R&B star sings with re­newed spirit

> Down­ing’s voice pro­vided strength in med­i­cal cri­sis

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Music - By Mark Jor­dan

Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

At the height of his ca­reer, smooth R&B singer Will Down­ing found him­self at the low­est point in his per­sonal life.

In late 2006, the Grammy-nom­i­nated singer was di­ag­nosed with polymyosi­tis, a chronic dis­ease that causes the body’s im­mune sys­tem to at­tack mus­cle, caus­ing skele­tal mus­cles to in­flame and mak­ing al­most any bod­ily move­ment ex­cru­ci­at­ing, if not im­pos­si­ble. At one point, the con­di­tion be­came so bad that Down­ing was con­fined to a hospi­tal bed, barely able to move.

With his own body seem­ingly in re­volt against him, the one thing that kept him go­ing, the one part of him­self that did not fail him, was his voice.

“Singing has al­ways been an out­let for me,” says Down­ing from his New York home. “When I was fi­nally able to sing again, it gave me some­thing to look for­ward to, as op­posed to lay­ing up in the hospi­tal bed wait­ing for some­body to visit.”

With treat­ment, in­clud­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion of im­muno­sup­pres­sant drugs orig­i­nally de­vel­oped in mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phy re­search, Down­ing slowly im­proved, get­ting around first in a wheel­chair and then with a walker. He was barely out of the hospi­tal, how­ever, when he went back into the stu­dio to make his 2007 record Af­ter Tonight.

Down­ing is also back on the road, ap­pear­ing Satur­day at the Can­non Cen­ter with smooth jazz sax­o­phon­ist Na­jee, an old friend dat­ing back to when they were both ris­ing stars on the New York scene in the early ’80s.

“I’ve known Na­jee about 25 years,” Down­ing says. “We’re go­ing to do two sep­a­rate sets, but you never know when we’re go­ing to get to­gether and do a lit­tle some­thing, some­thing.”

The loy­alty of Down­ing’s la­bel, Peak Records, in­spired him to keep go­ing, de­spite his ill­ness.

“When the record la­bel said, ‘We’re go­ing to stand by you. We’re go­ing to honor our end of the con­tract,’ I thought, ‘Man, this is great,’ ” says Down­ing. “It just kind of gave me a rea­son to get up on cer­tain morn­ings and to push my­self and to mo­ti­vate my­self to do what I’ve al­ways done.”

Af­ter Tonight be­came one of the big­gest hits of Down­ing’s ca­reer, reach­ing No. 1 on the Bill­board R&B chart even though the wheel­chair-bound Down­ing could do lit­tle to pro­mote it.

“That’s like the first No. 1 I ever had on the R&B charts in my life, and I couldn’t even get up and dance to cel­e­brate,” jokes Down­ing, adding that the whole ex­pe­ri­ence gave his mu­sic a re­newed sense of pur­pose. “I’d be the first to ad­mit once you get past a cer­tain amount of cities or project you be­come com­pla­cent. You don’t push your­self as much. When some­thing like what hap­pened to me hap­pens, it helps you put thing in per­spec­tive and makes you want to be the best that you can be.”

Two years later, Down­ing’s re­cov­ery has con­tin­ued. Though he will al­ways live with the con­di­tion, he is walk­ing on his own and is back to “85-90 per­cent.”

“They’re not go­ing to wheel me out on stage. They’re not go­ing to do the Teddy Pen­der­grass thing or any­thing like that,” he says, evok­ing the mem­ory of one of his mu­si­cal he­roes.

Down­ing has also re­sumed his mu­sic ca­reer full force. In June he re­leased Clas­sique, his 14th record of jazz-tinged con­tem­po­rary R&B. Co-pro­duced by Down­ing and long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor Rex Ride­out, the record is, de­spite its ti­tle, not a col­lec­tion of great­est hits or cov­ers, though he does re­visit ma­te­rial by, among oth­ers, Marvin Gaye and Down­ing’s most ob­vi­ous vo­cal in­flu­ence, Barry White. In­stead, th­ese are all new record­ings that, Down­ing says, re­flect his in­vig­o­rated artis­tic out­look.

“This record was re­ally a plea­sure to make,” he says. “Peo­ple who kind of said, ‘He’s out. He’s down. He’s at death’s door.’ You have to prove them wrong. So, there’s that re­newed spirit again. I said, ‘I’m go­ing to sing my heart out on this record,’ and that’s what we set out to do.”

In ad­di­tion to record­ing, Down­ing, who has al­ways been a so­cially com­mit­ted artist, has thrown him­self into help­ing a va­ri­ety of char­i­ties, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Stroke As­so­ci­a­tion, the Amer­i­can Heart As­so­ci­a­tion, and par­tic­u­larly the Mus­cu­lar Dys­tro­phy As­so­ci­a­tion, be­cause of its role in help­ing him con­quer his dis­ease.

Most re­cently, Down­ing cut a song for a com­pi­la­tion by the cloth­ing com­pany Pri­vacy Wear, with all the pro­ceeds go­ing to breast can­cer re­search.

Will Down­ing, “85-90 per­cent” back from a se­ri­ous ill­ness in 2006, has a new al­bum and a tour.

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