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Interview: Will Downing – “The Prince of Sophisticated Soul”

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There are many labels that have been attached to Will Downing over the course of his long, storied career: singer, songwriter, producer and, for good measure, "The Prince of Sophisticated Soul." Such titles fail to give any insight, however, on the fact that Downing—above all else—is a fighter, in every sense of the word.

Since the tail-end of 2006, Will Downing successfully fought—and recovered from—Polymyositis, a devastating muscle disorder, which left him bound to a wheelchair and threatened to end his award-winning musical career. And in the wake of overcoming his personal struggle, on a professional level, Downing has been waged in an uphill battle to keep the banner of "sophisticated soul" alive and well.

Upon the release of Classique, Will Downing managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Luther Vandross, European success, and the power of a ballad.

For many years, you have been affectionately dubbed as "The Prince of Sophisticated Soul." At what point did you first become aware of this title, and what are thoughts about it, in general?

Well, it’s weird. Someone put that on me. I was doing a radio interview at a college station. The guy who was interviewing me said it, and of course I kind of laughed and asked what made him say that. He said, "I think you’re one of the last few guys standing that represent this particular style of music." But then I asked: "Why couldn’t I be king?" His response: "Luther [Vandross] is the king." I thoroughly understood that. So at this point, I am kind of the heir to one of the greatest styles of music that has ever existed. It’s an honor.

It could be argued that you’re equally popular – if not more popular – in the United Kingdom. When did you first realize your European success and your transition into an international superstar? 

For me, it was very easy. The first record of the first recording in 1988, the European market and the English market gravitated towards the record a lot more so than the American market, so I ended up selling gold over there. I think we just sold a very limited amount of copies in America. Instantaneously, booking agents and promoters were calling and I found myself over there quite a bit. The relationship I had with the European market started extremely early in my career. 

What similarities and differences have you found in Britain’s taste for classic soul music?

Well, it’s very funny. Britain holds on to the past in a great way, especially with black music, but they’re very progressive as well. It’s very strange. Folks that you would not think are working are working in Europe. Over here, it may seem as if they’re not doing anything. But if you go overseas, you will see that they have flourishing careers. So the world is a big place, thank God. Just because we have one take on it doesn’t mean the world looks at it the same way.

Your latest album is entitled Classique. Not only is it your 14th album, but it represents an output of more than 20 years putting out classic records. When you think about that, what do you consider to be your greatest contribution to the music industry?

My greatest contribution is, I think, quality just in general. I don’t know if I turned the world in a different angle doing what I do but I think I’ve been somewhat of a keeper of the flame in this particular style of music. I’ve seen many an artist come and go. I’m grateful that people still want to hear what I do. I think I’m one of the few folks left doing it. I think it’s an honor to be one of the last ones standing. 

As a "keeper of the flame," did you at any point feel pressured or obligated to fill this particular void in the music landscape?

Well, I do. I mean I almost feel like a Wynton Marsalis. We almost feel as if it’s our responsibility to try to maintain a certain level of music and a certain level of quality. I think that’s very important. It’s not that what I’m doing is so completely off of what radio is playing now, but I think that when I do what I do, I push the envelope a little bit, you know, try to make it a little bit more musical. I think it’s real important that we do that – that we maintain a certain quality because if you don’t, it would lower the bar and it’s going to sound even worse than it does. Some of the sounds out there are really bad, unfortunately.

Back in 2000, there was a feature in Billboard where you adamantly stated that "a ballad lasts forever." As one of the few artists with lasting longevity in this business, expand on that thought and note the truth you see in that statement.

Well, in music I think that a lot of times that is the trend that I’ve certainly seen come and go over the last twenty and some odd years of my recording career: house music, New Jack Swing, and the list goes on and on. You know we’ve seen all these musical styles kind of come and go but a ballad is always going to be a ballad. A ballad is not going to change. You can’t beat a good song. We can put on a song right now, and if it’s an up-tempo song from twenty or thirty years ago, everybody’s going to look at you like you’re out of your mind. But a ballad – let’s say Heatwave’s "Always and Forever" – is always forever. That song is probably older than you – from the sound of your voice [laughing]. So that’s what I mean. A real good song, a ballad is forever. You put on a ballad from fifty years ago, you put it on right now and it will still be as relevant as the day it was back then. 

Along your musical journey, what other key professional lesson have you learned along the way?

This job is like a lot of other jobs. When no one’s watching, if you have the opportunity to cut corners, you could. That’s just the nature of any job. "Yeah, no one’s going to notice. So what? Big deal. It’s cool. For the most part, it looks right. It sounds right. It’s cool. No one is going to know." But the one thing that I’ve learned is music, and the arts in general, is that it lasts forever. So fifty years from now, some person might end up with one of my recordings and listen to it. They may judge my music the way I judged Beethoven or Louis Armstrong or Luther Vandross or Donny Hathaway or Stevie Wonder. You have to think long-term, so you might as well do it right the first time. Realize and know that this is a piece of art. At some point, someone’s going to revisit it. How you want to be represented years from now is indicative of how you work right now. 

In the current music landscape, few artists have felt compelled to bridge the gap between contemporary jazz and R&B. Why do you think there’s such a musical gap between these two genres? 

Well, I think that these days people kind of want a quick outlet – almost like fast food. For some people, that’s the goal. It’s all revenue-driven. But if you’re a real artist, you have to think long-term. A real artist is not really concerned about whether they make a million dollars at the first shot out. But if you work hard, you’ll end up making millions of dollars over the course of your career. A lot of the music you hear now is just like fast food. It tastes good for a minute and then it’s gone; there’s no substance. A lot of people are making a lot of revenue from that sort of mindset—trying to get a lot of people to buy a whole lot of records for just one time. Then they move on.

Over the years, you’ve written a lot of incredible songs as well as being a great interpreter of songs. What qualities do you look for in another artist’s song?

I look for something that I can relate to – especially if I’m going to be a storyteller. I like to be able to accept some of the experience. You can’t be a good storyteller and not be able to feel what the person meant when they wrote it.

On Classique, you pay homage to several artists who are no longer with us: David Ruffin (on "Statue of a Fool"), Barry White (on "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby") and Marvin Gaye (on "Baby I'm for Real," which was recorded by The Originals). Which of these covers holds a special place in your heart? 

I would probably pick the David Ruffin song more than anything else. It is one of my all-time favorite recordings. I’ve been hearing that song for thirty years and I wanted to do something special for him. I think it’s a great lyric, really nice song, beautiful song. 

My favorite cover on Classique is your rendition of "I Won’t Stop." What kind of relationship do you have with the songwriter, Gary Taylor?

Gary and I are long-time friends. Gary is an amazing songwriter. He and I have done many a song together. To me, this is one of his best songs. Believe it or not, I’ve had this song on hold for the last four years. It was good to have the opportunity to record it and give my interpretation.

In the liner notes of Moods, your fifth album, you stated that your passion for singing had dwindled because "the thing that had given [you] so much joy and happiness was now becoming more of a job: something [you] had to do more than something [you] wanted to do." Nine albums later, it is apparent and obvious that you have regained that passion. Does Classique represent a special era of your life? 

Oh, without a doubt. In 2006 and early 2007, I became ill with Polymyositis. That’s when I was recording After Tonight. It gave me a new appreciation for life. It gave me a new appreciation for my family. It gave me a new appreciation for my career. I kind of said at that point if God allowed me to do what I do with my music, then I would come back with a vengeance. That’s exactly what happened. I’m given another opportunity. It represents joy and renewed spirit in this record. 

You’re a very spiritual person and you always give special thanks to God for His blessings inside of your liner notes. There was a particular Scripture in your Soul Symphony liner notes that I wanted to point out: Matthew 10:30 – "but the very hairs of your head are all numbered." What does that particular verse mean to you on a personal level? 

To me it means that there’s a time limit on everything. You should live your life to the fullest. Everything has a number; even the hairs on your head are numbered. The days of being on this planet are numbered so make the best of it. Live your life. You only get one life. This is it. You’re not coming back to do this again. At least, you’re not coming back in the same way. So live your life to the fullest.

For more information on Will Downing, visit his official website.

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About Clayton Perry