Will Downing — Featured Smooth Jazz Artist Archives

May 2013

Will Downing – The Master of Sensually Soulful Ballads

Will Downing lives up to his name “Will Power” as you will see through his monumental journey of music and personal life. He’s a singer, composwill downing er, music producer, humanitarian, and family man. He’s been in the music industry for over two decades creating remarkable recordings and intimate performances around the globe. He’s recognized as the premier male vocalist for his baritone voice which embodies a sensuous blend of jazz, R&B, and pop. Downing is all that and more. He is also one of the early musical alchemists that fused melodic soul music with demanding jazz grooves, giving birth to what is now called “smooth jazz.” 

Will Downing, born Wilfred Downing on November 29, 1963, is a native of Brooklyn, New York. The soulful artist gets his inspiration from musicians like Donnie Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire and The Ohio Players. He started his musical journey in junior high where he sang in the Brooklyn Borough-Wide Chorus. This was around the time that he realized girls liked guys who could sing, and he knew this is what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Around 1978, he enrolled in the famed performing arts high school Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, New York. The high school had one of the strongest performing arts programs in the city and included among its alumni singers Barbra Streisand and Stephanie Mills, record company executives Clive Davis, founder of Arista Records, and Kedar William Massenburg who later became president of Motown Records. Coincidently, Downing eventually recorded for Motown.

Downing then attended college at Virginia Union University (VUU) in Richmond, VA. His college career was short-lived. After just one year at VUU, he returned to New York City in the mid-1980s to pursue opportunities as a recording session backup singer. He performed on albums by Jennifer Holiday, Kool & the Gang, sax master Gerald Albright, Billy Ocean, Regina Belle, Mica Paris, and others. He also started recording 12-inch records under alias names on several record labels such as Prelude Records, Sire Records, and Criminal Records.

His first recordings started with dance music. At this time in his life, he was very entrenched in the dance music world.  With Criminal Records, he worked with producer Arthur Baker in a group called Wally Jump Jr. & the Criminal Element.  They released a record called “Ain’t Gonna Pay You One Red Cent” which answered a record that singer Gwen Guthrie had recorded called “Ain’t Nothing Going on But the Rent.”  The record was a huge success in England. The company releasing the record in the U.K. wanted Downing to record a self-titled album.  That album came out in 1988, and while it struggled in America, it did amazingly well in Europe, going gold and platinum. 

Downing’s discography of albums includes: Will Downing (1988), Come Together As One (1989), A Dream Fulfilled (1991), Love’s The Place To Be (1993), Moods (1995), Invitation Only (1997), Pleasures Of the Night (1998), All The Man You Need (2000), Greatest Love Songs (2002), Sensual Journey (2002),  A Million Ways-Remix (2003), Collection [Import] (2003), Emotions (2003), Christmas, Love and You (2004), Soul Symphony (2005), The Best of Will Downing: The Millennium Collection (2006), After Tonight (2007), Classique (2009), Lust, Love & Lies: An Audio Novel (2010), Yesterday (2011), Today (2012), Tomorrow (2012), Silver (2013).

The crooner recorded two successful albums in the late 80s, Will Downing, which had a hit single with his version of John Coltrane’s piece, “A Love Supreme,” and Come Together As One, the latter being a pop- and dance-oriented collection of R&B songs  reflecting Downing’s love for jazz. However, his breakout 1991 album was A Dream Fulfilled. With this album, Downing found his musical identity. This was the first of a string of successful albums that focused on smooth, romantic music — mostly ballads.

Often compared to his friend, the late Luther Vandross, Downing was actually creating his own brand of love music less urban-focused and more focused on jazz. Even now, Downing’s songs are just as sensual as those of Vandross.  He shares the late crooner’s sensibilities, singing to women on a truly romantic level and transcending the physical.

That 1991 breakout album was an amazing piece of work indicating that Downing not only possessed a fine baritone voice but was an excellent song stylist, skillfully handling such diverse songs as the Latin-funk band WAR’s “The World Is A Ghetto,” and Paul Davis’ “I Go Crazy,” as well as providing a stunning, definitive version of Angela Bofill’s “I Try.” Both the single and the album hit the Urban Top 25, earning widespread critical acclaim from the masses.

Downing scored his best-selling album to date with about 235,000 copies sold in the United States and over 300,000 copies in Great Britain after switching labels from Island Records to Mercury Records for his fourth album, 1993’s Love’s the Place to Be. He remained with Mercury for two more albums, Moods in 1995 and Invitation Only in 1997, both of which sold well to Downing’s core fan base.

The singer then signed with legendary jazz label Verve Records in 1998 and, that year, released Pleasures of the Night, a collaboration with saxophonist Gerald Albright. The album returned him to his initial focus on contemporary jazz music. However, several record label changes left him without the momentum to achieve breakthrough commercial success, a situation he attempted to change with the more R&B-directed 2000 album All the Man You Need.

Although the album won Downing a Grammy Award nomination for Best Traditional R&B Album, the experience left the singer frustrated with the interference by his record label on his music. He later changed labels again, signing with GRP Records for the release of Sensual Journey. This album brought the balladeer back on solid ground returning to his sensual smooth groove style.

In 2002, Downing received the Diamond Award from the International Association of African-American Music for his help in promoting and preserving African American music. Retaining his artistic integrity remained an important goal of the singer’s work, as he explained on his website: “I try to look at my performance from an emotional standpoint. Are the words that I’m saying being portrayed the right way? Is the person on the other end of the speaker getting it, is it touching them, did it make them think? If I did that, then the mission’s accomplished.”

In December 2006, Downing was diagnosed with Polymyositis, a devastating muscle disorder, leaving him bound to a wheelchair and threatening to end his award-winning musical career. Despite the setback, he was determined to complete his debut album for Peak Records, After Tonight, for which he had recorded four songs prior to his illness. In the spring of 2007, Downing worked from his home, putting down vocals despite severe weakness and fatigue. He said “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” occasionally moving from chair to bed to complete a vocal piece. Out of this situation came another five wonderful songs, including the album’s gem, “God Is So Amazing,” a simple, melodic testimony of faith during difficult times.  It was notably one of the year’s best songs. Ironically, After Tonight was his lucky 13th album and a first for the Peak Records label. Downing said, “Every word and every breath gave special meaning to this album.”

The artist had excellent advice for others going through life’s battles. “Keep your faith. It’s the only thing you have to rely on. Every day will not be sunshine. When this happened to me, I was cussing God like a champ. But you have to push yourself to the limit. You have to be around to do it. If you really have the will to live, you can do it. Surround yourself with positive people. Don’t let man tell you, you can’t do it. God can do anything.” This is where Downing used pure “Will Power,” his faith in God, his wife, family, and friends to triumph over adversity as he fought through the debilitating effects of the muscle disorder. Listening to After Tonight, you can hear music created  and recorded by a man who demonstrates the artistry that encompasses a true balladeer and puts him in a class of all his own.

Downing returned to the stage on July 26, 2008, at the LA Jazz and Musical Festival. In 2009, fully recovered,  he began work on Classique, a new album of originals and three cover songs, with producer Rex Rideout at the helm. Downing’s sensitive touch is felt throughout the project - singing, writing, arranging and producing. Classique is quintessential from start to finish…a quiet but emphatic statement on the strength and confidence the Brooklyn native has garnered as he celebrates his 20th anniversary as “The Prince of Sophisticated Soul.”  It symbolizes a career in which the man and his artistry have been recognized for excellence from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) to the NAACP Image Awards.

In 2010, he delivered one of his most ambitious projects — an “Audio Novel” Lust, Love and Lies,  detailing a relationship going through various stages, underscored with spoken interludes between songs. The response from the music critics was overwhelmingly positive.

How does an artist who endured the challenges of reaching musical stardom yesterday stay relevant today, and continue to be on top of his game tomorrow? It’s been said “that creativity keeps long-term relationships fresh, interesting and exciting.” Downing obviously believes in applying that principle to the relationship he’s enjoyed over the years with his many loyal fans. He is always thinking outside of the box to reinvent himself, and he accomplished it once again through his innovative “musical trilogy” entitled Yesterday (2011), Today (2012) and Tomorrow (2012). The release represented a bold strategy, hitting the moving target that is today’s music consumer.

Now a fully independent and nationally acclaimed artist, Downing marks the occasion of his 25th musical anniversary as a solo artist with his new 2013 release Silver, a 12-track collection comprised of four new songs, seven from 2012’s Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow extended play (EP) trilogy, and a live rehearsal medley of three of his best-loved remakes. This is definitely a silver anniversary gift to his loyal fans, and I must say, “Thank you, Will Downing, for this wonderful gift!”

Beyond the music, Downing is a conscientious humanitarian, proven by his role as a spokesperson for the American Stroke Association.  He conducts the charity bowling event “Strike Against Stroke” to raise funds towards greater stroke awareness and education in the African American community, which is disproportionately affected. The American Heart Association awarded Downing for his efforts honoring him as a Celebrity Ambassador in their “Power to End Stroke” national campaign. Downing also supports the Myositis Association.

One of his favorite pastimes is photography. He is an avid photographer, and his camera goes wherever he goes, especially to his concerts, where he takes pictures of the artists that perform with him. He has amassed a large collection of musical talent on disc and decided to put it in book form. The 2005 self-published book is titled Unveiled Series 1. The art book showcases his work as well as the Fine Art by seven new and emerging African American Artists.

Needless to say, Downing has amassed a huge and loyal audience of contemporary jazz and R&B fans over the years as he has showcased breathtaking albums and concerts with his rich baritone vocals and unique interpretations of R&B and pop classics.

You have now witnessed Downing’s monumental journey through his music and personal life, and you see where his “Will Power” has triumphed over adversity. He is and will always be the “Prince of Sophisticated Soul.”  Don’t miss out on The Ride’s next “Artist of the Month.” Your favorite may be next. See you next month! – Rene Sutton