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The Downings – Neighbors (1972)

After 3 years of being on the road and recording 7 albums during that time, things slowed down a bit and the group only recorded one album in 1972…titled, “Neighbors”.  This year also saw more changes within the Downings as Wayne Hilliard had left and started his own group, Higher Ground with former Downings’ member, Linda Robinson.  That group would go on to enjoy a great season of success in contemporary/Praise & Worship/Church music for many years!  Allen Henson was hired replacing Wayne and this combination of the group was pretty short lived, as by 1973, Allen would depart the group and Dony would start doing double duty as pianist and full-time lead/tenor vocalist for the group.

“Neighbors” is sort of an oddity, as the album was actually recorded as an independent project while the Downings were involved in contract negotiations with the Benson Company.  The negotiations ended up taking much longer than anticipated, and during that time, they recorded this album.  Before the ink was barely dry on the contacts, the group went back into the studio, with Bob MacKenzie as producer, and re-recorded the entire album.  Gone were the orchestrations that had been a big part of their sound the last couple of years, and they ended up with an album having a strong country feel.  But that was on purpose, as in prep for re-recording the album, Bob told them to listen to some of the albums by the Rambos to get a feel for country gospel, and I think the effort came through very well on this recording.  The album features several cover tunes that were popular around this time, but it also features a few new songs that were published via the Downings’ publishing company.  By this time, Paul had created 3 publishing companies…Crown Royal, Crown Aztek and Crown Black…one for each of the 3 licensing agencies…BMI, ASCAP and SESAC.  This worked out very well as the Downings were able to help unknown writers get their songs published and recorded, and it also helped the group find and secure hidden gems for them to record.

I love the everything about the cover shot…the location (love the old house), the smiles, etc.  It’s obvious it was taken in the summertime of 1972, and the liner notes allude to the fact that it was a very hot day, but everyone was all smiles, and the cover conveys a happy feel, which matches the overall vibe of the album.

“Neighbors” starts off with the up-tempo, electric and steel guitar driven track, “A Wonderful Day”, written by Nancy Harmon.  Also recorded in 1971 by the LeFevres, the song features a charismatic performance by Ann, and the Downings rendition is my favorite of this particular song.  The song has a contagious energy to it, and it moves perfectly into another enjoyable upbeat tune, “It’s a Good Life”, which was written by Jimmy Pierce and published by the Downings.  The song features a bright performance by Joy and features a lot of steel guitar accents and exudes a strong country feel.  Both songs fit the Downings perfectly and do a great job setting the tone for the album, as they convey a happy feel, just like the cover does.  Both songs are highlights of the album and are some of my favorite tunes from this album.

Featuring the steel guitar, Paul’s deep bass voice start off the classic, “The Eastern Gate”, before Ann and Joy step in to sing the second and third verse, respectively.  The song had already become a signature hit for the Happy Goodmans and several groups were singing the song at the time including the Kingsmen, Jerry & the Goffs, Dixie Echoes and Blackwood Brothers, and for this album, the Downings render their own version of the song, before the tempo slows down a bit as Allen sings “Precious Jesus”.  The tempo picks up by the time they get to the chorus and as Joy takes the second verse, the song becomes a bright, medium tempo ¾ time tune.

With its piano, bass and steel guitar intro, the novelty feel of, “Brother, You’ve Gotta Live It”, rounds out this side.  Featuring Paul, it’s a fun, but yet preachy little ditty that was a bit different for the Downings.  It exudes that country feel they were going for on this album and it ends this side on a lighthearted note.

“The Unseen Hand”, which features Allen, starts off the second side.  As the group was listening to the Rambos’ music in prep for this album, they picked up a couple of their songs and this is one of two popular Rambo tunes included here.  Although the Downings version isn’t quite as robust and dramatic as the Rambos’ rendition, they do a good job making the song their own.

With its happy steel guitar intro, the Downings tear into the Joel Hemphill classic, “I’ll Soon Be Gone”.  Spending about 10 months on the chart, topping out at #2 in March 1973, this was a hugely popular song for the Downings, and it came along just in time as “I’ve Got Confidence” had already peaked in the charts and this song kept the Downings at, or near, the top of the charts for a bit longer.  This was the second song I ever heard by the Downings and was the song that initially piqued my interest in their music.  It was this song that made me buy this album, which was the very first album I ever owned by the Downings.  This is such an energetic tune, and no doubt, was a crowd favorite as well.  I wish they had included the song on their 1975 double live album, as I would have loved to have heard them perform the song live.  But I digress…

The tempo slows back down a bit for the medium tempo, “God Washed the Dirty Feet of Men”, which features Allen.  Written by a gentleman named Don McHan (he was also co-writer for “Brother, You’ve Gotta Live It”) and published through the Downings publishing company, the song has a very significant message for the church, as it portrays the meekness and humility of Jesus…“God washed the dirty feet of men, to drive away their selfishness within, He was like a servant, even though He knew no sin, God washed the dirty feet of men.”  Lyrically, it packs a punch and is one of the strongest songs on the album.

Dony does a dynamic job on the verses of the Ronny Hinson classic, “The Lighthouse” and I love how he takes the lead on the last line of the chorus at the end.  It’s a great rendition of this oft recorded classic, as the Downings truly made the song their own, before Ann closes out the recording singing another Rambo classic, “Ten Thousand Years”.  Next to the Rambos rendition, the Downings performance on this album is probably my next favorite version.  Ann does a really great job interpreting the lyric of this Elmer Cole penned classic, and it ends the album on a great note!

This would be the last album for this era of the Downings, as by 1973, the group’s front-line singers were cemented for the next several years with Paul & Ann and Dony & Joy holding down the vocals.  Also, the musical direction began taking a drastic turn for the Downings, as they began adopting a more contemporary sound filled with strings and brass as well as guitars and drums.  In fact, they started adding drums to their stage performances by late 1972, early 1973, and eventually added a guitar player later in 1973 to enhance their big stage sound.  During the remainder of the 70s, the Downings boasted an awesome band that truly made them a hard group to follow on the concert stage.

Exciting days were ahead for the group as they would boast an exciting live concert presentation.  They would still stage those slower, heartfelt tunes they had become known for, but soon those invigorating up-tempo songs would become a big part of their performances, as well as those massive power ballads and praise tunes.  The Downings would continue making their mark, as they created a new niche for themselves in the industry, thus becoming true trailblazers.  But for now, and for this album review, we appreciate the simplicity that this particular album had, and we revel in who the Downings were…Neighbors!

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