The Downings were one of the most dynamic groups to hit the stage in gospel music. Starting in 1969, they consistently toured and recorded for about 8 years, and in that relatively short period of time, they created a trailblazing legacy of music that still lives on today. Many mixed groups today owe a debt of thanks to the Downings for the music they created and the trails they blazed. I am excited that for the next several weeks, we’ll be reviewing each of the albums by the Downings (14 albums total) and reliving the truly fabulous music they did.
I did not grow up hearing their music, and the only song I ever heard by them when I was a kid was the song, “Why Should I Worry or Fret” that was on a variety album released by Canaan Records called, “Gospel Time – Happy Time!”. I loved that song to pieces, but when I finally discovered gospel music in the late 70s, the Downings were already off the road and their music was not a part of my dad’s record collection. Fast forward a few years, and the next I song I remember hearing was in the mid-80s via radio station WWMO out of Reidsville, NC. They played “I’ll Soon Be Gone” and I fell in love with that song. In fact, the album that contained that song, titled “Neighbors”, was the very first album I ever bought of the Downings. I bought it from Harold Timmons at the 1994 Grand Ole Gospel Reunion in Greenville, SC and it was still sealed. I love telling this story…Ann Downing was at that event, and I took it to her to autograph and as she tore off the cellophane wrapper from that album, she laughed and exclaimed, “Lord I haven’t done this in years!”.
It was a series of fortunate events that led me to becoming a fan of the Downings. In the early 90s, the Benson Company released a series of recordings entitled, “All Night Singing…12 Gospel Groups Live”, where they re-released select vintage live performances by such groups as the Oak Ridge Boys, Sego Brothers & Naomi, Rambos, Hemphills, Speers, etc. It was this series of recordings that I discovered the Orrells and the Lanny Wolfe Trio, and it was where I really fell in love with the Downings. On those recordings were 4 live songs by the Downings…”Oh, I Want to See Him”, “Gettin’ Ready Today”, “It’s My Desire” and “Greater Is He”…and I was hooked! Also, around this same time, Daywind Records released a “Greatest Hits” recording of the Downings, which further piqued my interest in their music. After seeing the Downings perform during a reunion set at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion (the same event I bought “Neighbors” and had Ann sign), I was a full-fledged fan. I soon started hunting down their records, and my dear friend, Harold Dickerson in Louisburg, NC hooked me up with several of their albums and by the late 90s, I had all of their albums, with the exception of their first two records, which I acquired just a few years ago.
For those not entirely familiar with the Downings, here is a quick history lesson…Ann Sanders began singing professionally with the Speer Family in 1963, when she was hired to sing soprano and play piano on select songs. Paul Downing began singing professionally in the 60s as well and was the bass singer for the Dixie Echoes out of Pensacola, Florida. Eventually, he and Ann met and were married August 27, 1968, and as fate would have it, by 1969 they formed their own group, the Downings, and they were one of the hottest and most exciting groups during the 70’s. When they started out, they were a bit more traditional in nature, possibly driven by Ann’s tenure with the Speers and Paul’s exposure to singing traditional quartet music. Ann stepped down to sing alto and they hired a wonderful young lady, Sue Chenault, to sing soprano (who ironically, would eventually go on to join Ann’s alma mater, the Speers). Singing tenor was a young man named Greg Gordon (who was the son of Anna and Howard Gordon of the Chuck Wagon Gang) and Dickie Matthews was hired to play piano. Of course, Paul sang the bass, and was the emcee for the group.
The group brought a fresh new sound to the gospel music stage during the late 60s and enjoyed early success with such songs as “Jesus is Coming Soon”, “Rolling, Rocking, Riding”, “On the Sunny Banks” and their #1 song, “Sheltered in the Arms of God”. As the 70s’s dawned, the group enjoyed immense success with such songs as “Gettin’ Ready Today”, “City of Gold”, “Happiness”, “I’ve Got Confidence” and “I’ll Soon Be Gone”. The early years of the Downings offered a sound that fresh and vibrant, but they were different from everyone else out there. The unadulterated innocence of those early years made them such a fresh sounding group during this time, unmatched by anyone else.
As time went on and members came and went, the Downings sound began to evolve into a more contemporary feel. By late 1972, with the vocal line-up consisted of Paul and Ann, along with Dony McGuire and Joy Dyson. They were a force to be reckoned with, as they were churning out progressive sounding tunes like “Greater is He That is In Me”, “Operator”, “It’s My Desire”, “I Feel So Good About It” and others. Lots of groups were using strings and brass during this time on their albums, and it was hard to get that same feel and excitement from the record onto the stage with limited musicians, but the Downings had a band that wouldn’t quit, and they could generate that same excitement on stage and their 1975 live album, “Praise Him! Live!” was a perfect example of that. The excitement generated on that live album rivals any other live recording during that era.
With the Downings, there wasn’t just one vocalist that was the star, as they were a collective unit and each member shined brightly. But at the heart of the group was Paul and Ann Downing. Paul was an extremely effective emcee and could make any audience feel right at home with his genuine style. Paul was also a dynamic bass singer and could render great up-tempo bass features like “Daddy Sang Bass”, “One More Time” and “Rolling, Riding, Rocking”, but could also render some of the most profound solos on such heartfelt numbers as “Are You Tired?” (my favorite Paul Downing song), “Where Would I Be” and “My Promised Land”. Ann was an effective communicator as well and could pluck every single one of your heartstrings with such songs as “Sheltered in the Arms of God”, “The Broken Vessel”, “I’ve Got My Heart Set on Heaven” and “Because He Loves Me”. Obviously, fans agreed that Paul and Ann were wonderful singers and communicators, as in 1973, Paul won Favorite Bass at the Singing News Fan Awards and Ann won Queen of Gospel Music. Ann also took home the Dove Award for Female Vocalist of the Year in 1970, as well.
Paul and Ann surrounded themselves with some awesome talent during the 8 years they were on the road. Greg Gordon had a youthful appeal and added a lot to the sound of the early Downings. Sue Chenault was a wonderful soprano with bright tones and had a cheerful delivery. Ann and Sue blended so well together and sounded superb on alto and soprano, respectively. Wayne Hilliard came to the group from the North Carolina based group, the Gethsemane Quartet and replaced Greg in 1970. Joy Dyson came to the group in 1970 to replace Sue (who went with the Speers) and was a phenomenal singer in her own right. A very different singer from Sue, she quickly found her niche. Coming around the same time as Joy, Dony McGuire joined the group to replace their original piano player, Dickie Matthews (who was a phenomenal piano player). Dony left briefly (replaced by Linda Robinson, another Speer alumni) but returned in short order. When Wayne left sometime in late 1971/early 1972, Dony took over as a full-time vocalist as well as continuing to play piano.
Most people have their favorite version of the group and it’s usually one of two iterations…pre-1973 or post-1972. I have to admit, I belong to the post-1972 crowd. I love the music of the early Downings, but one of my favorite aspects of the Downings’ music during the mid-70s era was the exciting up-tempo songs and power ballads they recorded. Such songs as “Oh, I Want to See Him”, “I Feel So Good About It”, “Before I Found the Lord”, “I’ll Soon Be Gone”, “There’s Something in the Air”, “Come on, Let’s Praise Him”, “God’s Wonderful People” and “He Gave Me Joy” are some of the most exciting songs I’ve ever heard in our genre. No other group could generate the excitement and purely electric performances like the Downings could on those songs. Then those commanding slower tunes and power ballads like “Just Keep Praising Him”, “Oh I Need Him”, “Greater is He”, “He Rescued Me”, “One More Day” and “Rise and Be Healed” are all simply breathtaking.
The Downings sang with a Pentecostal fervor that was highly infectious. They were very successful in mixing a bit of Pentecost with modern sounds and they were trailblazers along with other like-minded groups at the time such as the Rambos, Imperials, Lanny Wolfe Trio, Speers, etc. I invite you to come walk with me over the next several weeks as go through each of their albums. If you are a fan…may this allow you to relive the wonderful music they created. If you are unfamiliar with the Downings or may have followed their music from a distance, may this series enlighten and introduce you some of the best music that came out of the late 60’s and early 70’s!
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