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Happiness Is The Downings (1970)

As the 60s came to a close and the 70s began, the Downings were growing and changing with the times.  After a whirlwind first year on the road and recording 3 albums during that short span of time, Greg Gordon left the group and over the course of the next couple of years, performed brief stints as a vocalist and/or musician with the Rambos, Oak Ridge Boys and Imperials (and even filled in for the Downings briefly).  Eventually, he found his niche in studio work and maintained a successful career in that field.  Enter, Wayne Hilliard who had previously traveled with the Gethsemane Quartet, a highly popular regional group based out of Greensboro, North Carolina.  Wayne was an excellent communicator from the stage and was a popular member of the Downings during his tenure with the group.  Also, pianist Dickie Matthews decided it was time to move on as well and the group hired Dony McGuire to play piano.  Dony would eventually become a pivotal member of the Downings and would play a big part with the change in their sound later in the 70s.  During his early days with the group, Dony would mainly play piano while also providing some vocal support for the group and would also be featured on select songs.  Eventually, Dony would serve as pianist and full-time vocalist for the group within a couple of years.  Also, the group hired bass player, Don Breland who would only briefly stay with the group, as he would soon join the Oak Ridge Boys, where he would stay for many years playing bass in their band.

For this album, Bob MacKenzie is at the helm as producer and it was a huge step up for the group, as this album had a much higher production value than their previous recordings.  “Happiness” included a lot more instrumentation than their first 3 albums, and for the first time the Downings are backed by strings and brass.  The music and vocal arrangements, as well as the overall quality of this recording, was a huge step forward for the Downings, and the album had a big sound and feel to it.  While much of the album was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee at the famed RCA Studio, the orchestrations were provided by the Philharmonic Orchestra of London (arranged and conducted by the legendary Rick Powell) and was actually recorded across the “big pond” in London, England.  In the process of recording the album, the Downings struggled with trying to match what the orchestra was doing, as the timing/tempo was off a bit from how they had initially learned the songs, but when listening to the album 50+ years after the fact, you really can’t tell there were any issues, as the Downings sounded fantastic!  In fact, those orchestrations do a wonderful job accenting those slower tunes that the Downings do so well, and it gave those songs a beautiful musical bed to rest in and it truly made this album a splendid work of art.

Also worth mentioning is the album cover.  I love the picture montage on the front cover, which shows the group seemingly enjoying themselves as they sing before a live audience at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.  True to the title, it conveys “Happiness” and it’s obvious they enjoyed what they did, as the concert shots convey that joyful spirit very well!

The album starts with the warm feel of sweeping strings on the classic tune, “City of Gold”, which was a highly popular song for the Downings and became a standard in their repertoire during the early 70s.  In fact, the song charted briefly in 1970, cresting at #5, and it’s one of my all-time favorite Downing songs.  Ann and Sue sound marvelous together on the second verse, before the tempo slows down for the Gaither penned, “The Old Rugged Cross Made the Difference”, which features an excellent performance by Sue on the second verse.

The tempo picks up as Paul sings the first verse and Sue sings the second verse of “Laying Up Treasures”.  This snappy tune features some nice string accents before the tempo slows back down for the beautifully orchestrated Dottie Rambo classic, “If That Isn’t Love”, which is one of the highlights of the recording.  With Wayne Hilliard taking the melody on the verse and Ann taking the lead on the chorus, the Downings rendition is one of my favorites among the innumerable versions of this song that are out there, and is a perfect example of the types of songs the Downings did so well and sang with immense feeling and pathos.

Newest member, Wayne Hilliard, steps up next and is featured on the Doris Akers penned, “Mine for the Asking” and does a fabulous job on the song.  With its poetic lines and emotion-filled lyric, it’s a wonderful song of thanks to the Savior and is one of my personal favorites from this album and is probably my favorite Wayne Hilliard feature during his time with the Downings.

Bud Chambers penned the next song, “Exactly What I Need”, which rounds out this side.  The Rambos recorded this tune around the same time, but the Downings gave a different feel and has a much slower beat than the Rambos version (this could be one of the songs that may be a little slower paced than the Downings intended, due to the orchestra).  Similar to the Rambos version though, the tempo does pick up as the song moves along and is a nice ending to the first side.

Side two starts off with a couple of Dony McGuire features…first being the upbeat, “Great, Great Day”.  Featuring Dony and some stand out lines by Wayne on the chorus, it’s a delightful tune and is one I find to be highly enjoyable to listen to, before the tempo slows down as Dony sing a song his dad wrote titled, “He Will Provide”.  This beautifully orchestrated song is one of my favorite Dony features, and this testimony song is filled with tremendous emotion as Dony delivers a powerful performance.  Dony shared the story behind the song at a Downings reunion a few years ago, and that testimony echoed the powerful message in the song, that He will always provide for our needs.  Both songs are personal favorites of mine from this recording and are great inclusions on this record.

Next, keeping the tempo in slow mode, we come to a couple of Elmer Mercer penned tunes, “More than Enough” (which just reiterates the message of the previous song), which features Paul and “Nailing my Sins to His Cross”, which features Ann, before we come to my favorite song from this album, and one that I feel is Paul’s best recorded performance, “Are You Tired?”.  Sung as a plea to the lost, it’s a stunning song and is one of the Downings finest performances.  I love Paul’s down to earth delivery of the song…and those deep bass notes…wow!  Interestingly, this song almost didn’t make the album, as it was a last-minute addition that was suggested by Bob MacKenzie, and I am so glad it made the album!  Ann brought this song back on her 2004 solo recording, “God Looking In”, as she sang the song as a duet with Paul, via modern technology (as Paul had passed away several years before).  If you’ve never heard it, you need to hunt it down and listen to it.

Ending on an upbeat note, the recording closes out with the title song, “Happiness”, penned by Bill Gaither.  The song spent a few months on the chart before stalling out at #15, and it’s a highly enjoyable number with a fun brass infused track.  I love the inclusion of few bars of the Edwin Hawkins classic, “Oh Happy Day” at the end of the song, and it’s an excellent closing tune for the album.  One interesting thing to note here, you will find this song pop up again in about 3 years as part of another song the Downings recorded…but we’ll get to that in a few weeks.

As I mentioned earlier, this album was a huge step forward for the Downings and despite the changes in the group line-up, they sounded amazing on this album.  You can hear the growth and depth in their sound both vocally and musically, but more changes were coming for the group, and they would have to re-group again as members came and went.  Despite the changes they would experience over the next couple of years, they would continue to churn out excellent music and would continue to enjoy hit songs and hit records, as well as an ever-broadening fan base as more and more people discover the music of the Downings.

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