Big Al Downing, one of the most successful African-American artists in country music history, died Monday (July 4) at a hospital in Worcester, Mass., following a battle with leukemia. Downing, 65, was a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
Born in Centralia, Okla., Downing hit Billboard’s country singles chart 15 times during the ’70s and ’80s as an artist on the Warner Bros., Team, Vine Street and Door Knob labels. After his 1978 single, “Mr. Jones,” reached No. 20 on the country chart, he scored his biggest hit a year later when “Touch Me (I’ll Be Your Fool Once More)” peaked at No. 18.
During his childhood in Lenapah, Okla., Downing grew up listening to country legends like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams on Nashville radio station WSM-AM and rhythm & blues stylists such as Fats Domino on another Nashville station, WLAC. Living in a family of 12 children, Downing was just 10 when he began playing a piano that had already lost more than half of its usual 88 keys.
Several years later, Downing performed the Domino hit “Blueberry Hill” to win first prize in a talent contest sponsored by a radio station in Coffeyville, Kan. Local singer Bobby Poe heard his performance and invited him to join his bi-racial band, the Poe Cats. In accepting the offer, Downing turned down a basketball scholarship at Kansas State University.
After playing with Poe throughout Kansas and Oklahoma, Downing became keyboardist and background vocalist for rockabilly queen, Wanda Jackson. In addition to appearing at concerts with Don Gibson, Marty Robbins, Bobby Bare and others, Downing played on Jackson’s most famous recording, “Let’s Have a Party,” in 1960.
Before Charley Pride broke country music’s racial barrier in 1966, Downing faced considerable hardships while attempting to make a living just a few years earlier. In a 2003 interview with CMT.com, Jackson talked about the obstacles Downing faced during the early ’60s simply because of his race.
“He couldn’t eat in most of the restaurants,” Jackson said. “He couldn’t eat in the hotel restaurants. They’d have to take his food out to the car. On our jobs, he couldn’t even use the men’s restroom. He had to stay on the stage. The guys would bring him Cokes and things. … It was very hard on Al. We’ve all asked him how he put up with it, and he said, ’It’s for the music.'”
As a songwriter, Downing’s compositions were recorded by Domino, Bobby Blue Bland, Tom Jones and Webb Wilder, among others. In 2003, he released the CD One of a Kind and was recording tracks for an upcoming project when his leukemia worsened. His last public performance took place in May in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry. Having concentrated on the European market in recent years, he was planning another overseas tour before being hospitalized in late June.
Downing is survived by his wife of 27 years, Beverly, and four stepsons, five brothers and five grandchildren. Funeral services will be held Saturday (July 9) at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Spencer, Mass.