Soon after the release of their first album, “Take One”, the Downings signed with Heartwarming Records (a subsidiary of the Benson Company…the same label for such groups as the Speers, Rambos, Oak Ridge Boys, Bill Gaither Trio and others) and they were quickly ushered back into the studio for “Take Two” (pun intended), to record a brand-new album that was titled, “Up with the Downings”. The title of this sophomore release is indicative of where the Downings were headed…UP! They were quickly becoming the “darling” of the industry with their fresh and exciting sound and they were winning fans all over the country via their live concerts and frequent guest appearances on the Gospel Singing Jubilee, which was seen in markets all across the United States. Contrary to their first recording, this album is decidedly much more slower paced, almost to the point of being too slow (in my opinion). The slower pace of this album though, along with the song choices and music/vocal arrangements, allowed the Downings to really showcase the exceptional and unique harmony of the group.
No production credits are given for the album, but my hunch tells me it was likely produced by either Bob Benson or Bob MacKenzie. The instrumentation for the album is similar to their first one, with mostly just piano, bass, drums, guitar, etc. For their first albums, instrumentation was kept pretty simple, and mostly complemented their strong vocal abilities. It wouldn’t be until 1970 that orchestrations were used on a Downings album, and as time went on, those orchestrations became a big part in the sound for their studio albums and it would eventually be a hallmark of the Downings’ sound and style.
The album starts off with the Doris Akers classic, “Sweet, Sweet Spirit”. Featuring the electric guitar throughout the song, giving it a distinctive blues feel, Ann, Sue and Greg are featured as a trio, and it’s a unique arrangement that sets it apart from every other version of this oft recorded classic. It’s actually a rather unassuming arrangement, but perfect for the Downings and this album.
Next, Sue and Greg do a great job duetting on the folk sounding, “The Way, The Truth, The Light”. It doesn’t sound like Paul sings on this song either, and Ann doesn’t appear to join until the very last tag of the chorus. It’s an acoustically driven tune and has a really nice feel to it before Paul finally steps forward to sing the first verse of the Rusty Goodman penned, “Had it Not Been”. Greg steps up to sing the second verse and the group does a really good job with their rendition of this Goodman classic, before Sue steps up to take the melody for “In the Still of the Night”. Keeping the tempo in slow mode, the song features some beautiful harmony with some really nice precision singing by the group, and it is a highlight of the recording.
Closing out the first side, the tempo finally picks up for the ¾ timing of “Wonderful Love”, which features Sue. Written by “Smilin’” Joe Roper (famed songwriter and pianist for such groups as the Stamps and the Prophets), it’s one of my personal favorites from the recording and rounds out this side on a happy note.
With its “slip note” piano intro, Greg does a superb job with the Dottie Rambo classic, “The Holy Hills of Heaven”, which gets side two underway. I love the vocal support that Ann and Sue provide on the second verse and it’s one of my favorite renditions of this oft recorded tune.
Ann is featured next on another Dottie Rambo classic, “On the Sunny Banks”, and the song fits her like a glove; as it should, since it is a song that she sang and recorded a few years prior while she was singing with the Speer Family and was one of her big features while she was with the group. The song, with its bluesy feel, was an excellent inclusion on this album that fit the Downings perfectly.
Sue steps back up to sing the haunting folk feel of, “In a Silent World”, which features some nice modern harmony by the group. Musically, it’s the most unique song on the album and really showcases the wonderful vocal prowess of the Downings, before Paul shovels out some deep bass notes on the Southern Gospel feel of, “I Shall Be at Home with Jesus”. With its medium tempo and campmeeting feel, it’s one of my favorites from the album.
With a nice piano intro, the tempo slows down a bit as Greg sings the stark reminder, “It’s in Your Hands”. The song was an oft recorded favorite during the mid to late 60s, recorded by such groups as the Bill Gaither Trio, Weatherfords, Oak Ridge Boys and even the Speers, back when Ann was with the group (Faye Speer did a wonderful job singing this song). It’s a nice inclusion for this album and Greg does a really good job with his interpretation of the tune. I also love Paul’s bass slide at the end, as it adds a nice subtle dynamic to the song.
Speaking of Paul, the album closes out with one of my favorite Paul Downing features, “Rolling, Riding, Rocking in the Sky”. This rollicking song was a popular Blackwood Brothers tune many years prior, and the Downings do a super job with this highly energetic number, featuring a nice piano intro as well as in the musical break mid-way through the song. It’s a fun song to close out the album with, and it’s my favorite song from this album. This is probably my absolute favorite song from this short-lived iteration of the Downings, as it’s a song you can listen to and smile all the way through!
Musically, “Up with the Downings” was a pretty simple album from a musical perspective, but the group was able to showcase some really nice harmony throughout the recording. Personally, I would have liked to have heard a couple more up-tempo songs, but it’s still a really great album overall and was a classy representation of who the Downings were at the time.
The Downings were still finding their niche and voice in the music world, but as the music scene was changing, the Downings learned to adapt with it and succeed with it. As time went on, new sounds were incorporated into their music and things really began to click for the group; but we’re getting ahead of ourselves just a bit. Before 1969 came to an end, the Downings would provide us with one more album, which would go on to become one of their most successful albums; and we will talk about that very album next week!
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