Will Downing's 'Soul Symphony'

R&B singer and composer Will Downing talks about his new album, Soul Symphony.

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ED GORDON, host:

Also out this week, Will Downing's latest CD, "Soul Symphony." The aptly titled disc highlights Downing's trademark smooth soul delivery surrounded by rich jazz arrangements. Downing has recorded a dozen albums relying on the same strong baritone voice. And it's that voice that's earned him a large, steady fan base.

Mr. WILL DOWNING (R&B Singer): They've helped me sustain my career since I started in '88. You know, there's a core base of about, you know, 200,000 to about 250,000 folk that come visit my Web site and, you know, we communicate with one another. It's a great thing, man, to have, you know, some consistency in your life.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Mr. DOWNING: (Singing) Say, girl, tell me the last time you had a minute to yourself. Leave me in the background so I can look at you, so I can look at you. Oh, I'm looking at you right now, looking at you right now. And all I got to say is `Wow.'

GORDON: Talk to me about the process for you in finding music and picking songs. How do you go about that?

Mr. DOWNING: I can't wake up and say, `I'm gonna write a song today.' But something could happen in my life and, you know, that might trigger me writing a particular song, and it might be autobiographical.

GORDON: How difficult is it for you to know that as an artist, and that's what's emoting from you and you want to get that out, yet wanting to keep some of it personal? Is that a Catch-22 for your?

Mr. DOWNING: It is a Catch-22 because I know that some of the songs that I've written over the years have been an outlet for me, but at the same time, the recipient of the song may feel the backlash of it. Years ago, I did a song called "Sorry, I," and at the time, I was going through a divorce.

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOWNING: And I wanted to, you know, tell my ex-wife at the time that I was sorry, and she wouldn't listen to me. So I put it in a song.

GORDON: Hey, well, let's get into some of the new music...

Mr. DOWNING: You got it.

GORDON: ...on the "Soul Symphony" project. You have a song on there called "Will Still Loves You." Talk to me about the genesis of that song and who you're singing it to.

Mr. DOWNING: There's a lot of single parents out there, you know, female, and when they come out to the shows or they come out to special events that we do, they share their life stories with me. So a lot of them are out there working, they're out there on their own. They may have children, and they share these things. And I said, `You know what? I'm gonna write a song for you guys, about you guys.' And the song is called "Will Still Loves You."

(Soundbite of "Will Still Loves You")

Mr. DOWNING: (Singing) Two jobs, two kids at home, still feeling like you're all alone. Keep your head up is what you gotta do, you know that Will still loves you. You need to cry.

GORDON: Well, one of the interesting things that I found on the last album, and you carried it over to this album, is that, for those of us who come from the Midwest, we know with no explanation, you just talk about steppin', and there is particular music and beats that go to that. You have put together a song to meet that audience.

Mr. DOWNING: Yeah, the name of the song is "Soul Steppin'," and this is a song for those who like to step, those who like to hand dance, whatever it is. I've been doing one song like that first CD for the last at least three or four CDs.

(Soundbite of "Soul Steppin'")

Mr. DOWNING: (Singing) Hey, and you'll be soul, soul steppin.' Come on and let the music move you, come on and let the music move you to your soul, soul steppin'. Just you and me, baby, mm-mm.

Mr. DOWNING: I started out basically doing more up-tempo kind of dance music. I had a record out on a label--and don't laugh--called Criminal Records. And we had a group name, which is even sillier, called Wally Jump Jr. & the Criminal Element. The things I had to do to pay the mortgage, bro, but...

GORDON: Well, it all worked out, man.

Mr. DOWNING: Thank goodness.

GORDON: Let me ask you something. You took on--as you say, you are known for, much like the gentleman I'm about to mention, Luther Vandross, doing remakes and really, to a great degree, making them your own. But this time, you take on a tune that really is difficult sometimes when Luther has touched it, and it's a Leon Russell-penned song, and that's "Superstar." Why'd you decide to do this? Was it at all having to do with a tribute to Luther as well?

Mr. DOWNING: Well, it was. Last year, we did a tribute concert to Luther. It was called Forever, For Always, For Luther. Prior to the concert, there was a record released called "Forever, For Always, For Luther." Now per Luther's request, he only wanted instrumentalists and female vocalists to do remakes of his songs on this CD. But when they did the concert at Madison Square Garden, I got a telephone call saying, `Hey, we want you to be a part of this.' So I said, `What songs are left?' And they gave me a list of songs, and I saw "Superstar" on there and said, `Well, you know, I guess I'll take "Superstar," my tribute to the late, great Luther Vandross.'

(Soundbite of "Superstar")

Mr. DOWNING: (Singing) Don't you remember you told me you loved me, baby. You said you'd be coming back this way again, baby. Baby, baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, I love you. I really do.

GORDON: Well, you have been one of the few who've been able to churn album after album after album out. We've heard a lot of guys come to the table. They'll do an album or two, and because of the industry now, this music isn't played in the frequency that you and I grew up on. What is it about the Will Downing sound that allows that? Is it something in the water that you're drinking?

Mr. DOWNING: That good Jersey water, good New Jersey water. I think that it's just a testament to me knowing who I am, fortunately, being born and recording at the right time, and I've built up such a core base that, you know, I guess somebody's making some decent money out there off of what I do and, you know, they're allowing me to continue doing it.

GORDON: Well, we're happy that they're allowing you to continue to do it.

Mr. DOWNING: Me, too.

GORDON: The new CD is "Soul Symphony." Will Downing is the artist, and we're so glad you're no longer--What was it?--the Gangster...

Mr. DOWNING: Oh, Wally Jump Jr. & the Criminal Element.

GORDON: ...Wally Jump Jr. Hey, Will Downing, always good to talk to you, my friend.

Mr. DOWNING: You, too, man.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Mr. DOWNING: (Singing) Everything that I just say and do is because I'm crazy in love with you. You're everything I've been longing for...

(Credits)

GORDON: To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Mr. DOWNING: (Singing) ...crazy love, crazy love...

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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