Saturday, March 1, 2014

Up Close and Personal with Will Downing: The Prince of Sophisticated Soul Performs at Yoshi’s San Francisco This Weekend

By Shelah Moody
Will Downing performs 8 p.m., Saturday March 1(sold out) and 7 p.m., Sunday March 2, Yoshi's San Francisco, 1330 Fillmore Street, SF, CA 94115, 415.655.5600,
Euphoria: A state of intense happiness and self-confidence.-
His name evokes a feeling of warmth, comfort and strength. Grammy nominated vocalist Will Downing, aka the Prince of Sophisticated Soul, is currently celebrating 25 years in the music business, with 17 full-length recordings to his credit. Downing performs March 1-2 at Yoshi’s San Francisco, and had already sold out the first show.
Like other great artists such as Charlie Wilson, Toni Braxton, Angela Bofill and Teddy Pendergrass, Downing has come back from serious health challenges, including a battle with polymyositis. As a health advocate, Downing is currently a spokesperson for the American Stroke Association). Downing is currently gearing up for the release of his new solo project, aptly titled “Euphoria,” on his independent Sophisticated Soul label. Lovers get ready--the first single is a cover of Teddy Pendergrass’ fireside love song, “Turn off the Lights.”
In terms of vocal style, Downing is known as a baritone with a unique tenor range. I recently caught up with the acclaimed artist for a brief interview.

Shelah Moody: One of my favorite Will Downing interpretations is Angela Bofill’s “I Try.” What do you love about that song, and are you in touch with Angela Bofill?
Will Downing: I talk to Angela quite often. I recorded “I Try” back in 1991. It was basically a male interpretation of the idea that men try as well (laughs). It sort of needed to be said from a man’s perspective. That’s what prompted me to do that version of the song.
SM: Another one of my favorite Will Downing interpretations is “I Go Crazy,” by Paul Davis. What made you choose that song?
WD: Both of those songs are on my “A Dream Fulfilled” album. “I Go Crazy” was a song that I really didn’t want to record, but the president of the record company at the time--I guess it was his favorite. I did the song reluctantly, kicking and screaming. It ended up being one of the biggest songs that I’ve recorded.
SM: I like the way you took a light rock song and made it quiet storm.
WD: Thank you.
SM: How many musicians will accompany you at Yoshi’s San Francisco?
WD: Collectively, seven, including drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, two backing vocalists and myself. It’s a big sound. Trust me, I have some very skilled musicians and we’re gonna make this thing do what it do, as they say.
SM: What are some of your most requested songs?
WD: Probably, the first two that you mentioned, “I Try” and “I Go Crazy.” There’s a duet that I do with Rachelle Ferrell called “Nothing Has Ever Felt Like This.” If I don’t sing that song, people start throwing fruit at me! Also, there’s “A Million Ways.” Trust me, from the time that you’ll be there, we’ll take you on a 25-year journey. Within the show, we will do all of the songs that helped maintain my career. I’m glad to still be doing what I do.
SM: I remember meeting you backstage after you performed at the Sleep Train Pavilion in Concord, CA in 2005. I was impressed by how warm and open you were with your fans. Is that something that’s important to you?
WD: Oh, it’s extremely important. I mean, it’s the only opportunity where you get to see people up close and personal in the masses. I’m very grateful, I’m always shocked when I see that amount of people; and there were a lot of people there that night. It’s really important that you let fans know how grateful you are that they are there and that they’ve been supportive. Anytime I walk on stage, I get paid to do it, so I try to give it 100 percent. We go down memory lane together; these songs are the songs of our lives; we grew up on these songs together. I try to give back what I get.
SM: You just told me that you are from Brooklyn, NY. How did growing up in the city influence your music?
WD: I don’t know if Brooklyn is a musical Mecca or anything like that, but music was played heavily in my home. I grew up listening to what my older brother and sister and my parents listened to, which was good quality music. My parents were big jazz fans and so in our household, you’d hear just about everything. You’d hear Johnny Hartman, Nat King Cole and Nancy Wilson. My sister would be playing the Ohio Players and my brother would be playing Earth, Wind and Fire. I always grew up around good music; like Stevie Wonder. I guess it kind of stuck and became embedded in my DNA.
SM: You have gone through some serious health challenges over the years. What got you through them and kept you going?
WD: Well, first and foremost, I credit God for all things. God is definitely in my corner, and helped me get back on my feet. Also, there was my family, doctors and medicine—all of that combined was helpful.
SM: Congratulations on your new album, “Euphoria. Tell us about it.
WD: It’s a project that will be out in a few weeks. It’s my 17th project. “Euphoria” is an eight-song project, primarily remakes and one original song. I flipped the script just a little bit. Over the years, I’ve been known as a soulful kind of R&B singer with jazzy overtones. I made “Euphoria” more of a jazzy record with soulful overtones. I think people are going to be pleased with the song selections, and I hope that they are also pleased with the performances.
SM: Tell us about your “Sophisticated Soul” label.
WD: It’s something that I’ve been doing for the last three years. I’d been with Universal Records for 23 years, and it was time for a change. I mean, in this day and age of digital download and Internet, I just decided to go my own route and see how I would do, and so far, so good! This is my second release on my own label and I’m not complaining; I’m happy with it.
SM: Tell us about the first single from “Euphoria.”
WD: The first song on this project is actually a remake of the Teddy Pendergrass song, “Turn off the Lights.” I’m real excited about that. It’s an amazing song; obviously a classic. I flipped it a little bit. I think folks know the original version as being the in-your-face Teddy singing it to you rough and ready. I kind of smoothed it out and made it more appealing. These are two interpretations of the same some. I’m not saying that mine is better; it’s just an interpretation.
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