All Just a Game Lost: Will Downing & the Death of R&B.
(ThyBlackMan.com) Recently my wife, born and raised in South Africa, recounted a story of purchasing tickets for a Musiq Soulchild concert in Johannesburg a few years ago only to have him replaced at the 11th hour by Will Downing! Attending the show, she found herself disappointed, disgusted and slightly psychologically traumatized by what she and her girls regarded as some obscure old man dry humping a microphone stand while singing antiquated jazz tunes. This last minute switcheroo was an odd choice indeed as at that moment in his career, Mr. Downing had probably seen better days. Or had he?
Full disclosure, I’ve been a loyal Will Downing fan since the late 80s. BET’s Video Soul and an R&B ballad loving mom introduced me to the crooner at a unique moment. My music collection, the money for which was generated from lawn mowing, blueberry and strawberry picking (I was raised in eastern North Carolina y’all) and later hamburger flipping, at the time was dominated by the likes of Ultramagnetic MC’s, Public Enemy, OG Style, Geto Boys, Bell Biv DeVoe, Success-N-Effect, Xscape…and Will Downing.
I have to admit that Mr. Downing never quite fit in that collection or the music era in which he was introduced through his masterful rendition of Rose Royce’s Wishing on a Star. That tune being completely and inexplicably overshadowed by the vastly inferior version sung by the Cover Girls three years later. Or by his brilliant cover of another sadly underrated singer, Angela Bofill’s, I Try—a hit for Downing but not a BIG one. His duet with Rachelle Farrell, Nothing Has Ever Felt Like This, was another wonderful release that everyone said they loved but that most couldn’t be bothered to purchase.
Will Downing—Wishing on a Star
I remember attempting to share my admiration of Downing in “conscious” music cyphers in college in the mid-90s. Brothers weren’t trying to hear that at all, but neither were sisters. My many ill-fated attempts to create an irresistible romantic ambiance in my tiny, dingy dorm room, rapidly and irreversibly degenerated into disappointing evenings of platonic board game or spades card playing where the nuances of Will Downing’s, Bryan Loren penned cover of Shaniece Wilson’s All Just a Game from his 1995 Moods LP was met with variations of “this sounds old” rather than the intended nights of passion it was engineered to spark. Ginuwine, Mr. Downing was not; a good thing for me, but apparently not for the ladies.
In those college years even a diehard fan like me, was beginning to hide my admiration for Downing. I was drifting underground with my support. Around that period loudly pumping O.C.’s Times Up, I’d quickly roll up the window and reduce the volume in my car when that homemade mix tape advanced to Downing’s version of Stella By Starlight. His song just wasn’t cool; and quoting from that classic jazz standard, being cool at that stage in my life was “everything to me.” Perhaps this was an understandable decision for a 20 year old, but my seniors were downplaying Downing where it mattered most—record sales. “That boy can sang” just doesn’t translate to relevance or aid in the goal of maintaining a major label contract. He might have been your favorite R&B artist’s, favorite R&B artist, but he was far from cherished by the masses.
I wasn’t winning on any level with my Will Downing fandom. And with the recurrent threat of a reappearance of “skinny” Luther, my hopes that Will Downing might be uplifted by shallow sisters who just couldn’t get down with Mr. Vandross’s portly frame and asexual public persona were also dashed. So many folks merely saw Will Downing as a poor man’s Vandross and like a plot point from the Highlander movie or its subsequent TV version “there can be only ONE.” A tragically disinterested R&B listening public ensured declining sales of each new Downing release.
By the time Luther Vandross passed away, the R&B male vocalist standard was hurtling towards Chris Brown. Clearly an artist singing in a matured baritone deep in his 40’s had no chance against that. Singers, sangers, and black male performers who could blow and expect to get paid handsomely for their talent died with Vandross. Now you might find them in the jazz category, but let’s be real, most of us have never bothered to navigate that genre, proven statistically by its low sales, and probably never will.
I can’t blame my younger sister or her friends in their early 20s for killing R&B. I know that’s a popular narrative spun by grown folks these days. I’m tired of this oft-told tale. It’s a lie—a HUGE one. The apathetic generation of R&B fans now in their late 30s and 40s created the blueprint for the decline of the genre. Following the damage caused by my generation, no one in it, should now expect the next cohort to appreciate Esperanza Spalding more than Rihanna. We’ve got to be honest with ourselves here. My generation effectively executed mainstream R&B. Another essay could be written about how we extinguished hip hop as well. A “Golden Age” that only lasted six years is more a moment than an era.
Like most other sectors, music is a trend-driven, exploitative business. But our attention span as listeners is more toddler than tween now. That reality is the larger problem.
I fully recognize that Will Downing is an acquired taste. And as much as I love the brother, I know that he ain’t Donny Hathaway. There goes that Highlander Syndrome again. But truly we know there’s only one DH. But the reader can easily replace Will Downing’s name with any among a more recent cadre of R&B artists like Rahsaan Patterson, Adriana Evans, Frank McComb and a host of other talented, overlooked, and dismissed performers that were shown nowhere near the love they deserved. My generation now shakes their heads and wag fingers, indignant at what they view as their children’s misguided musical tastes. Let’s stop that. We’re exactly where we deserve to be.
On a lighter note, I’m actively working on my wife’s aversion to all things Will Downing. As a tradeoff I’ve become well versed in the many nuances of South African House Music. I like Mr. Downing, but I’m not willing to have my crib upended defending him. Through this negotiated compromise, we are close to reaching a state of détente.
Staff Writer; Christopher Keith Johnson