FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Will Downing has sung, written and recorded R&B for more than two decades. He's worked with musicians including Jennifer Holliday and Kool & the Gang. The Brooklyn native also gets kudos for his interpretation of classic jazz tunes.
(Soundbite of son, "I Try")
Mr. WILL DOWNING (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) I try to do the best I can for you. But it seems it's not enough.
CHIDEYA: Earlier this year, Downing was diagnosed with a rare disease that causes extreme fatigue and muscle weakness. Now, he has to use a wheelchair. But that hasn't stopped him from using his powerful voice as well. Will Downing has just released his 13th album. It's called "After Tonight," and he recorded it, in part, from his bed.
NPR's Tony Cox spoke to Downing about his new CD and triumphing over his illness to continue his career.
TONY COX: Polymyositis. Am I saying it right?
Mr. DOWNING: Actually, you did very well.
COX: As I understand it, from what I've read about, there are different types of this autoimmune disorder. So tell us what you are going through.
Mr. DOWNING: Well, basically, it affected me in a way where - taking away my muscles in, let's see, in my legs, hips and in my upper arms, which, you know, makes it very difficult for you to lift your arms and to walk. So it kind of relegated me to, you know, sitting in a wheelchair and/or lying in bed. You know, you can't do much without the aide of anyone else.
COX: Now, you recorded then this new CD, "After Tonight," while you were going through this?
Mr. DOWNING: Absolutely. I make, like, you know, quick reference to it in a joking sort of way. And I called it "Songs From The Black Chair." You know, so I was actually, you know, sitting in the wheelchair while doing my vocals or lying in, you know, lying in bed.
COX: Are you saying actually recording, singing while you're lying in bed?
Mr. DOWNING: Engineers would come by and put the microphone in between my legs while I'm sitting on this wheelchair and you go to work.
COX: Man. You know, isn't your voice affected by your body position - meaning sitting or lying down as opposed to standing?
Mr. DOWNING: Oh, without a doubt. I mean, your air passages are compromised. So you have to find different techniques and different ways to do things and, you know, you're certainly not going to be able to hold a note longer than you would if you're able to stand up. Not to mention that the disease also - it takes away from you being able to breathe at full capacity. So you just - you make do with what you got.
COX: You know, you've been called an R&B singer, a jazz singer, a gospel singer, a soul singer. You even recorded a John Coltrane classic, "A Love Supreme" with vocals. How do you define your sound, or do you?
Mr. DOWNING: I just call it, kind of, urban adult contemporary music. It's a gumbo of all the things that I love. I love R&B. I love contemporary jazz. I love traditional jazz. And I just mix it all up together.
(Soundbite of song, "After Tonight")
Mr. DOWNING: (Singing) After tonight, I'm gonna show you how to make love. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. After tonight, I'll be only one you're thinking of. After tonight I bet you'll never be the same in love. You'll never be the same in love. After me loving you. After me loving you. After tonight, tonight, tonight.
COX: You know, the new CD is titled "After Tonight." That's a nice song and I wondered if it was a part of a theme or whether - was it just coincidental that it was "After Tonight" and it was the first song that you put out on this new CD.
Mr. DOWNING: Well, initially, you know, my plan was to kind of do sort of a Marvin Gaye-ish(ph) "What's Going On" theme, sort of, a record. And then when I had taken ill, you know, the record has, sort of, taken like another direction. But we had had about four songs done before I'd gone down.
COX: You know, you performed on a tribute album for Luther Vandross. And in parts of your song on that CD, you even sound like him. Was he an influence?
Mr. DOWNING: Oh, a huge influence. Luther, you know, was a major talent. Someone that when I was coming up, you know, affected, you know, the way I listened to music, the way I recorded music and the way I wrote. So probably one of the - to me, one of the greatest singers of all time.
COX: You know, crooning isn't what it used to be, is it? I mean, do you think audiences appreciate that style the way they once did?
Mr. DOWNING: I think that there's an audience for a little bit of everything out there. It's just unfortunate that we don't put more focus on that type of music and support artists that do that type of singing.
COX: Now, I understand, Will, that your wife - who is a background vocalist -Audrey Wheeler, composed the song "God is So Amazing" on this new CD. It has kind of a gospel tinge to it. Tell me a little bit about the song. And also, talk about working with your wife.
Mr. DOWNING: We've been working together and known each other for 25 years or so. So we have had the pleasure of recording with her in the past and doing a few duets with her.
(Soundbite of song, "God is So Amazing")
Mr. DOWNING: (Singing) Imagine…
Ms. AUDREY WHEELER (Background Vocalist): (Singing) Someone…
Mr. DOWNING: (Singing) …someone…
Ms. WHEELER: (Singing) …who can…
Mr. DOWNING: (Singing) …who can change everything in your life. Someone…
Ms. WHEELER: (Singing) Someone…
Mr. DOWNING: (Singing) …who can…
Ms. WHEELER: (Singing) …who can…
Mr. DOWNING: (Singing) …take all your arms and make them divine(ph). He can ease all your pain and strife, if you just dedicate your life to Christ.
You know, it felt it was very easy to record the song "God is So Amazing" and to write it with her because, you know, it's all in the house. I'm writing the song, I got stuck. I said, hey, honey, come in here. What would you say here? And she came up with something and, you know, we wrote the song together. So, you know, we both had very strong feelings about the meaning of the song and it was a very easy song to write.
COX: Now, it's already been released. Is that correct?
Mr. DOWNING: That is correct.
COX: What's been the initial response?
Mr. DOWNING: So far so good. I mean, you know, from a critic's standpoint, the record is being hailed as one of the best ones ever recorded. I'm more concerned about public reaction than anything else. You know, you want the music to be heard and to be understood and liked and/or loved. So I'm really anxious to read more articles about what people think about the music.
COX: Well, you know, Gerald Albright and Kirk Whalum are, certainly, people you cannot go wrong with. But for my money, I was just so happy to see Roy Ayer's name on this CD with you.
Mr. DOWNING: Oh, Roy is an old friend of mine and an amazing talent. So that was a no-brainer.
COX: Is this a career crossroads for you do you think? And if it is, what is it that you hope for?
Mr. DOWNING: Well, I mean, it is a career crossroad. I think that the music industry is very youth-oriented. So, you know, this is my 28th year recording. I'm very fortunate to be able to still be in the game in a very active way on a major label. I think, you know, something big has to happen. And I put my best foot forward and it's not going to stop me from singing. But, you know, this is a business, you know? And I think that people are expecting big things from me. And I'm playing that they come back because we certainly put our best foot forward on this project.
COX: Will Downing, thank you so much for coming in. I appreciate it. And good luck to you.
Mr. DOWNING: Thank you very much. I appreciate your time.
CHIDEYA: That was singer Will Downing speaking with NPR's Tony Cox. Downing's new CD is called "After Tonight."
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