R&B artist Will Downing seemed to be destined to become great at a young age, since he attended Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn just like music industry leaders such as Clive Davis, Barbra Streisand and Stephanie Mills. Downing’s self-titled debut album, released in 1988, went gold, and his career ran successfully thereafter, her worked with artists such as Jennifer Holliday and Kool & the Gang and received a Grammy nomination for his 2000 album for Best Traditional R&B Album.
But in December of 2006, Downing discovered he suffered from an autoimmune disease called polymyositis. In an interview he spoke about his newest inspirational album, “The Promise,” which could be considered a gospel album but to Downing is simply 10 thank you letters to God.
AmNews: This new album, “The Promise,” emerged out of your faith being restored after healing from polymyositis. Tell me about your struggle and how you overcame it.
Will Downing: The way I discovered [I had polymyositis] was while I was out on the road. We were someplace every weekend doing something. So, I just felt myself kind of slowing down a lot, but being a hard-headed man, I didn’t go to the doctor as most men don’t do. We think we can overcome everything, and I never went to the doctor. But I became very weak and [doing] the things that the average person was able to do was becoming a big struggle for me like getting up out of a chair, shaving my head and putting a belt on. It took more effort than what it should take. I kept making excuses as to why it was happening.
It finally got to the point where I was so weak that I couldn’t turn a steering wheel of a car. I was taking my wife and daughter to the movie and was trying to park my car. I was so weak, I couldn’t turn the steering wheel, and, luckily, I found a spot that was straight ahead and didn’t take much effort. I didn’t verbalize the problem, but when we got out of the car, I leaned over to my wife and told her, “After we leave here, I think I might need to go to the doctor.” So, we went to the doctor and they drew some blood and sent me home. By the time I got home, I received a message on my answering machine saying, “When you get this message, go straight to the hospital.” That’s when I knew something was seriously wrong. We went to the hospital and the next day, I was pretty much paralyzed from the waist down. From that day, I stayed in the hospital for three months.
AmNews: There’s a quote where you say, “As I lay in the hospital bed, all hope seemingly gone, I started to pray like never before, begging for help and promising God that if he got me out of this I’d do whatever he needed and wanted me to do.” When did you get the message that what he needed you to do was write this album?
Downing: It had been coming to me in spurts anyway. [Before I went to the hospital], my family members, especially my mom were saying, “You need to slow down.” I was ignoring the signs and was saying, “Stay out of it…things are going well.” I’d been getting messages, but didn’t comprehend what I should have been doing. The first thing I did in the hospital was go through the, “Why me?” I was feeling sorry for myself, cursing God, all of that. Finally, I thought, “Why don’t you plead your best case. Negotiate the best deal you can negotiate with God.” And that’s what I did.
AmNews: You sing about being in a situation that is “out of your control,” in the title track of the album. How do you feel God returned control back to your life?
Downing: I don’t know if I’m really in control, but I’m certainly more balanced. I think that was the lesson in all of this. What you do is not legitimately all that you are. When you’re in the entertainment field, it’s very easy for you to get sidetracked into believing you’re more than what you are. Just because you’re making money doing something, and are in some way idolized for what you do, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other factors in life that don’t make you who you are, and you should be grateful for what you have.
AmNews: You look at this album as more than a contemporary gospel album. You consider this to be heartfelt thank you letters to God?
Downing: Yes, absolutely. To me, that’s what any album is. Any artist that tells you that that they’re legitimately concerned about what the public at large thinks about what you’re doing and how you do it, they’re lying. Everything we do for the most part is like a living testimony. If it’s a love song, you could be going through something, and you’re verbalizing it. The public is like the doctor. You’re laying down and getting things out of your system. It’s kind of more self-serving than anything else, but people gravitate towards you and what you’re doing, it’s even better.
But this is my testimony and I’m sure there are millions of people out there in the world who have been through something like this, and maybe they need to hear it as well.
AmNews: Was it difficult to set aside your persona as the “Prince of Sophisticated Soul” in order to be vulnerable enough to share your story of how you made it from the “hospital bed to wheelchair and ultimately back to the stage?”
Downing: No. After and during what I had gone through what I went through, all the vulnerability went out the window. When you can’t go to the bathroom by yourself and you have to do depend on people to lift you up, every day, all the machismo and everything you that you were, that’s gone. That was long gone. Everybody needs somebody. When you go through something like that, all that macho, the tough guy, the lover man, all that stuff goes out the window. My family and my friends were a huge part of my comeback. They’ve seen everything. I can’t even listen to this album in its entirety without crying.
AmNews: The way you express yourself in this album has roots in the Black Christian church with the ritual of the church members giving testimonies. When did you learn what a testimony was?
Downing: I’ve been in and out of church my whole life. I’ve seen many people come to the altar to exhale their stories on many occasions. The first time was when I was a kid. Whether I understood it or not is another story, but I’ve seen it my whole life. I’m not the first person to catch hell. I’ve seen people go through tough times, and you go up and talk about it and it makes you feel better. Now I have a better understanding of what it is, and not just based on this [experience] alone, but as you get older, you begin to understand what life is about.
AmNews: If you didn’t have a background in the church, how do you think you would have explained your healing? How do you think you would have expressed your gratefulness, if at all?
Downing: Even if I didn’t have a background in the church, I honestly believe I would have believed in some sort of higher being. I would have been begging and pleading to somebody or something, some sort of belief. I would not have an agnostic—thinking I was in control of the universe. I believe I would have still believed in a higher being being
AmNews: For all those who are suffering with illnesses in the world right now, what personal message would you give them at this very moment?
Downing: I would want them to look at someone like myself, not that their lives would mirror mine, but there’s hope. And I believe I’m still here so that people can look at someone like myself and realize a few things: life happens to everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, how important you are, it doesn’t matter. How you deal with it, and how you come back. That’s another part of life. I want to bring hope.