R&B star sings with renewed spirit
> Downing’s voice provided strength in medical crisis
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.