|Big Al Downing
country music legend and Rockabilly Hall of Famer, Big Al Downing,
passed away from complications stemming from Leukemia. Please keep
his family in your prayers. Big Al's music and warm personality shall
surely live on forever!
Al was born on January 9th, 1940, in Lenapah, Oklahoma, about 30
miles out in the country through muddy roads off the old Route 66.
Al's family were sharecroppers. He had nine brothers and two sisters.
One of his earliest recollections of music was when the family had a
spiritual quartet. He started playing the piano at the age of 13. He
found his first piano at a junkyard, only about 40 keys worked, but
Al loved it. Al tuned in to WLAC Radio out of Nasville listening to
black r&b - early Fats Domino, Joe Turner and them guys. Al recalls,
"And so I used to sit up late at night and listen to em, then I tried
to pick out the notes on the piano from the songs they played. When
Fats Domino came on, his piano was kind of a thumpin style, y'know,
it was kinda easy to pick up. I got to liking country music as well.
My dad liked The Grand Ole Opry and on Saturday nights we wanted to
listen to rock 'n' roll on WLAC, but dad said 'No way'."
From these musical roots Al progressed and was talked into going in
tor a talent show run by Radio KGGF just across the state line in
Cotteyville, Kansas. Not only did Al win the show but he immediately
got into a band. Bobby Poe, who had a rockabilly band going at the
time, heard the show and persuaded Al to join. The idea was to cover
the whole spectrum of rock 'n' roll music - Bobby would do the
'white' Elvis and Jerry Lee numbers while Al would do the 'black'
Fats Domino and Little Richard. Although such an arrangement may
made sense artistically, it was nevertheless quite a radical move in
the days when segregation was still very strong. Al remembers all the
humiliations of having to hide under a blanket to get into hotel
rooms and of having to eat at the poorer end of the restaurant while
the whites ate at the other. But he figured that it was worth
sticking it out for the sake of the music.
At first the band was called The Rhythm Rockers and then later on
they called themselves the Poe Kats abd they started sending demos to
various record labels. Of all the record companies that they
approached, including Sun in Memphis, it was White Rock in Dallas
that showed the most interest. Significantly that was the first time
the band submitted one of their own songs, none other than "Down On
The Farm." Out of the first session at White Rock in January 1958
came "Down On The Farm" and "Oh Babe," which were credited to Al,
"Rock 'n' Roll Boogie" and "Rock 'n' Roll Record Girl" credited to
Bobby Poe & The Poe Kats, although, of course, Al played on all the
tracks. Rock 'n' Roll Girl typified the somewhat split personality of
the band. In what is essentially a white teenage rock 'n' roll number
sung by Bobby, Al throws in a chorus of Good Golly Miss Molly. Under
the watchful eye of Lelan Rogers (Kenny's brother) things were going
well at White Rock, not only that, the boys got themselves noticed by
Jim Halsey who was booking Wanda Jackson at the time. As a result The
Poe Kats went on the road for about a year with Wanda and backed her
on sessions at Capitol's famous Hollywood Studios.
Meanwhile back at White Rock another session was set up. Although
Challenge seemed to have lost interest, the equally prestigious
Carlton label of New York, who had Jack Scott, stepped in to lease
Big Al's "Miss Lucy" and "Just Around The Corner" for national
distribution. From the same session "Piano Nellie," credited to Bobby
Poe & The Poe Kats, was sold to the Atlantic subsidiary East West. In
1959 Carlton came back for more but this time they really pulled out
the stops, setting up a session for Al at Cosimo Matissa's studio in
New Orleans. Al turned it on Fats Domino style. Indeed, with backing
from Alvin 'Red' Tyler, Mac Rebbenack (Dr. John) and Charles 'Hungry'
Williams, all top New Orleans session men, he had all the
encouragement he could have wished for in copying his idol. An even
bigger thrill was to come for Al, when Fats recorded four of his
The recording sessions continued for a variety of labels under a
number of psuedonyms, all in the search for that elusive hit. In 1960
Al recorded in Washington with original Poe Kat, Vernon Sandusky. Al
and Vernon remained in Washington and in 1962 put out The Saints and
Heartbreak Hill on their own Kansoma label. By this time rock 'n'
roll as we know it was having a hard time. A year after a recording
session with Little Esther in Nashville, Big Al was to make his last
and some would say one of his greatest rock 'n' roll records.
"Georgia Slop," a Jimmy McCracklin number, was recorded in New York
in 1964. From then on Al turned to soul music and came up with the
occasional minor hit. In the late 1970s Al went back to his roots
with country and western music. But Al has by no means given up on
Rock 'n' Roll. Like Fats Domino, Al is a totally lovable guy who
enjoys his music - even the sad songs come out happy.
Adapted from an interview by Chris Woodford, 1994 curtisy of Black Cat