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Will Downing article

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 wasn’t 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 indeed.

Pamela Johnson, ABILITY Magazine’s 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 he’s 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 very much.

WD: Well, you have to listen to it some more until you love it! Liking it ain’t 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, that’s when I fell down a flight of stairs at home.

PJ: From the muscle weakness?


WD: Well, I didn’t know what it was at the time. I figured, Okay, I didn’t 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 didn’t 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. I’m the type of person who can start feeling like something’s wrong—a toothache or whatever—and I can say, “Oh, I’ll be fine tomorrow,” and I’m going to put it off until it’s excruciating. That’s what I did in this case, and obviously I made the wrong decision.

PJ: Did waiting cost you?

WD: Doctors didn’t say that, but when you’re dealing with an illness of any type, the earlier the better. If you feel something, you should go get it checked out.

PJ: So that’s something you would do going forward, that was a lesson left with you?


WD: From here on out, that’s going to be my mindset. That’s what I would recommend to anyone.

PJ: After you fell down the stairs, what else were you feeling that was different?

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. I’d be on a plane and they’d be deboarding, and it took me forever just to stand up and get my bearings. It was like nothing I’ve ever felt before.

PJ: You had plans to tour at the beginning of the year, right?

WD: Yeah, well, I’m always on the road anyway. We had plenty of dates booked for 2007, but this situation obviously sidelined that with the quickness.

PJ: One typical symptom of your condition is difficulty swallowing. Is that something that you dealt with as well?

WD: Absolutely. Eventually, everything that you’ve 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, it’s also threatened your livelihood.

WD: Exactly. You know with this thing, your lung capacity decreases extensively. You can’t breathe the way you’d like to. You can’t hold notes as long as you’d like to. All the things that you never really thought about are extremely important all of a sudden. It’s 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 album—like falling off a rock, basically.


WD: Yeah, before, it was just my normal routine. I’d 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 don’t know, is rarely done in one take, and in this instance, we really Frankensteined this project together.

PJ: (laughs)

WD: That’s a hell of a way to say it, but that’s what we did. One day we’d do a verse and then we’d stop. Maybe the next day, if I felt up to it, I’d do a chorus. The day after that, if I felt like I could sing, maybe I’d 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 don’t know, there really isn’t 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 you’re 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: What’s been your lowest point?

WD: It’s hard to say. I remember lying there one night going: If this is what it’s going to be like, I’ll opt out. I had days like that.

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 well.

WD: Right, but some days I woke up and said,”OK, I’m going to fight back. This circumstance that I’m in right now, it doesn’t necessarily have to stay like this. It doesn’t have to define my life.” It helps to talk about it. It doesn’t make any sense to keep emotions to yourself. You don’t 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 I’ve spoken to who’s had this has come back. It might have taken them a while, but they’ve come back.

PJ: Fully?

WD: Pretty much. Some say 80 percent, 90 percent.

PJ: When you’re in the depths of the valley, I’m 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, I’m going to be happy.

PJ: You’re married to a singer [Audrey Wheeler], so I’m sure you’re able to commiserate with her about what singing means to you...


WD: Exactly. Singing is an outlet for me. It’s not everything, but it’s a great outlet. I think I’ve 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 ain’t 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, there’s a lesson to be learned. I haven’t 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 I’m sure more is revealed as time passes.

WD: Exactly.

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 I’ve 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 I’m back home.

PJ: How much do you weigh now?

WD: About 140, 145. So it’s gradually coming back. I’m probably one of the few people who can say, “I can eat whatever I want.”.... continued in ABILITY Magazine

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ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Laura Innes issue include Headlines — CVS, Red Cross, AT&T Foundation; Humor Therapy — It’s Sad Not Being Happy; George Covington — When Life’s A Blur; Humor Therapy; Senator Letter — Ben Nelson; DRLC — Is Your Health Care System Accessible?; Allen Rucker — Thoughts on the Writers Strike; Green Pages — Save Bucks in the Bathroom; Betsy Valnes — Sticks and Stones; Deaf Cruise — Partiers of the Caribbean; ChairKrazy — Making Music, Making Change; Dr. Hans Keirstead — Stem Cell Pioneer; Richard Pimentel — Get A Job (Here’s How); ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...subscribe

Dec/Jan 2007-08

More excerpts from the Laura Innes issue:

Laura Innes -- Interview

Ricky James — Still Zooming Ahead

Hans Keirstead — Stem Cell Pioneer

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)

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