Phone interview conducted December 6, 2011
Like just a handful of others whose careers started in the late ‘80s, Will Downing has survived everchanging times, the domination of rap and hip-hop within black music, the erosion and virtual disappearance of record stores, pre-programmed radio formats, tough economic times globally and his own share of personal health challenges which may have slowed him down for a few years but never stopped him for being a mainstay artist in the world of soul music. He’s recorded an amazing sixteen albums and now he’s venturing forth as a pioneer by releasing three EPs over a seven to eight-month span rather than doing the traditional twelve-song album for an existent record company. It’s a brave new world for the man justifiably dubbed ‘The Prince Of Sophisticated Soul’ as David Nathan – who’s been interviewing him since 1991 – finds out in this engaging conversation…
David Nathan: Well, there are some people that I interview over the years that I enjoy talking to; there are a few people that I didn’t enjoy talking to—very few people that I didn’t enjoy talking to—and there are some people that, when I first began interviewing them, that began what I consider to be a long-term association/friendship. And the gentleman that is the focus of our interview today at SoulMusic.com is one of those who falls into the latter category. I believe, if I’m correct, the first time we actually spoke was for the bio of his groundbreaking album… which title has gone completely out of my head, I’m ashamed to say. And so I’m going to have to introduce him and then he’s going to have to remind me what the… I can’t believe I just blanked out on the album title. But anyway, I know the songs on it—I know it has ”For All We Know” on it; I know it has “The World Is a Ghetto” on it…
Will Downing: I’m going to make you squirm, man—I’m going to make you squirm.
DN: Of course while I’m speaking I could always do the sensible thing, which is I could go online and look.
WD: No, I’m going to give you the answer.
DN: But the gentleman to whom I’m referring is the inimitable prince of sophisticated soul, Mr. Will Downing, who I have had many great, great conversations with over many years. And I will just add one more thing, and this is a memory that will stay with me forever—and probably with him forever—was sitting in a car, putting him on the phone with one of his musical heroes, the late Mr. Luther Vandross, and having them have a brief conversation. And it was just a really great moment for me to be able to be somehow the initiator of that conversation. And so without further ado, as they say in the United Kingdom, please welcome to SoulMusic.com Mr. Will Downing. And I know any moment now he’s going to tell me the name of the album, but you know what? I’m going to beat him to it, because—
WD: No, you’re not.
DN: —I just found it, it’s A DREAM FULFILLED.
WD: There you go; you done good. You were stalling: all the time you were talking you were typing on the Internet trying to figure it out!
DN: All right. LOL… Well, welcome to SoulMusic.com.
WD: Thank you, David.
DN: The occasion of our particular interview is the release of the first of a trilogy of EPs that you’re putting out, so let’s start right there: let’s talk about the whole concept behind your trilogy of EPs and how in fact that’s come about—how did the decision-making come to have you actually choose to do this rather than just a straight-out new album?
WD: Well, it’s weird. Over the years I just found that music listeners and music buyers have changed—their concept of listening to music has changed dramatically. It’s almost as if everyone’s perspective now is to go online to go to some sort of listening service, whether it be iTunes or Amazon, CD Baby or something like that, listen to thirty seconds of a song and decide whether or not they want that song, as opposed to buying the whole project. And let me tell you what really made me do this project this way: I had two friends call me months ago and say, “Hey man, I just heard your latest single on the radio. Man, it sounds amazing. When’s the record coming out?” And I’m looking at the telephone and I’m going, “I gave you the record; you’ve had the record for close to a year. And it’s song number twelve on the record.” And I confronted him and he said, “Well you know what, man? I kind of listen to about three or four of them, and then I’m at my destination or that’s just my listening pattern or I move to something else, or…” And I just thought to myself, “You know what? I think that’s probably what I need to do. I probably need to get focused on three or four things at a time.” And that’s what I’m doing. So you’ll hear from me all year long, but I’m only going to give you four or five songs per project.
DN: That’s fascinating. Thanks for explaining it, that’s a really fascinating [concept]… which shows that you’re actually listening to your public.
WD: Of course—of course, you have to. We spend all this time recording twelve, thirteen songs at a time, spending this exorbitant amount of money, and then people just concentrate on three or four or five, and the radio only concentrates on the singles. So it’s like, what about those other six or seven songs? They’re just throwaways? No, I put my blood, sweat and tears into those things. So the way I’m doing it is four or five songs every four or five months—and you will get to know those four or five songs intimately and hopefully yearn for the next four or five—and after that, another four or five. So I’m calling this project… the first one is entitled YESTERDAY…. In February we’ll release something called TODAY, and that will be all original Will Downing songs with the sound that you’ve grown accustomed to over the last twenty-something years. And then in June I’ll release a project called TOMORROW… and I don’t know what I’m going to do with TOMORROW yet, but it’ll be something different and something I’ve never done before. And then we’ll put them all together and we’ll call the project YESTERDAY, TODAY & TOMORROW.
DN: That’s brilliant. Well, let me ask you: I get the concept of four or five songs at a time, but where did the idea of doing YESTERDAY, TODAY & TOMORROW come from?
WD: Actually, a friend of mine always mentions he loves the way I do remakes. He’s, “Man, you bring back the tunes of yesterday and yesteryear.”
DN: Very true; very true.
WD: Thank you. So I didn’t want to do a complete project of that, but I wanted to do more than I normally do: I normally do one or two songs per project. So I said, “Well, why don’t we just extend it? We’ll do four or five.” And that’s where the YESTERDAY came from. And then he just says, “Well then, do what you normally do.” Okay, well, that’s TODAY. And then people are always asking me to do something that I’ve never done before, whether it’s a gospel record or whether it’s duets… some people have asked me to go back to doing some of the club and dance stuff that I’ve done years ago. So maybe that might be TOMORROW—I don’t know yet.
DN: Wow. Well, how do you feel, as an artist, having that kind of freedom to make those choices? Because as we know, even the idea of having that amount of freedom is part of history more than it is part of the current music industry.
WD: Well, I’ve been blessed to have been able to make records that I always wanted to do, for the most part. It’s been very rare that the company has come up to me and said, “You have to do this,” or “I want you to do this,” or one of those imposing kinds of things on your artistry. So I’ve been making the type of records that I’ve wanted to make since I started my career. I think that the hard part is that I’ve been doing it for so long, I think that the public at large looks at me as, “Oh, it’s just another Will Downing record.”
So you always have to come with some sort of spin to make yourself more current, more new… just something in the know. You have to keep doing creative things to stay active or they’re going to throw you by the wayside, so I keep throwing them curveballs. I think it’s good music and they seem to like it, so I’m on the right path.
DN: Well, let’s talk about the choices you made for the EP YESTERDAY, and tell us a little bit about how did you arrive at those specific choices. And of course, tell us what they are. I already know what they are, but for the benefit of those listening why don’t we go over each of them individually?
WD: You got it. The first song off the new EP YESTERDAY is “La-La Means I Love You”, The Delfonics. And I’ve always loved the song—I think that I wanted to give it a different approach. Obviously the original is falsetto, so I’m not going all the way up there and singing it, so…Yeah, I’d be squeezing my butt cheeks singing on that “La-La Means I Love You”. So you can’t beat that version, so I did it in my natural voice and then I gave it this Midwestern stepper sort of thing—you know, a Chicago, Detroit kind of thing—and just made it my own. And I’ve just always loved the song, so it just made it more of a fun song. And at the end of the song we have almost like a sing-along or call-and-response sort of thing, and I think it’s going to work really well live, as well. So that’s my version of “La-La Means I Love You”.
DN: Okay, and next?
WD: “Send for Me”. I believe it was originally done by Atlantic Starr…
DN: Correct. Brilliant song—brilliant, brilliant. One of my favourite songs of all time; one of my favourite R&B songs ever… ever and ever and ever. I loved that song then and I love it now.
WD: Oh, great. Well, it’s a great song. But it’s funny, when I talk to people from the UK, the version that they remember is the version by Gerald Alston.
WD: Yeah, two or three people I’ve talked to in the UK when I say, “Oh, yeah, the song ‘Send For Me’ ” and I say Atlantic Starr they go, “Atlantic Starr? I’ve never even heard of Atlantic Starr. I know Gerald Alston’s version.” So it’s obviously a great song, now with three interpretations on it. And that song came about… I was working with Rex Rideout on the project, and I told him what I was doing and he said, “You know what song people always ask me for you to do? ‘Send for Me’.”
WD: Yeah, so he came up with an arrangement for it.
DN: Well, that’s pretty simple.
WD: It really was that… I wish it was a deeper story, but no.
DN: All right, and next?
WD: The next song is “This Time I’ll Be Sweeter”.
DN: Great song; great song.
WD: Another great song. The version that I know best is the Angela Bofill version, and Angela and I have a history together, as you know, off of that same project. But we were introduced on A DREAM FULFILLED for the first time I did my interpretation of “I Try”. So the song “This Time I’ll Be Sweeter”, same thing: lyrically I just thought that it was something that needed to be said from a male perspective. So I did a version of “This Time I’ll Be Sweeter”.
DN: I think you are, and of course we’d have to absolutely check this, but I believe you are the first male vocalist to do the song. The song actually has a very interesting history. Very briefly, before Angela Bofill recorded it, it was recorded by a lady from Britain, Linda Lewis, and it was then recorded by Martha Reeves, who also was on the same record label as Linda Lewis, Arista. And then it was recorded by Roberta Flack, and that was a result of her association with the late Gwen Guthrie, who was the cowriter of the song; and then finally it got to Angela Bofill, and I think that Angela Bofill was the only person who had a hit with it… well, in fact, she was the only person who had a hit with it.
So, interesting history to the song. And now, as I say, I think you are the first male vocalist to do it, so again, great choice. Let me just check in with you about one thing: everyone who’s a Will Downing fan knows you did “I Try”, but didn’t you also do one other Angela Bofill song?
WD: Let’s see…
DN: Or am I making that up? I thought that you’d done something else that she had recorded, and I can’t remember what it was.
WD: I probably did. You’ve got to remember, David—
DN: You’ve made how many albums?
WD: This is album number sixteen. So if you’re averaging ten songs a project…
DN: Somewhere in there, there might be one.
WD: Yeah. I’ve recorded a hundred and sixty songs, so…
DN: I gotcha.
WD: Hey, I recorded songs for you.
DN: That’s true! That’s true, that’s true, that’s true. So what is the next song?
WD: The last song is Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, “Ooo Baby Baby”. I don’t know how I came to do that song. I have a radio show as well, and I think I was playing it on my radio show and I just heard—as I often do when I hear songs—I just hear me singing them, and then I just did a different version of it. I tried to emulate what they did musically—I don’t think I ventured too far from the original musically—but I just heard it in a lower key and I gave it a Will Downing sort of thing.
DN: And did you hear that song growing up?
WD: Of course.
DN: Because it is kind of like a staple for most people who have any familiarity with Motown, and certainly with Smokey Robinson and The Miracles.
WD: Exactly. I have two sisters that are older than me, and they’re like Smokey fanatics. And there’s nothing wrong with that—I’m glad the people who like me are like that. But they are like Smokey fanatics; if he’s coming to New York, they go. So I’m shocked they didn’t smack me for doing a version of “Ooo Baby Baby”—you know, “How dare you mess with an iconic song!” but they seem to like it.
DN: Good, good. Now since you mentioned the next EP, TODAY, is coming out in February, I’m going to assume that it’s already recorded?
WD: No. No, two songs are already done and actually, I’m writing on one right now and the last one is still to be done yet.
WD: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. The two songs I recorded already I did with Chris “Big Dog” Davis and Gary Taylor, so we have those two all ready. And if I have any problems lyrically and melodically with this next song, trust me, I’ll be calling Mr. Gary Taylor, getting some insight as to what I’m missing or what it needs.
DN: Now have you known each other a long time?
WD: Yes, Gary and I have known each other for probably close to twenty years.
DN: And again, let me make sure I’m correct: you did at least one song of his on your CLASSIQUE album?
WD: Correct, I did a version of “I Won’t Stop”.
DN: That’s right. That’s right, see?
WD: Man, you’re good.
DN: My memory may not be so good about albums from 1991, but it’s pretty good for albums from a couple of years ago!
WD: There you go.
DN: Now one thing you didn’t say, and just to make sure that everyone who’s listening is clear, these the EPs are only going to be available initially online and not as physical product. Is that correct?
WD: No, that is incorrect.
DN: That’s incorrect, okay—so they are actually going to be physical EPs?
WD: There are physical CDs; yeah , absolutely. You can come to my website, willdowning.com, and click on Merchandise and order it that way, or you can order it from companies like CD Baby or you can order it at Amazon.com. But what I did do, it’s almost like a collector’s item: we only pressed up a very limited amount, so there’s only three thousand hard copies available.
DN: Now that’s interesting. So the thing of course that we haven’t covered that is implied in what you said is that of course you’re doing this yourself: it’s not on a major record label, it’s being done independently.
WD: Correct, correct. And that is by choice.
DN: So of course you having said that brings us to another topic—which is, naturally, tell us how come that is the case, that in fact you are not… I know you had an association for a few years there with Peak Records.
DN: Am I correct that that was your last recording association?
WD: Yes. And they came back around this year and made me an offer to do a record, but… there’s an old phrase that goes, “If you keep doing the same things, you’ll keep on getting the same results.”
DN: I don’t think that’s an old phrase. I think it’s actually the condition of being a human being.
WD: Well, yeah.
DN: I think that’s true of everything in life.
WD: Well, that statement basically came to pass with this company. And trust me, I like the people over there, but I just think that we were doing the same exact thing… it was like Groundhog Day. I’d release a record and I’d be talking to the same exact people and going through the same exact everything. And it was just, “You know what? It’s time for a change.” Then they come to me because of what the economic scheme is in the world today with a much lower number to do a record, and I just didn’t see the up side. There was no up side, aside from having someone to distribute a record, and the way technology is today, hard copies of music aren’t as prevalent as downloads.
DN: Correct, correct.
WD: So I have a computer and have access to the same Web that they do—the World Wide Web, the Internet—and hey. Okay, well, let me give it a shot, and let me see if I fail. And so far it’s been a success.
DN: Now that’s another level of freedom, of course, to have the control… it’s beyond creative control, it’s actually you really are taking charge of a very important part of your destiny. And particularly, as both you and I know and everyone who’s aware of you knows, you’ve been building and you have built a solid audience over the last twenty years, so it’s not like what a new artist would run into where they have to build from nothing to create an audience and then do their own thing. So you’ve already got that history and have that base and that audience, so how does it feel now to have taken the next step in having the freedom to do what you’re doing?
WD: Well, it’s a double-edged sword. Obviously you have the freedom to do what you like to do, but on the other hand you have the responsibility of covering all the bases of things that under normal circumstances you never see or hear about. So that’s tough, because it almost seems like you’re a step behind. Just when you think you’ve covered one thing it’s like, “Hey, did you check on promotions over here? Did you call radio today? Hey, have you checked on retail?”
Even online: “Is there enough product over here? Do they have product here? Why don’t they? Who doesn’t want it? Why are you taking such a small amount? Has this person paid you for the product that they took?” So you can do this all day long, and it’s mind-boggling. And then I have my personal life as well, I have my family and I have my career as far as live shows are concerned. So it’s overwhelming, but at the same time it’s probably something I should have done a long time ago and it’s also a way for me to get in contact with people who I really should know on a one-to-one basis that I haven’t known for twenty-something years.
DN: I gotcha. And I would think the other up side of it is you’re in direct contact with the people who buy your records.
WD: Exactly, exactly. So it puts you in contact with, first off, your retailers—your independent retailers—and it also puts you in contact with your buying public. And that’s important because those are the folks that have stayed with me for the last twenty-something years, and it’s good to be able to kind of shake their hands, talk to them one on one on email—whatever it is—and really make a personal connection. We’ll be together until the career fades away, if in fact that’s the case.
DN: Well, let me ask you, since we know that this is a different world that we live in in terms of how recording artists work and performers work: do you use social media a lot to ensure that you are interacting with your public?
WD: Yes, like everyone else. It’s weird—and once again I’m going to use the old phrase “double-edged sword”—because the one thing you can use to sell your product is also the same thing that everyone has access to. So the bad thing is that if you are driving here in America they have the left lane, which is the fast lane: everyone’s in the fast lane. So it’s like, okay, everybody can’t be here—something’s gotta move over. But no one moves over. So it’s like when you turn your computer on—even you. The first thing you do is you get hit with tons and tons of everything. “Do you have insurance? Have you purchased this? You need to get this! Look over here! Come pay attention to me!” You know what I mean?
And you get hit with that, and then somewhere in there I pop up. By the time I get there it’s like your eyes said, “You know what? I’m sick of looking at this stuff. Let me just get to where I want to go.” And that’s the problem.
DN: Yeah, I gotcha. But as you said, it’s a double-edged sword.
WD: Yeah, that’s the plus. At the same time, you have access to the world; it’s just what do you do or what is it that you’re doing that makes you more interesting than someone else.
DN: In terms of you mentioned performing, are you still actively performing on a regular basis?
WD: Oh, yeah.
DN: So that’s been ongoing?
WD: Oh yeah, oh yeah. That never stops. Literally, I just got back from doing two weeks of dates where I did America: we did Seattle, we did San Francisco, we did Memphis, Portland… so we’re hitting all these places. It’s a lot of work, but it’s what I’ve always done.
DN: Do you feel a sense of rejuvenation with the fact that you’re doing this project yourself, these three EPs? Does it give you a sense of rejuvenation when you are out there performing?
WD: Definitely, definitely, definitely, because you’re the recipient of your hard work—the direct recipient of your hard work, as opposed to someone sending you a form that says, “Hey, you sold five records and we’re taking a large percentage of it, so here’s your cut.” If there’s any cut at all. So you really feel like, “Okay, when I get out onstage, I’m selling me.” And the way things are these days even in regard to retail, you almost do two shows a night: you’re onstage and you’re performing, and then after the show you literally have to run out to the lobby of the venue that you’re playing, set up a table and a chair and then say, “Okay, I’m standing right here—come on, come get my product.”
DN: It’s really interesting you said that. Here in London one of the venues that I go to with some frequency because it’s where artists perform is the Jazz Café. And traditionally what would happen here is that the artist would do the show, go upstairs, go into their dressing room and maybe—maybe—twenty minutes later come back down and sign CDs and so on. And in recent instances, two in particular—George Duke, and on other side of the spectrum, Kindred the Family Soul—both decided that it was really foolish to get offstage, go upstairs, and come all the way back down. So they literally got off the stage and walked off the stage right next to where the table is, right next to the stage and started signing the CDs—of course, selling the CDs, and DVDs where appropriate—and signing them. It’s like there’s no gap anymore, and as you said it’s like doing a second show. But the heartwarming part is that they actually get to shake hands with people, take photographs with people; and it really cerates a different kind of bond with the audience.
WD: Definitely. And you know what’s funny? You used the example I was going to use and the person I was going to use as the example, George Duke.
WD: I saw George Duke when I was in San Francisco, not on this trip but about a year ago, and he was playing at a club called Yoshi’s. And literally, he did exactly what you just said. I was out in the audience watching the show, and he did the show, walked off the stage, went down the stairs, walked through the audience, went to the lobby, sat down and started signing. And I said, “Okay, I’m not that far off base, because if someone like George Duke is doing it, things have gotten to a low point”—as far as folks just don’t go out and go to stores anymore. At least here in America, they go to megastores. We have stores like Best Buy, Target, where people aren’t necessarily going in there to buy music; they’re actually going in there to go buy computer stuff or they’re going to buy a refrigerator or a microwave, and they just happen to pass by the music department and then if you’re fortunate enough to be in the front bin where they can just see, then great. But they’re not really looking for you. So it’s a very strange time. Then your indie retailers, or—they don’t like to be called this, but mom-and-pop stores—become like a dinosaur and things of the past. So it’s very strange out here, David… very strange.
DN: Well, it’s strange and as we said, the flip side of it, as you could say, is exciting, rewarding and gives you that direct contact. And you feel, as you said, that you’re getting immediate reward for your work by having performed, I’m sure, those songs you just mentioned: “Ooo Baby Baby”, “This Time I’ll Be Sweeter”, “Send For Me” and “La-La Means I Love You”, and then someone can actually buy them immediately afterwards rather than having to think about it.
WD: Right. Right, absolutely. Absolutely, you’re correct.
DN: Well let me ask you, since we’re going to wind down, what about your international audience? And I say that because I know that your focus has for many of the past twenty years been on your American audience, and I don’t actually know: have you done any touring outside of the United States?
WD: Within the last how long?
DN: The last five years?
WD: When was the last time I was in the UK?
DN: Well, that was a while ago.
WD: It was a while ago… when I think, actually, I played the Jazz Café. So that would be around 2006, something like that. It’s weird. Once again it’s tough, because the Internet gives you access to the world, which is great, but I think the downside is that the economic side… the things that we probably used to take for granted years ago have come in focus. Where we used to be able to take over a whole band, economically it’s not feasible anymore. So doing an international trip has to be a big deal. You’ve got to have more than one or two dates lined up in order to make it economically feasible for everyone: the promoters, the musicians, the featured artist… everyone’s got to be able to make a dime. So it’s tough, it’s tough. If there was a bigger demand for what I do there I guess I would be there more often, but we really do have to have a legitimate hit in order to come over and make it work.
DN: I gotcha. Are there any other parts of the world that you have yet to explore in terms of performing?
WD: There’s a lot of places. I’m always hearing a buzz about me being semi-liked in Australia, but that’s a handful of people, so I don’t know if jumping on a plane and travelling for twenty-two hours… okay, is there really an audience there or you just hyping me up? That’s a long way to travel for a handful of people. So it’s still a chess match out there, the validity of one’s career in a different country.
DN: Well, all I know is that we’d like to see you back in the UK and we’d like to see you sometime soon, so hopefully somebody will have the good sense to book you.
WD: Well, you know what? And you’ve tried as well, we’ve had many offers, but we’re just trying to make it feasible for everyone.
DN: In the meantime, until then we at least have access, as does everyone else, to getting your music online and buying it either in the limited edition—which means anyone who’s listening to this and wants a copy better hurry up and get it at one of those different sites you mentioned: either your own website or CD Baby or Amazon—better hurry up and buy a copy until there are no more copies left. And of course for those who prefer it, you can go download any of the songs on the EP and prepare for the next one.
WD: Correct. There you go; I couldn’t have said it any better.
DN: Well, Will, it’s always great talking to you, and I’m really excited about what, I guess, is a new chapter in your career and look forward to you continuing. And really, in a sense, I guess you’re setting up a model, a prototype for others, because I don’t know anyone who’s done what you’re doing the way you’re doing it.
WD: Well, it’s very strange, man. It’s funny, when I released my EP I heard that Trey Songz did the same exact thing. Now I don’t know if he’s going to be doing it piecemeal like this, and I’m not sure what his motive is behind it, but he released an EP as well, so I don’t know if it’s going to be a trend of things to come. I’m not sure… I’m not sure.
DN: Well, you’re certainly the only person I know in your specific field that’s doing this, and it’s great to see. So I consider it to be a pioneering move, so when we look back we can say that Will Downing was the first one to initiate this new way of presenting music.
WD: Yay! [Laughs].
DN: All right. Well, it’s always a pleasure, thanks again, and we’ll catch up with you again in the next few months so we can hear more about the EP TODAY.
WD: You got it.
DN: All right, take care now.
WD: Thanks, David.
DN: All right, bye.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.