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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


A singer and pianist whose work encompassed several musical genres over a fifty-year career, Alexander “Big Al” Downing was born on January 9, 1940, to Tollie and Flora Downing in Centralia, Oklahoma. Raised in Lenapah, Oklahoma, Al Downing taught himself to play the piano. In the mid-1950s he joined the Bobby Poe and the Poe-Kats band. Artists’ agent James Halsey signed them to a contract, and as Halsey also represented Wanda Jackson, the group served as her backing band. In the late 1950s Downing continued to play behind Jackson in her new band, the Party Timers, with a young Roy Clark as the guitarist. They toured into the 1960s. An African American, Downing faced many hardships while touring with Jackson. Many times, he was not allowed to eat at the performance venue and was barred from using its bathroom. If Downing could not accompany her, Jackson would refuse to perform.

Downing started to forge his own performing and recording career, first in the rockabilly genre in 1958 with a minor hit, “Down on the Farm.” He then started playing blues and even released disco music in the 1970s. Later, he became an African American pioneer in the country music genre, along with Charley Pride and Frenchy “Stoney” Edwards, also an Oklahoman. In the late 1970s and early 1980s three of Downing’s songs broke into Billboard’s Top 20 for country music, “Mr. Jones,” “Touch Me,” and “Bring it On Home.” In 1974 his hit “I’ll Be Holding On” remained at number one on the disco chart for three weeks. He continued to perform regularly for the rest of his life and recorded a total of eleven albums. “Big Al” Downing died on July 4, 2005, in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he had relocated.

Larry O’Dell


“Big Al Downing,” Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.

Hugh Foley, Jr., Oklahoma Music Guide III (Stillwater, Okla.: New Forums, 2021).

Colin Larkin, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (London, Eng.: Guinness Publishing, 1992).

Matt Schudel, “Big Al Downing dies at 65,” The Washington Post, 7 July 2005.

Allen Twitchell, “Big Al’s a Pioneer in C&W,” Springfield Leader and Press (Springfield, Missouri), 29 July 1982.


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O’Dell, “Downing, Alexander,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=DO016.

Published October 20, 2023

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