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Once upon a time, a half-century ago, "Big Al" Downing and his family were coming home from a hard day's work hauling hay.
It was the day Al -- who would go on to make the late-'70s hits "Mr. Jones," "Touch Me (I'll Be Your Fool Once More)" and "Bring It on Home" -- made the discovery that would change his life.
"We went by a junkyard, and there was a big piano laying there," he recalls. "We were thinking about using it for firewood, so we loaded it on the back of the truck. But about 50 of the keys worked well, so we put it in the house."
Finding that piano proved to be Al's ticket out of poverty in small-town Lenapah, Okla., where he lived with his parents and 13 siblings. He began learning Fats Domino songs, and before long he was an ace pianist.
His finesse got him gigs playing in R&B groups, but his true love was always country, a fondness instilled in him by his father. One day, while at a recording session to cut disco songs, Al's secret passion came out.
"When we took a break, everybody left," he remembers. "So I went to the piano, sat down and started playing my country songs, just for my own self. The producer said, 'That's great stuff! To hell with disco, let's do this!'"
So that's what Al did, despite the solitude of being black in the white-dominated world of country music. "Nobody believed that a black person, other than Charley Pride, loved country music," he says. "But where I grew up, all the black families I knew loved country."
Al's string of hits began in 1978 -- not long after he moved to Massachusetts, where he now lives with Beverly, his wife of 26 years. The couple has two adult children, and Beverly has four children from a previous marriage. "None of them's into music," says Al, now 63. "But they all support what I do."
What Al does, to this day, is make music. He's just released his first album in nine years, One of a Kind, and still plays live shows. "As long as I'm still enjoying the music," he says. "I'll keep on doing it."
And he has another reason to keep going.
"I guess I haven't really had the respect from the music industry that I think that I deserve, and there's still a little bit of emptiness in me," he admits. "I still haven't gotten out of the music what I really wanted to. Until I do that, I think I'll turn out a few more albums."
-- Chris Neal