How does an artist or his work withstand the test of time?
Will Downing’s voice is one of the most distinctive, loved and instantly recognizable voices in R&B. His flawless, emotive, buttery-smooth and agile honey-toned baritone, along with his impeccable phrasing and jazz-fueled agile runs, seamlessly bridge the worlds of R&B and Jazz. Downing’s sophisticated and always-cool sensibilities have proven to be timeless and have garnered him the role as the reigning king of romantic ballads. “I pinch myself everyday because I can't believe that after all this time I'm still making music for a living,” shares the charismatic singer/songwriter. “19 albums and 28 years of recording later and I'm still blessed. Truly Blessed!!” Shanachie Entertainment will release Black Pearls (July 8, 2016), Downing’s highly anticipated CD and his first full-length album in six years. A key ingredient to Downing’s success has been the keen selection of his repertoire. Black Pearls exemplifies the caliber of songs that Downing has long been associated with. Few singers possess the interpretive powers and individual musical identity required to reinvent ‘classic’ material and make it totally their own. An accomplished composer in his own right, Downing takes on the ultimate challenge on Black Pearls as he reinvigorates chart-topping gems originally performed by some of the greatest female voices to grace R&B. He rekindles the soul and ignites a fire in songs made famous by Chaka Khan, Deniece Williams, Randy Crawford, Cherrelle, Jean Carne and Phyllis Hyman, among others. While remaining true to the essence of the songs, Downing transforms them with the sweet nuances of his own irresistible signature sound. “Phyllis Hyman started this whole project,” confesses the Grammy nominated singer who has been dubbed the “Prince of Sophisticated Soul.” “I was having a conversation with a friend who also worked with Phyllis. We both agreed that "Meet Me On The Moon" was our favorite Phyllis tune. My friend suggested I remake it. I called my keyboardist/arranger Mike Logan to help with the song. After completing it, I thought maybe this is a great opportunity to pay tribute to other female artists that I have always loved. That’s how Black Pearls was born!”
From midnight black and iridescent blues to metallic and regal greens, black pearls also commonly know as Tahitian pearls, are known to possess a spectacular color range. So it is fitting that Downing’s album is titled Black Pearls. The beauty, depth, brilliance and dimension of what Downing brings to Black Pearls is what he has built his enduring legacy on. “I choose songs based on lyrical content and melody,” explains the singer. “I enjoy singing songs that are reality based and that I can identify with and that my audience can relate to as well.” Among Downing’s many talents are his soulfully honest and heart-rending performances that speak directly to the body, mind and spirit. No matter who originally sang the song initially, once Downing takes it into his own hands, the song becomes his. “I've always found it interesting to give the male interpretation of songs,” states Downing. “Men feel the some way as women and sometimes don't know how to verbalize it or they are afraid to. These songs might be their mouthpiece and even spark thought and conversation.”
Black Pearls opens with the album’s first single and 1988 Cherrelle hit “Everything I Miss At Home.” Downing originally met Cherrelle in the 90s during a USO tour. The charismatic and charming vocalist jokes, “My sister calls ‘Everything I Miss At Home’ the ‘you better do right song.’” Will’s sublime performance hits all the right notes, signaling for an enchanting journey ahead. “‘Don’t Ask My Neighbors’ has always been a favorite of mine,” shares Downing. “The subject of communication will never grow old." Downing admits to being a long-time fan of The Emotions, not only as a solo act but also as backing vocalists for the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire.
Angela Winbush has been a good friend of Downing’s for years and he returns the favor with an impeccable and unforgettable version her #1 hit on the Billboard R&B charts, “Your Smile.” “Everyone that hears the beginning of this song does one of two things. They either throw their hands in the air and say ‘That’s my jam’ or they look at me and say "no you didn't!’” Do it he does! Will Downing will leave you breathless with his stunning version.
When you hear the opening four notes of “Get Here,” you instantly know what song it is thanks to Brenda Russell, who wrote and recorded the song and Oleta Adams, who later scored a major international hit in the early 90s. Downing admits that both Russell and Adams’ versions can bring him to tears. He says it was one of the most challenging songs to record on the CD. Downing’s intensely emotional and superbly executed rendition backed by strings will no doubt go down as one of the ultimate versions. “I hope I’ve captured the spirit of the lyric and I pray that it moves someone the way their versions moved me,” confides the Brooklyn born singer/songwriter. “While recording the strings on the song, one of the players said she was having a difficult time playing the parts because she couldn't stop tearing up and crying. All I could do was hug her.” Producer Barry Eastman, who Downing actually studied with in High School, arranged the amazing strings. Black Pearls unites Downing with many close associates including his wife, the beautiful and talented singer Audrey Wheeler, who has worked with everyone from Chaka Khan and the Pointer Sisters to Freddie Jackson and Narada Michael Walden, and that is just the short list. Will says, “My wife Audrey and daughter Aja are the talented ones in the house. I just got lucky! It's like a talent contest around here. Any room you step in you're going to hear some singing. Having them in the house is convenient when you need background vocals or a duet partner!” Black Pearls also features pianist, producer and long-time collaborator Chris “Big Dog” Davis and pianist/arranger Mike Logan, who has been a member of Downing’s band for over 15 years. Celebrated saxophonists Najee and Kirk Whalum also make appearances on Black Pearls.
“Street Life” will put you in the groove as Downing serves up a swingin’ version of the Randy Crawford/The Crusaders hit featuring the tenor of saxophonist Najee and the funky keyboards of Mike Logan. Downing confesses that back in the day he used to play air drums, bass and horns to this jam! Black Pearls keeps the hits flowing with Chaka Khan and Rufus’ timeless 1977 hit “Everlasting Love.” From note one, when Downing hits that sultry and spine-tingling bass note, you know it’s on. No games and no gimmickry - Downing came to saaang! Together with Chris “Big Dog’ Davis, Downing wrote a riveting arrangement of one of Deniece Williams’ signature tunes, “Black Butterfly,” a powerful anthem written by Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil. Will cites Williams’ voice as ‘one of the prettiest and most distinctive’ voices he has ever. Dexter Wansel’s “Night Over Egypt,” is given a jazzy and exotic treatment and features stellar flute work from saxophonist Kirk Whalum. Originally sung by The Jones Girls, Will says this song has always been a favorite of his. Phyllis Hyman’s “Meet Me On the Moon” is a standout, as Downing’s crystal clear and velvety smooth vocals, impeccable diction and tender phrasing conjure up the greatest of love stories. He literally will make you forget where you are and stop you in your tracks. Black Pearls closes with the magnificent “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head” which features an orchestra and full horn section. Jean Carne and Downing have shared a friendship for a long time and the singer could not resist paying homage to Carne as he has sung and danced to this song for years.
Downing signed to Island Records in the 80s and recorded two albums before his self-titled Will Downing, which spawned a major hit in the U.K. with “A Love Supreme” (a Top 10 hit), catapulted the CD to platinum sales there. 1991 saw the release of Downing’s big stateside breakout album, A Dream Fulfilled, featuring such songs as War’s “The World Is A Ghetto,” Paul Davis’ “I Go Crazy” and the stunning version of Angela Bofill’s “I Try,” which hit Top 25 on the charts. Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, Downing recorded frequently on multiple record labels and became a fixture at the top of the Contemporary Jazz Charts, courtesy of a number of critically acclaimed and charting releases. Quite possibly the crown jewel of this era was a jazz-infused album of duets with saxophonist Gerald Albright, Pleasures Of The Night. In 2001 Will Downing scored a Grammy nomination for ‘Best Traditional R&B Album” for his Motown recording All The Man You Need.
Will Downing is a survivor and his faith has given him the fortitude to prevail both musically and personally. In early 2007, he contracted the rare muscular and auto immune disease, Polymyositis, which sidelined him for most of the year. It is a devastating and debilitating condition, which landed Downing in a wheelchair and caused him to lose nearly 100 pounds.
Despite the setback, he was determined to complete his debut album for Peak Records, After Tonight. He had already recorded four songs prior to his illness. Incredibly, during the Spring of 2007, he worked from his home, putting down vocals despite severe weakness and fatigue. Truly a labor of love and a music therapy of sorts, pouring his heart and soul into the project the fruits of his labor inspired five wonderful songs, including the gem, “God Is So Amazing,” a simple, melodic testimony of unshakeable faith during truly difficult times. Will shares, “Polymyositis changed my life in every way - both mentally and physically. Like a lot of men that I know, I was afraid to go to the doctor. By the time I finally did, I ended up being hospitalized for three months. After coming home I caught a pneumonia and had to go back to the hospital where I remained for two more months.” During this time Downing came to several realizations. “When you're laying in bed, you have plenty of time to reflect on life. It taught me to slow down and enjoy it,” he explains. “I also learned that nothing is forever. As much as I love music it’s not my everything. Music played a huge part in my recovery but it’s not everything. The bond with family and real friends were strengthened. I always say it was the best and worst thing to ever happen to me.”
In June 2009, a fully recovered Will Downing returned with a creative vengeance with Classique, teaming up with longtime collaborator Rex Rideout to rediscover their studio magic. Indirectly, the release made the emphatic statement that Will Downing was back! This was further cemented in 2010 when Downing unveiled the audio-novel recording, Lust, Love and Lies, which detailed a romantic relationship going through various stages, mixing spoken language and humorous interludes with a potent collection of original songs (and one cover). During 2011 and 2012, Downing released a series of limited edition EPs to feed his enthusiastic fan base a constant flow of great new music. 2013 saw the release of Silver, which marked the extraordinary singer’s amazing 25-year anniversary in the music business. The album, an incredible musical milestone, included the instant wedding classic “The Blessing.” In recent years SoulTracks Reader’s Choice Awards has honored Downing with numerous awards: 2012-Song of the Year (“The Blessing), 2013-Song of the Year (“You Were Meant Just For Me” featuring Avery Sunshine) and 2014-Male Artist of the Year. In 2014 Downing released his album Euphoria which showcased a slightly stripped down “acoustic-lounge” production approach and included a fresh and unique take on the Teddy Pendergrass bedroom classic, “Turn Off The Lights.” Chocolate Drops followed next and once again united Downing with kindred musical spirit Chris “Big Dog” Davis. The album featured a dazzling collection of originals coupled with some daring and captivating R&B classic interpretations.
“I believe God spared me for a reason,” says Will Downing who has made it a mission to lend his time, name and presence to the awareness and fundraising efforts of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). He has even donated portions of his recording sales to MDA, as a way to support the organization he credits with helping him through his own battle. As a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. Downing has made the role of mentoring a priority in his musical endeavors. He is frequently mentoring aspiring singers and musicians through invitations to join him at sound checks, performances, backstage or workshops. A graduate of the arts High School Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn, Downing who went on to study music at Virginia Union University and Brooklyn College, credits much of his success to the mentors who supported him along the way. “I love mentoring. If someone didn't mentor me, I wouldn't be in the position I’m in,” shares the singer. “Since they cut funds for the arts in Public schools, a lot of young people are left to find their own way and sometimes you need point them in the right direction. The internet and social media can give folks a false sense of where they are in regards to talent. I enjoy being able to be hands on.”
Will Downing balances work with off-the-road life in New Jersey as a loving husband and father, giving back and always giving his all. He concludes, “I believe the old saying ‘If it ain’t broke don't fix it." I just add to the phrase ‘improve upon it!’ The fans dictated to me on my first few albums what the wanted to hear from me. I've tried to fulfill that request ever since. Following the trends might get you immediate success but not a long lasting career. A good song with solid subject matter that people can relate to can last forever... I'm living proof.”
Will continues to give back to the community and actively seek opportunities to lend his time, name or presence to the awareness and fundraising efforts of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) and other charities and even donated a portion of the sales proceeds from his last release to MDA after a social media driven appeal for support for the organization that helped him with his own battle with Polymyositis. As a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., Downing seeks to expand an effort to personally mentor aspiring singers and musicians through invitations to join him at sound checks and backstage on performance dates.
Similarly, a recently launched web-based series produced by social media guru Ashley Scott through his Soulful Sounds Series educational program which is allowing Will an opportunity to share professional vocal and recording tips directly to aspiring artists. Will also continues to connect with his community and fan base through a web-based radio show which he hosts and produces, called The Wind Down, which is now rebroadcast on a growing number of stations from here to Japan.
Downing balances work with off-the-road life in New Jersey as a loving husband and father, humbly passing the test of time and being that timeless living example of the absolute best at what he does!