Big Al Downing was a journeyman musician, making records for several different markets, although his cheerful, piano-based style did not change much with the years. His 1958 recording "Down On the Farm" became a rockabilly classic and he was among the few black artists to have had success on the US country charts.
It is often considered surprising that black artists should be interested in country music, but Chuck Berry, Solomon Burke, Ray Charles and Big Al Downing all grew up listening to it on the radio. In Downing's case, he was born in 1940 into a large family on a farm in Lenapah, Oklahoma.
From the age of 10, he was teaching himself to play a piano he found on a scrapheap, although it only had 40 working keys. He loved the early rock'n'roll records of Fats Domino and in 1957, won a radio competition in Kansas by impersonating him. As a result, Bobby Poe invited Downing to join his group, the Poekats, even though the other band members were white. Downing quickly became the main attraction.
He wrote "Down on the Farm", which had a nonsense lyric, "Rooster won't crow, chicken won't cluck, Walking round the barnyard doing the hucklebuck", but a driving rhythm. In 1958 it became a regional hit for the White Rock label in Dallas, which was owned by Kenny Rogers's brother Lelan. The group made several other records, including "Yes I'm Loving You" and "Georgia Slop".
The Poekats backed Wanda Jackson on the road and it is Downing who provides the madcap piano on her frenzied "Let's Have a Party" (a UK hit in 1960) and "Mean Mean Man" (1961). He also plays on her country hits "Right or Wrong" and "In the Middle of a Heartache". They toured the southern states and on occasion, Downing had to be smuggled into motel rooms inside the bass fiddle bag.
Downing opened for several country stars, including Marty Robbins. He revived Robbins's hit "The Story of My Life" in 1962. The following year he had some success with a soul record, "You'll Never Miss the Water (Till the Well Runs Dry)", a duet with Little Esther Phillips. In 1964 he wrote several songs for Fats Domino, including "Mary Oh Mary", "(I Met) The Girl I'm Gonna Marry" and "Heartbreak Hill". By the mid-Sixties Downing was opening for Johnny Mathis and Lou Rawls.
In 1974 Downing made a disco record, "I'll Be Holding On" for Chess, but he preferred country music. He complained, "The first thing the labels say is, 'You're black, so you've got a handicap.' It should be, 'You're handicapped because you can't sing good.'" Warner Brothers gave him a contract and he made the US charts with "Mr Jones" (1978) and "Touch Me (I'll Be Your Fool Once More)" (1979). Much to his surprise, he won a New Artist of the Year award from Billboard magazine in 1979.
In the late 1970s many European enthusiasts were discovering rock'n'roll gems and inviting the vintage performers to appear at concerts and festivals. Downing was one of the first to benefit from their interest and his "Down On the Farm" and its equally strong B-side "Oh Babe!" were lauded like hit records. His lively act included impersonations and, like Fats Domino, he was continually smiling. He made the albums Back to My Roots (1995) and One of a Kind (2003) and had just completed a new one at the time of his death.
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