On His New Album, Will Downing Pays Tribute To Mothers Of Soul

Aug 7, 2016

For his latest project, singer Will Downing decided to pay homage to some of R&B's greats. Female chart-toppers from the mid-'70s to early '90s — Phyllis Hyman, Deniece Williams, Cherelle and Chaka Khan, to name a few — are Downing's contemporaries and his inspiration, and hail from an era in which soulful love songs ruled pop culture.

Downing's latest album, Black Pearls, is a tribute to the great women voices of the genre. Among his covers is "Everything I Miss At Home," by Cherelle. "When I first played it for my sister, the first thing she said was, 'That's the do-right song: I play that song at home when my husband ain't acting right,'" he says. "When she heard my version, she said, 'I never thought about it from a man's perspective.' So it puts all of these songs in a whole new light — if it's relationship-based."

In his 28 years in the jazz and R&B world, Downing has sold more than 4 million albums worldwide. Born in Brooklyn in 1963, Downing grew up surrounded by musical influences: the early days of hip hop, the classic sound of R&B, the beginnings of club and house music in Chicago. Before putting out songs under his real name, he released five or six singles under assumed names: Wally Jump Junior and the Criminal Element, RT and the Rockmen Unlimited, The Goon Squad.

"I did all those things before I found out what I wanted to do musically," Downing says. "And when I did find out, in 1988, I released my very first solo project" — this time, under his own name. His first song was a cover of "Free" by Deniece Williams, an artist he returns to on Black Pearls.

Hear the full interview with Downing at the audio link.

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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

In his 28 years in the jazz and R&B world, singer Will Downing has sold more than 4 million albums. His latest "Black Pearls" is an album of all cover songs from some of R&B's greatest female voices...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEET ME ON THE MOON")

PHYLLIS HYMAN: (Singing) Meet me on the moon.

SUAREZ: ...Including singer and actress Phyllis Hyman's 1977 hit "Meet Me On The Moon."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEET ME ON THE MOON")

HYMAN: (Singing) How I hate to wait.

SUAREZ: Here's Downing's version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEET ME ON THE MOON")

WILL DOWNING: (Singing) 'Cause you're so great. Fly into my love. That's what...

SUAREZ: Will Downing joined me in the studio to talk about this latest project and the challenge of covering songs by women without changing the essence of the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEET ME ON THE MOON")

DOWNING: (Singing) Everlasting moment of love.

SUAREZ: Now, this is a very old thing. It's not new - covering songs of first hits by others, but often when men sing songs that were made hits by women or women sing songs that were - they re-engineer the song. They change the lyrics. Yours is a straight-up tribute.

DOWNING: Well, yeah, absolutely. I mean, they're hits, and they were hits for a reason. So, you know, why - if it's not broke, don't fix it. Is that the old saying? So it was right the first time, sing the melody, just sing it beautifully and represent yourself and the male interpretation of a lot of these songs that were done by female artists.

SUAREZ: Do you have to find a way to make it your own while still paying respect to the the integrity of the original hit?

DOWNING: Well, it automatically becomes my own as soon as you hear those songs done an octave down.

(LAUGHTER)

DOWNING: Automatically, that puts me in my own lane, but also just the definition of a lot of the songs - it takes on a whole new thing when you hear it coming from a man's perspective. So it becomes very interesting with some of the subject matter on some of the songs.

SUAREZ: Well, yeah. Well, it - love and relationships. Did it always work? Was it always a comfortable slide to start singing these songs and think would a man really say this? Would a man really say it this way?

DOWNING: Well, I think that's the way it should be done. You know, my sister with the first single that we've released, "Everything I Miss At Home," a song originally done by Cherrelle - it's a song about a woman who is not satisfied at home and saying, hey, there's someone else out there who would be more than willing to do everything that you won't do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING I MISS AT HOME")

DOWNING: (Singing) You give me attention. You're someone who understands my needs, someone who is sensitive. You give me everything, thing I miss at home.

SUAREZ: I can't remember hearing a sweeter, more endearing song about having an affair.

DOWNING: (Laughter) That's a good way to put it. Yeah, that's a very good way to put it.

SUAREZ: Or maybe the justification for having...

DOWNING: There you go, yeah, yeah. I wouldn't do wrong if you would do right. I got to write that down. That could be a nice song title.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING I MISS AT HOME")

DOWNING: (Singing) At home.

SUAREZ: Are you risking that the fans of these great artists coming back at you and saying, hey, come on, not this?

DOWNING: Well, from a fan's perspective, I mean, it should be interesting to find out what people feel about the interpretation of a classic song because people know these songs for what they were and what they are. So it should be interesting. I don't expect all the feedback to be 100 percent positive in my direction, but, you know, it gives you something to talk about.

SUAREZ: You came up in Brooklyn.

DOWNING: Yes, I did.

SUAREZ: And the '70s and early '80s - things were going in a lot of different directions with the early days of hip-hop, along with some of the classic times of R&B. How does a guy who wants to be in this business, who wants to be a creator figure it out for himself?

DOWNING: Well, I didn't figure it out. It kind of fell into place. Primarily when I started in this business, I was a background vocalist, so I did whatever was required. I also came up in the era of club music and house music, "The Sound Of Chicago." I would put these records out under assumed names, so I've been a guy named Wally Jump Junior and the Criminal Element on Criminal Records. I was RT and the Rockmen Unlimited. I was a group called NV (ph).

So I did all those things before I kind of found out what I wanted to do musically. And when I did find out in 1988, I released my very first solo project. And the first song that I released was actually an artist that I covered on this latest record which was Deniece Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK BUTTERFLY")

DOWNING: (Singing) Black butterfly sailed across the waters, tell your sons and daughters what the struggle brings.

SUAREZ: What's changed about R&B in the mix of the music world since those days?

DOWNING: Oh, what hasn't changed? You don't hear as much instrumentation as you used to hear. Back in the day, you'd hear live drums, keyboards, strings, horns. Those days, you know - not so much. I don't know if it's a cost factor or just the sound of the world has changed, but I've kind of gone back to my roots on this recording. So on this recording, you get to hear live strings.

SUAREZ: So real people?

DOWNING: All real folk. Folks got - they've got employed, and they played well. So that's the job. That's the way it used to be, and I'm bringing it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILL DOWNING SONG, "NIGHTS OVER EGYPT")

SUAREZ: You mentioned The Jones Girls. This song...

DOWNING: "Nights Over Egypt," a song originally done by The Jones Girls, so...

SUAREZ: How do you make it your own?

DOWNING: Well, I've just always loved the song. And it's funny, like, when you interpret these songs the way you think you know a song and then when you sit down and you have to do it and perform, it's like I never knew what the lyric was (laughter). I didn't realize what, OK - well, what does that mean? So it kind of made me do a little bit of homework, and I hope I did it some justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHTS OVER EGYPT")

DOWNING: (Singing) There's a star in the east over pyramids at Kingstown where there once lived a girl. She ruled the world. Then down the Nile she came with a smile.

(Singing) He was the king. She was the queen under the moonlight.

Wasn't there - I can't remember the rest. But (singing) nights over Egypt, nights over Egypt.

There you go. My music teacher would be happy I put that T at the end.

SUAREZ: (Laughter).

DOWNING: (Singing) Egypt.

(LAUGHTER)

SUAREZ: Will, thanks for coming on the show.

DOWNING: Thanks, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STREET LIFE")

DOWNING: (Singing) I live the street life because there's no place I can go. Street life, it's the only life I know. Street life...

SUAREZ: That was singer Will Downing. His latest album is called "Black Pearls."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STREET LIFE")

DOWNING: (Singing) Until you play your life away. Other people see just who you want to be. And every night you shine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.