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Thursday, July 10, 2003 02:20 pm

One of a kind

Big Al Downing plays this Saturday at the Rooftop Roots Fest

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Big Al Downing

For Big Al Downing, it all started with an upright piano salvaged from the trash heap. The piano had been carted home for firewood, but once his family discovered the instrument still worked they moved it indoors. At first the piano served only as a stand for their most prized possession: the radio. But eventually it kindled a different kind of fire in Downing.

He was 13 in 1953, one of eight boys and two girls in a sharecropping family in Lenapah, Oklahoma. The days were long, and the work was hard, but he remembers music being everywhere. He and his brothers loaded trucks while the truckers' radios played country songs. At night, the family would gather around the piano to listen to their radio.

"It was an old RCA Victor with the dog looking up at the speaker," Downing recalls. "We could pick up the Grand Ol' Opry." He heard Porter Waggoner and Hank Williams, and he would stay up late to hear John Richbourg on WLAC in Nashville. Richbourg's show, "From Way Down South in Dixie," played "race music": R & B mixed with gospel songs and Delta blues. As Downing listened, he began to noodle on the keys of the old piano. At first, he just mimicked the basic melody lines. "But eventually, I started picking out Fats Domino. . . . I'd just follow that bass line--I could hear it--and before you knew it the kids in school were asking if I could play tunes at recess."

A friend entered Downing in a talent contest sponsored by a radio station in Coffeeville, Kansas. Al took first prize performing "Blueberry Hill." A musician in the audience, Bobby Poe, was so impressed that the next day he traveled to the Downings' place in Lenapah. "It was raining so hard that day the roads were all but mud," Downing says. "I don't know how he made it out there, but he came and said he wanted me to join his band. That's where everything changed. I went from shucking wheat to playing music. But I can tell you: I was scared."

At the age of 16, Downing hit the road with an otherwise all-white band. Back then, mixed-race bands were virtually unheard of, but Poe believed his group would appeal to a larger audience by adding Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry songs to its repertoire of material by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly. Downing began to grow as a musician: "A lot of times people say my piano sounds different. I play a lot of bass. I got that with the Poe Kats. We didn't have a bass player so I always carried the bottom. If I started to play something up high, they'd say, 'No--we need you to keep that groove.' "

The Poe Kats toured Montana, Texas, Idaho, and Oklahoma. Often Big Al was the only black man in the county. "It wasn't always easy," he says. The crowds could be mean. "Plenty of times they wanted me off the stage--they'd yell slurs at me and swear." His bandmates smuggled him into motels with a towel over his head.

There is a startling openness in Downing's voice as he recounts this experience--there is no bitterness. Many of the songs on his new CD, One of a Kind, reflect philosophically on these formative years. In "I'm Too Green to Be Blue," he sings, "We've got to find a way to heal our hurting hearts."

"You can't be bitter," Downing says. "You've got to have something else to keep you going. For me it was the music. It was what I loved."

The Poe Kats ended up in Boston, and a two-year run backing Wanda Jackson followed. Downing played piano on Jackson's biggest hit, "Let's Have a Party." He also began recording his own songs. The Poe Kats scored a 1958 hit with "Down on the Farm," now a rockabilly standard. "That song came straight out of Lenapah," Downing says with a laugh. "I worked with my brothers in the field, and when we saw something that caught our eye we'd make a game out of it--we'd try to rhyme something with it."

Success came to Downing as both a performer and a songwriter. His songs have made the charts 27 times, and they've been covered by such artists as Fats Domino and Bobby Blue Bland. He's perhaps best known for his own 1979 hits "Mr. Jones" and "Touch Me." That same year he won Billboard's New Artist of the Year and Single of the Year awards. He says his latest album--his first in nine years--has "some of my best songs."

"This is what I do," Downing says. "I play over 75 dates a year. . . . I think there's still another number one out there with my name on it."

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