Big Al Downing, a versatile musician who freely crossed musical and racial borders to become one of the few African American headliners in country music, died July 4 of acute leukemia at a hospital in Worcester, Mass. He was 65 and lived in Leicester, Mass.
A towering, friendly man who taught himself to play a piano he salvaged from a junkyard, Mr. Downing built a five-decade career around his powerful singing voice and his hard-driving rockabilly-style piano. He performed rhythm and blues and disco in the 1960s and 1970s while living in Washington, but he eventually reclaimed his musical roots by turning to country.
A native of rural Oklahoma, he spent his early years listening to country music and saw no reason why a black man couldn't claim it as his own.
"I grew up in Oklahoma hauling hay, riding horses and doing all the things country folk do," he told the Boston Herald in 1998. "So how can anyone say country music is white?"
Mr. Downing was named Billboard magazine's No. 1 new country star of 1979 and went on to become 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. He appeared on hundreds of records, and his songs were performed by Fats Domino, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Tom Jones.
Few forms of music were alien to Mr. Downing, and in 1975, he even had a minor disco hit, "I'll Be Holding On." He played Madison Square Garden wearing glitter and diamond rings and did splits, a la James Brown. "It just wasn't what I wanted," he later said, realizing his musical heart lay among the cotton and hayfields he had known as a youth.
After three of his songs, "Mr. Jones" (1978), "Touch Me" (1979) and "Bring It on Home" (1980), cracked country's Top 20, Mr. Downing was a marketable name, but his record label, Warner Bros., wouldn't release a full album of his music. For the next 25 years, he stayed at the margins of fame, working in small arenas and for smaller record labels.
"You come up through the ranks," he told The Washington Post, "but you never get through paying your dues."
As the only African American in rockabilly bands that toured the Midwest and South in the 1950s, Mr. Downing, who was 6 feet 3, often had to be sneaked into hotels under a blanket or inside the case of a standup bass.
"I had to go through a lot in order to be a singer," he once said. "I had to endure things that I don't think any other person could do."
The son of a sharecropper, Alexander Downing was born Jan. 9, 1940, and grew up on a farm near Lenapah, Okla. He was one of 15 children.
"Oh, I've been hungry many times," he said in an interview with Contemporary Musicians, a reference publication. "Not only hungry, but sometimes during the school year, we got laughed at because we had to go to school barefooted."
When he was about 12, he and his brothers found an abandoned piano in a junkyard, loaded it on their truck and took it home. Not all of the keys worked, but Mr. Downing taught himself to play by listening to Domino and broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry. He had one lesson with a teacher, who sent him away, saying he had "a gift from God."
At 16, he entered a talent contest in nearby Coffeyville, Kan., and won by playing Domino's "Blueberry Hill." A bandleader asked him to join his otherwise white rockabilly group, and for the next four years they toured as Bobby Poe and the Poe Kats. They had a regional hit with Mr. Downing's "Down on the Farm."
"Al was a tremendous songwriter," Poe said yesterday. "He played as good piano as Jerry Lee Lewis did."
Mr. Downing turned down a basketball scholarship to Kansas State University and stayed with the Poe Kats when they became the backup band for rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson in 1958. He played piano on her biggest hit, "Let's Have a Party."
Mr. Downing often was not allowed to use the restrooms or visit the restaurants where they performed, and Jackson recalled yesterday the time a nightclub manager in Montana ordered him off the stage.
"I said, 'Well, okay, guys, let's pack,' " Jackson said. "I said, 'Al is in my band. If he goes, then I go.' "
Mr. Downing moved to Washington in 1962 and led groups in clubs before becoming a solo act. He moved to Massachusetts in 1976, as he began to focus more on country music.
His marriage to Mabel Downing ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 27 years, Beverly Rochette Downing of Leicester; a son from his first marriage, Jason Downing of Woodbridge; four stepsons; five brothers; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Downing was working on an album and an autobiography. He continued to perform until two weeks before his death.
Recalling the indignities he was subjected to during their early years traveling the rock-and-roll highway, Jackson said: "I asked Big Al, how could he do it? He said, 'I do it for the music.' "