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Review of One of A Kind at AudioGrid.com - by Steve Ekblad 
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Big Al Downing: One Of A Kind - album review - by George Peden - www.countryreview.com

   Let’s cut to the chase.  I really like Big Al Downing’s latest album.  In the hoopla of neon circuses, cowboys without shoes and shirts, and in the changing swarm of designer-stubbled country crooners – some who’d do better posing for a glossy than chasing musical fame – Big Al lives up to his latest CD’s title, One Of A Kind (Platinum Express Records). 
   After locking Big Al into my car’s CD player for the last couple of days, I’m hooked.  Sure, there’s the odd interesting note – after all, it’s his first album since ’94 – but on this R&B-tinged and blues-shaded release, Big Al charms with a style and presence sometimes lost on today’s sales and award-chasing go-getters. 
   On this album, we hear honest renditions to 14 heart-shared songs.  Big Al comes out of the speakers with a confidence honed over five decades of doing what he loves.  And what he loves, he does so well. 
   Whether it is the rousing patriotism of "Hometown America", or his in-demand radio single, "Joe’s Truck Stop", or the identifiable downfalls of country music, "A Cigarette, A Bottle And A Jukebox", Big Al covers with an easy vocal and a soulful mood.  It’s a style continually drawing you back for listens. 
   This album is a celebration of sorts for the one-time piano player for Wanda Jackson.  Nashville, with its fad-driven dependency on looks and hype to snare sales, often overlooks the commodities of talent and experience.  After four years of label rejection and Nashville door slamming, Big Al teamed with producer Errol Watler, joined a small but vibrant Cayman Islands label, and the rest is Music Row’s loss and a win for appreciative audiences. 
   Now with a mixture of R&B, gospel and country, Big Al covers all bases with his all-write album, sharing ink on only three co-writes.  One of those, "Talking The Talk" (co-written with Watler), with its power base of horns, is a call to start walking the walk rather than toying with indecision.  It’s a theme Big Al peppers throughout the album. 
   On "Jesus, It’s Only Me, Johnny" with its call to seek the Lord while you still can, Big Al touches big possibilities with a big song.  It’s a lyrical testimony to the power of his pen.  Another tune, in a similar show of opinion, is "I’m Too Green To Be Blue".  Without raking coals, Big Al has endured the pain of misguided bigotry and prejudice, so it’s with authority he challenges on this tune to look beyond labels, color or creed.  The message is simple: Rather than keep people down, offer a helping hand. 
   "Boogie -Woogie Roll" is a pull-out-the-stops blast.  With a hard-pounded piano leading a troop of energetic and fully charged backup singers, the track wins by throwing everything soulful into the mix.  It’s a standout cut for me, not unlike "I’m Raising Hell".  Between heavenly thoughts and honky-tonk realities, Big Al mixes salvation and cowboy location with this closing time anthem. 
   Shattered and fragile romances also make the play list.  "Goodbye My Love" is a calypso-flavored wave to lost romance, while "I Never Got Over You" supplies the needed words for a roaming loser who’s neglected love for fast living. 
   Big Al Downing is a musical veteran.  It’s a fact well proven by his various chart placements over his long and extensive career.  Now, with a timely return to the CD shelves, he’s sure to win more fans and create renewed interest. 
   I really like Big Al Downing’s latest album.  Check it out.  Give it a listen.  If substance more than image is your thing, you might, too. 
Country Music Must Be In Your Heart: Big Al Downing - Dec. '03 - by Roxanne Moore - Country Grapevine - www.countrygrapevine.com

  If you didn’t get a chance to see him on the Grand Ole Opry or at a festival, you’ll have two chance to see Big Al Downing in Florida this year. He’ll be performing at the Sunshine Opry in Eustis, Dec. 6 and Feb. 23. He’s been described as the big man with the big voice and the big grin.
  Black country artists  are a rarity, but Big Al has made a special niche for himself, and he’s back in the spotlight with a brand new CD One of a Kind, which he had produced in the Cayman Islands. Nashville produces told him he didn’t have the stuff to sell a million records. His last record, Mr. Jones, was 20 years ago, and this is his first album of new material since Back To My Roots in 1994. He believed in this project and is proud of the new album.
  Off the new CD his personal favorites are She's a Miracle to Me, which a beautiful ballad he wrote for his wife, and Hometown America.
  He called the new album One of a Kind because, “I got to thinkin’ about the type of music I do. Nobody out there is doing blues, rockabilly, country, Elvis, jazz and country. People kept saying I was one of a kind.” He doesn’t limit himself to country because he loves all sorts of music, except rap and hard rock.
  His record company says he was born in 1940 on a farm in Lenapah, Oklahoma, and  listened primarily to country music and also to R&B and other kinds of music as a child.  He continued his heavy dosage of country as a young man, listening to it incessantly on the radio as he worked driving truckloads of hay and alfalfa from Oklahoma to Texas.
"All they played all day long was country, I just grew to love it", Downing says in a 1992 country trade magazine article. His first formal singing came at about age ten when he sang in a gospel choir with his father and eleven siblings.  During that time he also exercised his musical curiosity and skill by teaching himself to play a piano he found in a trash dump.  He then developed a particular liking for the music of Fats Domino and won a talent contest at age 14 singing Domino's famous "Blueberry Hill" song.
  Where many entertainers tire of touring and all the time away from home, Big Al thrives on the laughs and applause he gets from the audience. His favorite type of audience is a big concert or fair because, “You get such a cross section of people there. My whole thing is entertainment, and I can get more variety into a performance in a large audience.”  His biggest fan base is in the Midwest and North, probably because he has played more gigs there.
  Big Al is also a favorite in Europe. He did 5-10 trips a year to Europe before 911. Now, he says, the market there is just starting to come back. European promoters were afraid to book Americans for fear of retaliation or terrorist attacks. 
He finds European fans more open to all sorts of music than Americans. You can mix any type of music in one performance, and as long as it’s good, they just want to be entertained. In America, if you go to a country concert, you expect to see only country. “I’ve played blues in France, and they may ask for country mixed in. Europeans seem to be acceptable to you no matter what kinds of things you do. They are more open to entertainment than hit records and a certain genre. I always get a good response when I do Mr. Jones and the Fats Domino medley.”
  “I play something for the guy who is 20 or 50 or 80. You have to have something for everybody.”
  When he’s writing a dance song, he says, “I just try to get a groove on it. If it’s a serious song, I try to put a little message in it.”
  He thinks the best honky tonk song he’s done is Raisin' Hell and possibly Beer Drinkin' People from his first album.
  Why is it so hard for a black man to be a country star? Charley Pride is the only other really famous black country star. Big Al believes that country music has to be in your heart, no matter what color, and it’s hard for record labels to believe that black people like country music. 
  “They say it ain't gonnna sell any records, and in today's market, if you don't sell a million records they drop you. I like good country songs rather than trendy songs.”
The Sunshine Opry, where you can see Big Al live, is located at 431 Plaza Dr, Eustis, Florida. For information call 352-357-4448.
'AN INDEPENDENT VIEW' - Linda Fryer, BMI, CLA © June, 2003 - "ONE OF A KIND" 


   Listening to this CD was never, and I MEAN it, more of a pleasure!!! This is the kind of music that makes you feel just soooooooo good! Al Downing is one of the best songwriters I've ever had the honor of reviewing. Fabulous lyrics! You will find yourself SINGING right along with him, even if it's the first time you've heard it! Now, THAT'S saying something, folks! I mean, how could you sing to a song you don't even know? Well, that's what I thought, too. BUT…believe it or not, you can, and you WILL. (And just to make it easier, Al has included all the lyric song sheets in the album.) 
  When I received this CD, I wondered what kind of music it was, and if it would "fit" into a "category" with what y'all have been reading about here, before. But, I needn't have worried. This music is undeniably country. Country SOUL with the feel of blues, gospel, and good ol' rock-n-roll. Plus some good old-fashioned boogie-woogie!! I LOVED this! Al Downing, who won Billboard's "New Artist of the Year" in 1979, is best known for his hits, "Mr. Jones" and "Touch Me", and has continued to thrill audiences all around the world. Whether it's in a club, on a concert stage, on a record, or on radio, it doesn't matter. Whether the audience is filled with country, blues, rock and roll, or gospel fans, he will entertain them. How could you NOT love this music? 
   Al wrote all the songs on this CD. On "Talkin' the Talk" he conspired with his pal and Executive Producer for this CD, Errol Watler…and what a GREAT rockin' song this is!! Errol also joined Big Al on the heartbreaker, "Goodbye My Love". And on the 'tongue-n-cheek pick-up song', "Joe's Truck Stop", Al and Dick Simmons teamed up. I'm tellin' ya, folks, this is an album that's so much fun to listen to that you'll have to have it with you in your car, at your office, and anywhere else you listen to music. It's a great one for your collection of good ol' country soul. The songs are long enough, too, not like so many others that cut you off, just when you begin to get the feel of it. I hate that! This one, folks, does NOT cut you off. 'Course, they're so good, you may want to hit the repeat button a few times, like I did! And be sure to check out "I'm Too Green to be Blue", a little song that softly reminds us not to judge folks by their color, but without being preachy. It's NICE to be reminded, and I guess we could all use some of that, once in a while, huh? And then there's that oooh so sexy, sultry song, "What a Man Will Do….". If this one doesn't get ya thinkin', I don't know what will! But remember, it's ONLY a song….or IS it?? 
   Al had a great bunch of musicians backing him up on this album, including Bob Babbitt, Rod Smarr, Byrd Burton, Mark T. Jordan, Ed Greene, Wayne Jackson, Jimmy Clarke, Sammy Harp, and Teresa Collier, Yvonne Hodges, and Scat Springer on vocals. A wonderful group of artists. Bob Krusen did an OUTSTANDING job of mixing this CD, too. WOW. 
  I don't want to close this review without mentioning a song that really touched my heart, and I'm sure it will touch yours. "Hometown America" is one of the most beautifully written songs on this album. It covers everything about us, the people and citizens of this great country of ours. It mentions and pays tribute to our veterans and servicemen and women, both past and present. In this song, Al mentions many of the places in the United States he's been throughout his life. And one of the lines in the song, brings it all together for us, and makes us feel so proud…"any place in America is hometown to me". I love this line, these simple words tell what it's like to be a REAL American. And a PROUD American. Oh, and by the way, this IS one song you'll want to hit that 'repeat' button on. Count on it. 
   "ONE OF A KIND" will be released and in stores on July 29th, and you can contact Al or his record label through it's website, http://www.platinumexpressrecords.com . Or contact … http://www.haydensferry.com Don't miss out on this one. We talk about supporting our independent artists, all the time. Well, I urge you to do so. If you have never purchased a CD by an independent artist, let this be the first one. It won't be the last, but it WILL be a great beginning to your indie collection, I promise you that. I know what you're thinkin', folks…promises, promises. Well, ok. I'll let YOU be the judge. 
Country's Black Heritage Runs Deep - by Brian Mansfield - USA Today

  Charley Pride gets tired of speaking for black artists in country music. And real tired of race-based questions.
    "I  would hope that there would come a point where we'd have to cease asking those kinds of questions of people like myself," said Pride, 59, at a Nashville party celebrating From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music.
     The scope of the three-disc compilation will surprise the many people who think Pride is the only significant black artist country music has produced. The 60-track, three-disc set, released last month, suggests a larger influence - both of black artists on this music and of the genre itself on the larger musical world.
     Pride, who recorded 60 Top 40 country hits between 1966 and 1990, has the largest presence on the collection, but he comes in halfway through the period covered by the set. Its first disc encompasses Southern rural string bands like the Mississippi Sheiks, the great folk singer Leadbelly and DeFord Bailey, a popular harmonica player on the Grand Ole Opry from 1926 to 1941. It includes lesser-known country hitmakers like Cleve Francis, Big Al Downing and Stoney Edwards, plus R&B acts like Al Green, the Supremes and Aaron Neville and Dobie Gray, who've all recorded country material. Gray, who made Nashville his home in 1978, sings the title cut. From Where I Stand was also the first single and the title of his Capitol-EMI-America debut album, recorded in Nashville in 1986.
      Nashville's Country Music Foundation (CMF), which produced From Where I Stand for Warner Bros., began work in earnest on the project in 1994, spurred by Francis' major-label recordings and a report indicating that more than 20% of the country radio audience was black.
     "There was so much to choose from", says CMF associate director Kyle Young, who oversaw the project. "My biggest fear is, for some reason, those performers might get lost- 100 years from now - from the continuum." 
     Especially troubling for Young is the absence of any Ray Charles recordings from either of his groundbreaking Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music albums. "We tried everything we could" to license I Can't Stop Loving You and Busted, two country songs that were pop hits for Charles during 1962 and 1963, Young says.
     But the CMF had to settle for just Charles' rendition of I'm Movin' On, recorded for Atlantic during the late 1950s. A liner note directs buyers of From Where I Stand to one of Charles' collections.
     Pride would like to think this collection would put to rest any issues about the commercial viability of black country performers. But, he acknowledges, "it's going to take more than that, because of so many aspects of our society that are ingrained with separatism practices - music, the workplaces, everywhere."
Big Al Downing Proves He's Still "One of A Kind" - Ken Burke - "Dedication"
    It's the one word Big Al Downing uses to sum up his career. One of only three relatively well-known black country singers, the Oklahoma-born piano pounder has persevered through 45 years as a professional entertainer.
   Although not a household name, he enjoys an overseas rockabilly following, had a number 1 disco hit and scored with a neat string of late '70s/early '80s Top 40 country hits.
   Now 63, Downing has released his first album of new material in over a decade, "One Of A Kind," on the Arizona-based Hayden's Ferry label. The self-penned album personifies the musical diversity first shaped in the Oklahoma hayfields.
   "All my family, my brothers and everybody, we were all sharecroppers," explains Downing from his Leicester, Mass. home. "What we did was if somebody needed a field of hay brought in, we'd go out and mow it and stack it and put it in the 50-foot-high barns or whatever they needed. Also, we'd go up and get permission from the big farms to look for herbs on their property, down by the river or whatever, and we sold those to the market in Coffeyville, Kansas where they made medicine and things like that."
   "Oh, I've been hungry many times. Not only hungry, but sometimes during the school year, we got laughed at because we had to go to school barefooted. Out of the five or six of them that was going to school, we only had one or two pairs of shoes. So we had to trade off. One day my brother would wear the shoes, the next day my sister would wear them to school. Then I'd go to school barefooted that one day. That's just the way we done if it. We were very poor. But you know, we didn't really know it until we went somewhere like the store."
   One of 15 children, 12 who survived into adulthood, Downing's first musical experiences came via a gospel quartet his father and brothers started. Later, he learned to love the country music the truckers would listen to while the family loaded the hay. However, when he and his brothers stumbled upon a discarded piano, his commitment to music firmly took hold.
   "We had a tractor trailer, not a flat bed, and one day we were coming home from loading that hay, and we went by the junkyard, and there was an old upright piano there," recalls Downing fondly. "So, we loaded it on the back of the old truck and took it down the road home. Once we got it there, we just started banging on it, and we found that about 50 or 60 of the keys still worked. Then, we decided to put the radio on top of the piano. Dad would come in and listen to the Grand Ole Opry and everything with the radio blaring on top. Then I started liking that (disc jockey) John R. on WLAC out of Nashville because he would play Fats Domino and Louis Jordan and them people. So, we listened of that and I started picking out Fats Domino music. He'd come on, and I'd start trying to find those notes on the piano, and that's how I learned to play."
   Initially, Downing's parents wanted him to take his piano lessons.
   "They paid this old black lady, about 80 years old, I guess she was then. I never will forget it. I was like a 13 or 14 years old. I walked in, and she had long, strong bony fingers, and I said, 'Whoa man, I'll bet she can whip a piano to death.'"
   "She said very, very gruff, 'Play something for me.'"
   "So, I sat down, and I played something for her."
   "Then she said, 'Now get up, and get out of here."
   "I said, 'I thought you were going to teach me.'"
   "She said, 'Look, that's a gift that God gave you what you're doing, and I'm not going to touch it.'"
   Encouraged, the young pianist played local dances and proms during his teen years. After his imitation of Fats Domino singing "Blueberry Hill" won him an amateur contest sponsored by radio station KGGF, Downing was asked to join a mostly white group hoping to cash in on the rock 'n' roll craze of the late '50s.
   "Bobby Poe...was a white guy in town that had a band called the Rhythm Rockers," explains Downing. "After he heard me win that amateur hour thing, he drove out to my house the next day. He said, 'Look Al, here's what I want to do. I heard you last night on the radio, and I'd like for you to join a band I'm going to be putting together. You'll be doing Fats Domino and Nat King Cole and Ray Charles and all them people and all us boys will do the Everly Brothers and people like Jerry Lee Lewis, and we'll cover the whole spectrum of the music that way. Nobody has ever done that before.'"
   "He said, 'I want to warn you that it won't be easy. Because some of the places we're going to be playing, a black person has never been in, or they've never seen a black person play music there. It's going to be kind of rough on you.'"
   "I said, 'Ahh, let's do it, man. I can take it.'"
   Re-christened Bobby Poe & The Poe Cats, the band earned "pass the hat money" at local VFW halls before manager/producer Lelan Rogers got them into a studio to record for the Texas-based White Rock label. Combining Downing's Little Richard imitation and Domino-inspired piano licks, with Vernon Sandusky's wild rockabilly guitar riffs, they fashioned the classic rocker "Down On The Farm."
   Leased to the Challenge label, it only scaled the lower regions of the national Hot 100.
   However, the record garnered gigs for the band on the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars and secured steady work backing Capitol rockabilly star Wanda Jackson. Downing had faced racial taunts before, but once he began touring with Jackson, the abuse was kicked up a few notches.
   "When we decided to go on the road and back Wanda, we went into places like Butte, Montana and different off-the-wall places that we never even heard of," recalls Downing. "They didn't like it that I was on the stage with Wanda, a black guy on the stage with a white girl. That's how they saw it. They didn't see it as entertainment; they saw it as a black guy being uppity. So they would say catcalls and things like that. Finally, Wanda would say, 'Look, if he can't be here, I'm not going to play either because he's my piano player, and we work together. So, if y'all want me, you'll shut-up and let us do our show.'"
   "Several places, she had to tell 'em that. I think there were even a couple of places we even walked out of because they didn't want to do it, so we just packed up and left."
   When asked if those types of experiences ever made him feel like giving up, Downing's response is adamant.
   "No. I didn't like it, but I felt that the music was more important. Working with Wanda and taking the music to the people like that was more important than the two guys out of the whole audience calling names and saying something bad about it."
   As a sideman, Downing played on Jackson's breakthrough hit, "Let's Have A Party" and several less successful sides. Recording for a variety of labels, including East/West, Carlton, V-Tone and Kasoma, the pianist found that hit singles were an elusive commodity. Subsequently, he and the band latched on to a steady five-year gig in Washington, D.C. at Rand's Nightclub. 
   Downing earned a small measure or renown by teaming with Little Esther Phillips on some of the soul singer's 1963 Nashville crossover sessions. The following year, he cut a blistering rock 'n' soul side called "Georgia Slop" that came out just as The Beatles were pushing most American acts off radio playlists.
   Eventually, members of Downing's band departed to form a Beatles knock-off group called the Chartbusters, and the pianist became a solo act. Recording country-soul for Shelby Singleton's Silver Fox label and briefly for Columbia, he stayed active, but didn't really taste commercial success until his waxing of "I'll Be Holding On" became a number one disco hit in 1975. It was at a fruitless follow-up session that Downing was able to realize his lifelong dream of recording country music.
   "In the back of my heart I always had wanted to go back and do the simpler kind of country," discloses Downing "Tony Bongiovi, who is Jon Bon Jovi's (second cousin), was producing me at the time, and we couldn't come up with an idea for a new disco song. So, they all took a break to have some lunch, but I stayed in there at the piano. I didn't know it, but Tony Bongiovi stayed in the engineering room there with the mike open. So, I sat down at the piano and started doing songs like 'Touch Me,' 'Mr. Jones,' and 'Let's Sing About Love,' and he was listening to it."
   "All of a sudden I heard him say, 'Hey Al, what's that stuff you're playing? '"
   "I said, 'That's the kind of stuff I want to do if I ever do a country album. '"
   "He said, 'Well, the hell with disco, let's do that. '"
   The sessions, featuring Dee Dee Warwick and Cissy Houston singing back-up, made Downing one of the rarest of all performers, a black country star. Yet despite several Warner Brothers releases hitting the charts, none rose higher than number 18.
   "There was a reason for that," says Downing earnestly. "That thing raised it's ugly head again - the racism thing. Once I got in the Top 15, there was about 12 of the biggest radio stations around in the South and places that didn't want to play me, simply because I was black. They said, 'We're not going to play any black records on our show.' They're some of the same people who wouldn't even play Charley Pride. So, that's what stopped my records from going into the Top Ten because I needed these radio stations to do it."
   With his country career stalled, Downing concentrated mainly on touring over the last two decades and is especially popular overseas where rockabilly revivalists glory in his early sides with Bobby Poe. He foreshadowed his own return to recording by producing French rockabilly J. Ryan Beretti in 2002.
   Co-produced by Bob Babbitt, who played the catchy bass line on the 1978 hit "Mr Jones," the new album blends the sawdust-floor honky-tonk of "A Cigarette, a Bottle, and a Jukebox" and "I'm Raisin' Hell" with the piano histrionics of "Boogie Woogie Roll" the Jamaican-tinged "Goodbye My Love," and hard core blues of "Rock Me Baby."
   Asked if he meant to be this eclectic, Downing chuckles.
   "Yes. I wanted it that way, which is why it's titled 'One of a Kind,' because I knew there was nothing on the market like it. Everybody is so afraid to cut themselves when they go into the studio. They say, 'We're going to cut something commercial, something that's out on the market. We're going to follow the trend of Tim McGraw or Travis Tritt.' But I wanted people to know that I'm an individual. This is me. There's nobody out there like me who would take a chance to cut records like this."
   Never a smoker or a drinker, Downing still sounds as good as he did when he cut his first country hits. Ever hopeful, he feels the disc could receive radio airplay in this new era and plans to tour extensively behind it.
   Other veteran artist's wouldn't allow their expectations to rise so high, but for Downing it all boils down to one word: dedication. "I think that the whole word that describes what I'm about is dedication. I've been dedicated to this music since the beginning, and it has taken me all over the world. It really has been great to me."


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