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Big Al Downing
Big Al Downing
Big Al Downing was a unique if unsung figure in the annals of popular music, becoming one of the first African-Americans to enjoy success in the white-dominated realms of rockabilly and country. So varied and checkered was his long career that he even cracked the disco charts. Born January 9, 1940, in Lenapah, OK, Downing was one of 12 children, joining his father and three siblings in a family gospel group. At age ten he began teaching himself piano and by 14 he was performing local events, drawing inspiration from his idol Fats Domino. In fact, Downing not only won a Coffeyville, KS, radio station talent contest covering "Blueberry Hill," but his performance so impressed local rockabilly singer Bobby Poe that he invited the young pianist to join his backing band, the Rhythm Rockers (soon after rechristened the Poe Kats). Downing turned down a basketball scholarship from Kansas State University to accept the offer, and after several tours of the Midwest the group signed to the Dallas-based White Rock label to cut two 1958 singles: the first, "Down on the Farm," was credited to Big Al Downing & the Poe Kats, while the follow-up was credited to Poe. Downing brought to both a gritty, R&B-inspired edge largely absent from most rock & roll records of the time, even recalling Jerry Lee Lewis with his frenetic piano playing.
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