Big Al Downing was born in the small town of Centralia, Oklahoma. Centralia is just south of the Kansas border,
a bit southeast of Coffeyville, Kansas. Northeast of Centralia is Joplin, Missouri. Big Al's musical
journey was varied and we touch upon a few of those aspects, but we will try and focus on his contributions
to country music. Big Al has played rockabilly, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, disco and finally country
music. Big Al comes by his nickname naturally, being about six foot three and 275 pounds.
Big Al told writer Bob Allen in a 1980 interview with Country Song Roundup magazine that he played
his first professional musical appearance when he was just fourteen years old. He was one of
twelve children born to his parents, Tollie and Flora Downing.
From that first appearance, his musical talents took him around the world including
such venues as Libya, Thailand, Spain and Viet Nam.
While Big Al's musical journey took him to various other genres before finding success in country
music, he did not turn to country music as a 'refugee' from those other styles. His affinity to
country music came naturally.
We learned from one web site dedicated to Big Al, that he inspired two of his sisters, Mardella and Lilly
to play gospel piano. Two of his brothers, Walter and Don also became entertainers.
While living in rural Oklahoma, the family sang a lot of gospel music. He was in a gospel quartet
by the time he was ten years old. As he grew older, he even participated in some rodeos. While
he was in high school, he hung around with friends, some of whom were white and country music
was what they played and Big Al heard.
He was also exposed to country music working in the Oklahoma fields, loading hay on tractor trailers
that hauled it down to Texas. Big Al recalls that the truck drivers all seemed to play country
music on their radios. Big Al got exposed to folks such as Bob Wills and Hank Thompson working those fields.
One day Big Al found an old piano with about 40 keys on it in a local junkyard. He proceeded to load
it on a truck and hauled it home and began his musical journey.
Then came the talent contest in the nearby Kansas town of Coffeeville. He sang "Blueberry Hill" and
"Bony Maroni" and took home the first place prize. There were some musicians, including Bobby Poe,
in the audience that had heard him and offered him a job playing with their band. The band played in local gigs
at VFW halls as well as other night clubs that featured country music. Big Al was making
about $2 to $5 a night at those gigs. The band, Bobby Poe and the Poe Kats, came to the attention of Country Music Hall of Famer promoter, Jim Halsey. Jim was working out
of Independence, Kansas at the time and one of the talents he was promoting was Wanda Jackson. At
that time, Wanda was in need of a road band for her personal appearances.
But the work with Wanda was sporadic. The four of them were eager to do better financially. They
had heard that there was well paying club work on the east coast. The band decided to load all
of their equipment into a 1953 Chevrolet and headed to Boston in 1953. But they did back Wanda
on one of her biggest hits, "Let's Have A Party", with Big Al on the piano.
But Big Al had to step in at their first gig and change their musical genre to fit their new audience.
The owner of the club jumped on them when they started playing, complaining they were playing
"hillbilly music"; he wanted the band to play the new big thing, rock and roll. The guys had no money
to get them back home, so Big Al stepped up to do Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis tunes until the
band could learn other tunes.
The group later moved to a club in Washington, DC. The owner of that unnamed club liked the band so much,
that they ended up playing there for about five years. At the time, the group was known as the Chartbusters
and they had their first big hit record in 1964, "She's The One". Big Al described it as a take-off
of a Beatles tune. With that sudden fame, the band realized they had to go on tour. But the band
felt that in trying to emulate the Beatles in a sense (a band of four white guys), that Big Al might
not fit the image they thought they had to project. Big Al took it at face value and simply went out on his
own. It appears the group was originally known as Bobby Poe and the Poe Kats.
During the enusing years, Big Al would land a contract with a record label or two but his recordings
never seemed to mount any lasting success. His main source of income came from club work.
He told Mr. Allen that he did it all back then. Mixing his country music with rock, rhythm and blues,
and even dabbling in disco. He even put together an all-black band in Washington, DC. But that didn't work
for him as he noted, they just couldn't play his type of country music. He was even writing country songs
back then, but could not get any exposure. He kept plugging away thinking that one day he would get
his due notice.
His next gig was playing various military service clubs in Europe where he was making about $250 a week
plus expenses. He was doing as many as 16 or 17 shows a week. Big Al noted, he felt like he was a big
hit, getting standing ovations. But he later found out that the woman who had been booking him was making
$500 a show from his bookings. She wanted him to come back but Big Al held out and said he was not
available. But it turns out, she booked him a on a 17-day tour that paid him $4,000.
For several years, Big Al found himself doing other lucrative personal appearances at service clubs in
Libya, Thailand and Vietnam. He recalled that the money was good in Vietnam, sometimes as much
as $2,000 a week plus expenses. But it had its risks. When he travelled, he had to have a bodyguard.
And depending on the venue, sometimes had to wait until the money was collected before the bodyguards
could take care of him getting to the next gig. He said, "It was dangerous. You had to know who you
were dealing with."
During those years, he got to work with such artists as Johnny Mathis, Dottie West, Lou Rawls, The Drifters
and his early idol, Fats Domino. In fact, Fats recorded two of Big Al's tunes, "Mary, Oh Mary" and "Heartbreak Hill".
In 1973, Big Al signed a recording contract with Lenox Records and had a pop hit with a duet he did
with LIttle Esther Phillips, "You'll Never Miss The Water (Till The Well Runs Dry)"
When the service club gigs ended, he went back to the Washington, DC area. But he found that the work
in the local clubs was not as good as the pay he got in those overseas gigs. But at the same time,
he met an old associate by the name of Tony Bonjiani. One thing led to another and Tony encouraged
him to try doing disco music. In 1975, he had a number one hit called, "I'll Be Holdin' On". That tune
made the disco charts in the United STates and Europe and reached number one on the Hot Dance Music/Club
Play chart in 1974.
But laugh as you may, but Big Al wryly noted, it was disco that allowed him to go into country music.
When he was in a New York studio trying to cut a follow-up to his hit record, none of the tunes seemed
to click. During a coffee break, Big Al started tinkering with the piano in the studio and playing
some of the tunes he had written such as Mr. Jones and Touch Me. As fate would have it,
someone had left the mike open and when the studio guys heard him doing those tunes, the decided
to cut those.
They proceeded to cut an album's worth of country flavored material by Big Al that session in New York.
His producers took those recordings to Nashville to add some 'country touches' to them.
While in Nashville, Big Al was introduced to Al Gallico who took an immediate liking to Big Al and the songs
he was writing and recording. Mr. Gallico got Big Al's music to be heard by several executives at other
labels. In 1978, Warner Brothers was the label that signed Big Al because they wanted to develop his career, not
just record him.
He had been plugging away with his musical talents for over 25 years and as he told Mr. Allen back
then, "I'm 39 years old now and like I said, it's about time."
Big Al became the first black country music singer to have his records consistently make the country
music charts since Charley Pride came on the scene.
Country music fans discovered the talents of Big Al Downing when he hit the charts with "Mr. Jones".
The tune was one of those story songs; it corssed the barriers of poverty and racial differences.
A black sharecropper farmer happened upon an auto accident on a country road and just in time
for the dying mother to tell Mr. Jones to take her child and raise him as he had no kin.
He later wrote a follow-up to that tune called "Mr. Jones, The Final Chapter". We've not been
able to find the lyrics to that one yet.
During his long musical journey, he had fifteen recordings reach the Billboard Top 100 Country Music
charts, with three reaching the Top 20.
He appeared several times on television's famed Hee! Haw! series as well as Ralph Emery's "Nashville Now"
when TNN was "the" country music television network.
Big Al Downing died on July 4, 2005 due to acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He was survived by two children,
Jason and Debbie from his first marriage to Mabel. He remarried and at the time of his death, had been
married to his second wife, Beverly, for 27 years.
Credits & Sources
- Country Song Roundup; No. 253; August 1980; Charlton Publications, Inc.;
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