Sometimes life gets in the way. For Will Downing, The Prince of Sophisticated Soul, more than two decades of critical and commercial success as a singer was suddenly at risk-along with his life. There’s a long, rich tradition in the Black church of testifying, sharing “testimony” about a point of great adversity in life, when the power of God and prayer turn everything around against all odds-that “low point” marking a test, God’s test of faith. In late 2007, in the very prime of his life, Will Downing faced an almost unimaginable test. A sudden onset of the auto-immune disease polymyositis threatened everything he held dear: his health, his ability to provide for his family, his musical gifts, and life itself. Weak, frail and nearly paralyzed, he did not curse God, but instead said a prayer: “Lord you see me through this and I promise I will give you all the honor, all the praise…wherever I go.” He didn’t turn away from God and God didn’t turn away from him. Twelve years later, Will Downing is a walking, singing testimony of the power of faith and prayer. And he delivers on his promise with his new CD, THE PROMISE, an inspirational album-actually his first gospel album — to be released November 9, 2018 by Shanachie Entertainment.
Though THE PROMISE will likely be categorized as a gospel album or a “praise-and-worship” album and while those elements are there, such categorization misses the larger intent. The album is Downing’s heartfelt 10-song thank you letter to God for bringing him back from the edge of darkness into His marvelous light. A close listen reveals his pain, gratitude and, yes, his “testimony” to all who find themselves losing hope against incredible odds. As such, on THE PROMISE, Will Downing taps previously unrevealed aspects of his talent to step boldly outside of his “Prince of Sophisticated Soul” persona to pour raw unblinking emotion into a musical re-creation of his journey from hospital bed to wheelchair and ultimately back to the stage. In short, this is a Will Downing no one has heard before in his now 30-plus year career, as one who stared down his own mortality and emerged, through faith, on the other side, blessed to continue to do what he does best.
“As I lay in the hospital bed, all hope seemingly gone,
I started to pray like never before, begging for help
and promising God that if he got me out of this
I’d do whatever he needed and wanted me to do.”- Will Downing
“In 2007, I got sick,” Will recalls. “I mean really sick!!! I was losing weight at a rapid pace and my overall strength was diminishing. Some of the basic things in life had become difficult-standing up, walking, shaving, putting on a belt, driving…being a hard-headed man I didn’t go to the doctor; I blamed my condition on stress or general wear-and-tear or fatigue. The last straw was when I was driving with my wife and daughter in the car and I couldn’t turn the steering wheel. I decided then to go to the doctor where they drew blood and sent me home. By the time I got home they’d left a message for me to go to the hospital. The next day I was pretty much paralyzed, with no use of my legs. After a few weeks of testing they diagnosed me with a rare auto-immune disease called polymyositis. As I lay in the hospital bed, all hope seemingly gone, I started to pray like never before, begging for help and promising God that if he got me out of this I’d do whatever he needed and wanted me to do. It took a year plus of being in and out of hospitals before I saw any progress. And, yes, I was still in a wheelchair. God sent me angels; people would come over from the rehab center on their own time to my home to help in my recovery. Along with my friends and family, they seriously helped in getting me slowly back on my feet. Producers and writers would come and work by my bedside and wheelchair, making new music.”
Will was finally able to resume recording and performing, making several new albums of the sophisticated soul style that brought him success. But then it came time to fulfill his vow to God and so he began work on THE PROMISE.
From the first notes of THE PROMISE, Will takes us to church with the initial piano and organ chords of the opening track “Take It To The Cross.” This toe-tappin’, hand-clappin’ kick-off sets the perfect tone with the message to take your burdens to the Lord. The opener is followed by the album’s first single, “Look At Yourself (In The Mirror),” a thumping horn-driven reminder that while God is omni-present, He allows each of us to find him in our own way. The message is clear: you are the total sum of the choices you make in this life. To that end, be the change you want to see in your self, so that you can look at yourself in the mirror and be pleased. “I Hear A Voice” delivers the spiritual impact of the moment when Downing knew his prayers had been heard and his fight was not his own-that moment when God speaks to your heart and lets you know He’s with you and will see you through, the turning point of Downing’s “test.”
A striking thing about THE PROMISE is that musically even as Downing ventures into the gospel realm, he does so on his own terms, forging a music distinct from typical gospel sounds but maintaining the essence of his unique style. Perhaps the most deeply personal song on the album is “You Blessed My Life,” a kind of gospel ballad. It’s a slowed down and stripped down, full-blown love song with Will singing directly to God in humble gratitude for his entire life’s journey-the ups as well as the downs. He delivers the song with unashamed, tearful sincerity that grows with every measure, a sincerity that is all-too-rare in popular music these days. “God Is So Amazing” truly embodies the miracle of Downing’s recovery. This song originally appeared on the AFTER TONIGHT release which was begun just before and continued just after the polymyositis diagnosis. A close listen to that release reveals a variety of colors in the strength and tone of Downing’s signature baritone from one song to the next, especially on the original version of “God Is So Amazing,” which was recorded in determined fashion from a hospital bed. The re-recording of this song for THE PROMISE is sterling testament to the faith of a man who could praise God as much at the height of his illness as he did in full recovery. THE PROMISE concludes in a nod to the classic Will Downing sound as he duets with Regina Belle, an R&B diva of great faith. And thus, with this moving new album, Will Downing fulfills his promise to God.
“Timing is everything, “Will notes. This is what God wanted me to do. My Mom had been on me for years to do a Gospel/Inspirational record and I said I’d get to it one day It just felt like now was the time. God has blessed me abundantly and now I’m keeping my word to Mom and to my God.”
Born in Brooklyn, NY in 1963, after attending college in Virginia, Downing moved back to New York City finding work as a session singer. Signed to Island Records he broke through in 1988 with the album WILL DOWNING on Island’s 4th & Broadway label; his distinctive version of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” hit #4 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Songs chart. There followed a string of best-selling albums that established Downing as one of those rare artists who could blend R&B with a jazz sensibility, all delivered with a gorgeous, rich baritone that stood out from amongst the popular singers of the day. The sheer quality and uniqueness of Downing’s artistry meant that his albums sold hundreds of thousands of copies even if there was no radio hit. Indeed in 2000 he won a Grammy award in the Best Traditional R&B category for his album ALL THE MAN YOU NEED.
“I believe God spared me for a reason, “Will says. Indeed he has made it his mission to lend his time, name and presence to the awareness and fund-raising efforts of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, donating a portion of recording proceeds to the organization which he credits with helping him through his own battle. He also makes a priority of mentoring aspiring singers and musicians. It is all about keeping that “promise.”