston, the band, which had just finished a lengthy stint backing country-turned-rock singer Wanda Jackson ("Fujiyama Mama," "Honey Bop" and "Let's Have a Party," the last with Downing on piano), played in the notorious Combat Zone. "Here we were, country bumpkins from Oklahoma, and as the other band is leaving, their leader walks up to the owner, says he wants to get paid. The guy says 'Okay, hold out your hand,' takes a baseball bat and hits him right across the knuckles, BAM. 'You been paid, now get out of here before you get hurt." There we are watching all this; we felt like packing our bags and going home, that this was not for us. The owner was in the underworld; luckily he liked us. When I started doing Fats' songs, he put out a sign, 'Imitation of Fats Domino,' with my name in real small print and FATS DOMINO in real big print. We were scared to death."
In other venues, the threat was economic rather than physical. Because Oklahoma was a dry state at the time, "we could only work two days a week, Friday and Saturday . . . You could only bring your own bottle in a bag. There was a bucket where they dropped tips in for the band; if people liked you, you got money; if they didn't, you'd go home broke."
In 1960, Al Downing and his band were hired -- for two years -- to play at Rand's on Washington's 14th Street. The band at the time was called the Chartbusters and in 1964 they recorded a Top 20 pop record, "She's the One." "They came to me and said they were going on the road to try and build an image as teen-age idols and they didn't feel I would be 'right' to travel on the road. I felt a little bad because for the past three or four years I'd been carrying them. We parted ways and I formed another band; they never had another hit, but I did all right." By this time, Downing's old partner Poe, who had been managing the band for a while, dropped out entirely and started a tip sheet known as the Pop Music Survey; it's still published weekly out of Washington.
Although country music was his love, rock and soul were Downing's bread and butter. After the Beatly-sounding Chartbusters left Rand's, he tried an all-black band, "even doing James Brown splits. But that didn't work. I wasn't happy playing for all-black audiences; all my life I've played for white folks. I felt uncomfortable because I had to do so much to get so little back from it. When I was doing country music for white audiences, I didn't have to do hardly anything to get all of it out of them."
No matter what he tried, Downing kept coming back to country. There was a gig in Frankfurt in the '60s, followed by bookings around the world where he delivered a mix of rock, R & B and country to military outposts and civilian bars in Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Greece, Germany, France, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Libya. There was his big disco hit of 1975, "I'll Be Holding On," but that didn't do the trick either.
"Played Madison Square Garden dressed in glitter, diamond rings, did more splits (at that time I was still able to do them; I wasn't as big as I am now). But I got to looking at the people in the audience and they weren't paying any attention to what we were doing. It just wasn't what I wanted."
"Holding On" had been produced by Lance Quinn and Tony Bongiovi, owner of New York's busy Power Station studio. One day, as Quinn and Bongiovi were in the studio trying to come up with another disco song, the microphones were accidentally left open while Downing sat doodling at the piano. "When they heard my country stuff, they decided to try it. Tony'd been a disbeliever, like everybody else. 'You with your big bass voice and baritone doing country?' I said my love is country music."
Downing was eventually signed to Warner Bros., a label not well-known for country music. He had four singles penetrate the Top 20 charts--"Mr. Jones," "Touch Me," "The Story Behind the Story" and "Bring It On Home"--but Warner Bros. never got around to releasing an album; after two years Downing bought back his contract. "I don't think it had anything to do with me as a performer," he insists. "There were other artists on the label at that time who hadn't had an album out either, including John Anderson, who's so big right now. He was like me, been with Warner Bros. for four years and still hadn't released an album. I don't think it was me as an artist, or color, or anything like that. But without an album, you're dead. We shopped around for two years, big companies, little companies, all companies. They were always interested in the product but wanted to wait and 'talk' in a few months; but I'd already been off the charts for two years."
So Team Records was formed in Philadelphia and "Big Al Downing" (TRA-2001) is its first release. It includes new versions of the Warner Bros. hits and a new single, "I'll Be Loving You," that's already getting quite a bit of airplay; Downing wrote or co-wrote most of the songs.
Today, Downing comes back to the area he called home for 15 years; his first wife still lives here. He lives with his second wife and four boys ("all big as houses") in Spencer, Mass., a "good community" of 11,000; it is a refuge, a respite from three decades of music-making and road wear.
"It hasn't been bad, but it hasn't been all that we'd hoped it would be," Downing says about his career. "Those two years after Warner Brothers hurt me, it's like starting over again."
In the meantime, it's back to Nashville for more sessions; it may have taken a long time for album No. 1, but No. 2 is already in the planning stages. Then there's a tour of the Southwest with Doug Kershaw, including gigs at the prestigious Billy Bob's. "You come up through the ranks, but you never get through paying your dues," Downing states simply. "I can remember being in places where nobody spoke English and I didn't know where I was at."
"But it's all been worth it. When you look back at your career and the things you've done and the places you've been, you can take pride in saying,'Well, I've been there.' It feels good."