The number 13 turned
out to be lucky for singer Will Downing. With his first dozen albums,
the popular balladeer breezed into the studio, recorded his vocals and
went about his merry way. But last year, as he embarked upon his latest
recording, he fell down the stairs in his home. At first he blamed it
on the fact that he wasnt wearing slippers, until he found himself
slipping in other ways: His muscles ultimately weakened to the point where
it was hard to get out of a chair, cross a room or even breathe. Diagnosed
with Polymyositis, an autoimmune disease that affects the muscles around
the trunk area, he had to sing from a hospital bed or his wheelchair,
recording only a line or a two at a time. To take such tiny steps to finish
that 13th album, After Tonight, made him feel very fortunate
Pamela Johnson, ABILITY Magazines managing editor, caught up with
Downing one evening at home, where he talked about facing the greatest
challenge of his life, his biggest fears and the new faith hes found
in a higher power, and also in himself.
Pamela Johnson: How are you feeling today?
Will Downing: Pretty good.
PJ: Excellent. I was just listening to your new album and liking it
WD: Well, you have to listen to it some more until you love it! Liking
it aint gonna cut it!
PJ: [laughs] You had quite a challenge recording it. You started to
feel some of the symptoms of polymyositis around the holidays last year?
WD: Yeah, thats when I fell down a flight of stairs at home.
PJ: From the muscle weakness?
WD: Well, I didnt know what it was at the time. I figured, Okay,
I didnt have my slippers on. My foot slipped. Then another thing
would happen and I would blame it on something else. But it was this polymyositis
slowly taking my muscles and reducing them to nothing.
PJ: I heard you were being a little hard-headed, and didnt go
to the doctor immediately. When did you actually get there?
WD: On January 3rd, 2007. I had gone through at least a month of these
symptoms before I went to the doctor. Im the type of person who
can start feeling like somethings wronga toothache or whateverand
I can say, Oh, Ill be fine tomorrow, and Im going
to put it off until its excruciating. Thats what I did in
this case, and obviously I made the wrong decision.
PJ: Did waiting cost you?
WD: Doctors didnt say that, but when youre dealing with an
illness of any type, the earlier the better. If you feel something, you
should go get it checked out.
PJ: So thats something you would do going forward, that was a lesson
left with you?
WD: From here on out, thats going to be my mindset. Thats
what I would recommend to anyone.
PJ: After you fell down the stairs, what else were you feeling that was
WD: It felt as if I had someone on my back, like I was carrying another
person around. When I walked, it was hard for me to lift my feet up, or
to lift something, or to get up or even stand up. Id be on a plane
and theyd be deboarding, and it took me forever just to stand up
and get my bearings. It was like nothing Ive ever felt before.
PJ: You had plans to tour at the beginning of the year, right?
WD: Yeah, well, Im always on the road anyway. We had plenty of dates
booked for 2007, but this situation obviously sidelined that with the
PJ: One typical symptom of your condition is difficulty swallowing.
Is that something that you dealt with as well?
WD: Absolutely. Eventually, everything that youve probably read
about polymyositis came to pass for me: massive weight loss, problems
swallowing, lack of usage of my limbs. I went through it all. I even lost
my voice at one point.
PJ: Not only your health, its also threatened your livelihood.
WD: Exactly. You know with this thing, your lung capacity decreases extensively.
You cant breathe the way youd like to. You cant hold
notes as long as youd like to. All the things that you never really
thought about are extremely important all of a sudden. Its the crux
of your life.
PJ: Compare and contrast before you were diagnosed and after you were
diagnosed in terms of how you had to accommodate dealing with your condition.
Before it, you could be casual about the process: It was your 13th albumlike
falling off a rock, basically.
WD: Yeah, before, it was just my normal routine. Id cut tracks and
go to a studio, cut the vocals, stand up and sing. After I got this, it
was trying to figure out a way to get these vocals out, because I was
basically relegated to a wheelchair and a hospital bed. So those were
my two options. How do you want to sing today? You want to sit up or you
want to lie down? It was extremely difficult, because breathing is the
whole key to singing. And when my breathing was compromised, I had to
find different ways to get the lines out.
PJ: How did you compensate for it?
WD: Recording, for those who dont know, is rarely done in one take,
and in this instance, we really Frankensteined this project together.
WD: Thats a hell of a way to say it, but thats what we did.
One day wed do a verse and then wed stop. Maybe the next day,
if I felt up to it, Id do a chorus. The day after that, if I felt
like I could sing, maybe Id do the bridge of a song or the end of
the song. So it took me a lot longer.
PJ: How long would it usually take you to do an album, and how much
time did your condition add to the process?
WD: I dont know, there really isnt a timeline on how quickly
an album is put together. But under normal circumstances, I can probably
do a whole song in about three or four hours, where in this case it might
have taken three or four days. Same outcome, different procedure.
PJ: And probably more treasured, in a way.
WD: Well, more treasured, but also a mix of treat and trick in the same
session. One thing that comes along with this lovely disease is that it
messes with your head, so youre extremely depressed. You have to
deal with that fear: Am I ever going to sing again? and God, why are you
doing this to me? That sort of thing.
PJ: Whats been your lowest point?
WD: Its hard to say. I remember lying there one night going: If
this is what its going to be like, Ill opt out. I had days
PJ: I thought it was really interesting that you recorded a Phyllis
Hyman song No One Can Love You More since, as you know, her death was
from suicide. Through her depression, she reached the depths of pain as
WD: Right, but some days I woke up and said,OK, Im going to
fight back. This circumstance that Im in right now, it doesnt
necessarily have to stay like this. It doesnt have to define my
life. It helps to talk about it. It doesnt make any sense
to keep emotions to yourself. You dont have to go through this alone.
My state of mind was affected by who I surrounded myself with, as well.
The people that I surround myself with are very positive and very supportive.
Also, everyone Ive spoken to whos had this has come back.
It might have taken them a while, but theyve come back.
WD: Pretty much. Some say 80 percent, 90 percent.
PJ: When youre in the depths of the valley, Im sure 80
percent or 90 percent must sound like heaven.
WD: Let me tell you something. If I can get up and walk from here to the
door, Im going to be happy.
PJ: Youre married to a singer [Audrey Wheeler], so Im sure
youre able to commiserate with her about what singing means to you...
WD: Exactly. Singing is an outlet for me. Its not everything, but
its a great outlet. I think Ive known what I wanted to do
since I was young. And to be able to have fulfilled my dream is more than
I could ask for. It aint been a bad trip.
PJ: A lot of blessings.
WD: Lots and lots of blessings. So this is the down side. And even in
this, theres a lesson to be learned. I havent quite figured
out what it is, but I know there is one.
PJ: One lesson is to get to the doctor.
WD: Very true.
PJ: But Im sure more is revealed as time passes.
PJ: How much weight did you lose?
WD: Oh! Under normal circumstances, I would average between 200 and 210.
At my lowest point I was at 115. Pretty kooky.
PJ: Oh, my goodness, Honey! How long were you in the hospital?
WD: This year Ive easily spent six months in the hospital. The first
time I went in, they kept me for three months, and I came back home and
then I got pneumonia, and I had to go back. I went back to the hospital
for another at least two, two and a half months. Now Im back home.
PJ: How much do you weigh now?
WD: About 140, 145. So its gradually coming back. Im probably
one of the few people who can say, I can eat whatever I want.....
continued in ABILITY Magazine
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Senator Letter Ben Nelson; DRLC Is Your Health Care System
Accessible?; Allen Rucker Thoughts on the Writers Strike; Green
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The Marcus Ingram Story; Dr. Hans Keirstead Stem Cell Pioneer;
Richard Pimentel Get A Job (Heres How); ABILITY's Crossword
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from the Laura Innes issue:
Laura Innes -- Interview
Ricky James Still Zooming Ahead
Hans Keirstead — Stem Cell Pioneer
Call Me Chairkrazy: The Marcus Ingram Story
Will Downing -- Will Power
UCP Life Without Limits
Raytheon Rhodes To Independence
Betsy Valnes Sticks and Stones
Richard Pimental Get A Job (Here's How)