Smitty: Finally, after all the requests to get this cat to appear with JazzMonthly.com, that time has arrived. He has a uniquely gifted voice, one that is unmatched on the planet. He can reach the highest of highs, the lowest of lows, and his live performances are not just a concert, but it is an event, an event that will peak your innermost emotions. You know him from his hits like “Sorry I,” “If She Knew,” “The Rhythm of You and Me,” and his latest CD called Soul Symphony. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the incomparable Mr. Will Downing. What’s up, Will?
Will Downing (WD): Hey, man. How you doing, man? You had me looking around, man, when you were saying all these great things about somebody else. Like, man, who else is on the line? (Both laughing)
Smitty: Hey, it’s all about you, baby.
WD: Well, thank you very much, Smitty.
Smitty: I know that Soul Symphony, your latest record has been out there on the street for a minute, but hey, it’s still doing well, you know?
WD: Well, good music is supposed to last forever. I mean, I’ve never been the type of artist to record stuff that is supposed to be here today and gone tomorrow.
Smitty: Yeah man.
WD: Well a good song lasts forever. I mean, Soul Symphony as well as a lot of the other things that I’ve recorded in the past. I mean, that stuff is, to me, is made to last forever.
Smitty: Yes indeed, and it has.
WD: I don’t wanna hear about the nastiness that goes on with my music, man.
Smitty: Yeah, I’d have to rate the show differently if I did that. (Both laughing)
WD: Trust me, I hear it. There’s not a day that goes by where I run into someone, whether it be a man or a woman, that has something to say that is sexually related around some of the songs that I’ve recorded.
Smitty: Yeah, or what happened after the last show.
WD: Exactly, exactly.
Smitty: Well, you know, Will, when you got that vibe going on, man, the body takes over.
WD: Well…….., all I can say is amen. (Both laughing)
Smitty: Well, just to back up a little bit and give the fans that perhaps haven’t seen an interview with you, how did you discover your voice? You know, how did that all happen?
WD: Well, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, at a time when….I mean, these days they don’t have music programs in school anymore or as prevalent as much as they did then….and I grew up at a time when you had to take up an instrument and everybody sang. So I’m in school one day and, you know, the whole class is in this little chorus thing, and the teacher is walking up and down the line as each person is singing. And every time she walked by me, she’d kinda stopped, look at me a little bit, then move on. Come back, stop, look at me, and move on. So the next time she came by, she said “Listen, after class I want you to stay and I want to talk to you.” “Okay.” Class is over, she pulls me to the side, she says “Listen, I run a program, an extracurricular program, on Saturdays that’s, you know, for singers, and it’s supposed to be like the best singers around the city and they all come together and it’s called the Brooklyn Boroughwide Chorus and I want you to be in it.” And, you know, of course, I said “No! (Both laughing) Saturday’s my day to go play ball and to go do the things that I wanna do.”
Well, to make a long story even longer, by the time I got home, she had already called my parents, my parents had already volunteered me for this program, and I went in there and that’s where my real appreciation for music came from. It was the first time I was around a group of people who sung and were enthusiastic about it, as enthusiastic about music as I was. And that’s where it started. And it was around that time that I also finally discovered that that’s what girls liked, was some guy that could sing, so after that it was pretty much a done deal. I was gonna be a singer for the rest of my life.
Smitty: So that’s my problem! (Both laughing)
WD: Yeah, this life could’ve been yours.
Smitty: Yeah, man. So you never got to pick up that instrument, then?
WD: I’ve never had patience enough to learn how to play an instrument. In college I studied upright bass a little bit. I stunk. I was terrible. Each student had to take up piano. I just somehow always weaseled out of really learning anything on piano or an instrument. I just never had the knack for it. Some people do, some people don’t.
Smitty: Talk about your first gig.
WD: Mm. You know what? I don’t even know if you can really call it a gig. It was another one of those high school kind of things where you got up and they gave you an opportunity to do what you wanted to do.
WD: And I sang “Sad and So Distracted” by Al Jarreau.
Smitty: (Laughing) Does Al know about this?
WD: Oh, probably not. Something tells me he’s about to. (Both laughing)
Smitty: Oh, I think he’d get a charge out of that, man. That’s too cool. Wow. So, now, here you are, you know, you’ve discovered this voice, who discovered the voice to say “You need to be in front of hundreds, thousands”?
WD: Well, it’s odd. I mean, there’ll be a few people that say that take claim to that. I’ve always been the type of person that’s been very self-motivated and I started recording my very first demo for a project when I was a like a sophomore in high school.
WD: And sending stuff out to record companies and, you know, hoping for someone to kinda give me a break. Oddly enough, it really came when like after my first year of college and I moved back to New York. I went to college in Virginia, in Richmond, Virginia. A school called Virginia Union University.
Smitty: Oh yeah.
WD: And when I came out of there, I came back to Brooklyn and friends of mine were already recording. So I started doing session work and, you know, singing in the background, and I did a whole lotta that. And then I started doing a bunch of 12-inch records under alias names. I was on Prelude Records, I was on Sire Records, I was on Criminal Records. I did a whole lotta dance music. That’s how I started. I was very entrenched in the dance music world. All the club stuff that you might’ve partied to years More than likely you heard my voice on something.
Smitty: I never would’ve known that.
WD: Yup, and that’s how I started. And then one year I released a record with one of the stupidest names or aliases I’ve ever been under. I worked with a guy named Arthur Baker, and Arthur did a record….he had some concept for a group called Wally Jump Jr. & the Criminal Element on Criminal Records. And this was for real, my hand to God: Wally Jump Jr. & the Criminal Element on Criminal Records. We released this record….it was an answer record to Gwen Guthrie. Gwen Guthrie had a record out called “Ain’t Nothing Going on But the Rent.” We did an answer record called “Ain’t Gonna Pay You One Red Cent.” I kid you not. This record somehow hits in England. I’m not talking about like “We gotta have this record.” We were flying to England seems like once a month to perform. So the record company that had released the record in the U.K. wanted me to do a record. So that prompted me to start my own record in 19….I think I started recording it in 1986-87 and it came out and it was self-titled Will Downing. And that came out in 1988. And it did absolutely nothing here in America and it went gold and platinum in Europe.