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Will Downing: Road to Recovery

Singer Will Downing is healthy and sharing his gift of song

Trouble never lasts always. Soulman Will Downing can attest to that. Last year, the jazz/R&B sensation suffered with Polymyositis, an inexplicable hereditary muscle disease, that left him bedridden, voiceless and immobile. After nearly a year in the hospital, Downing has made courageous leaps and bounds during his remarkable journey to recovery. This month he released his latest effort, After Tonight, a personal testament to his enduring faith. Essence.com caught up with The Prince of Sophisticated Soul to talk about his new album, losing his voice and why he’s ceased the paper chase.

Essence.com: What inspired you to go on tour to discuss your road to recovery from the muscular disease Polymyositis?

Will Downing: Touring is something that I do every time I release a record. I didn’t have a chance to do it for the last album and wanted to do it this time. I’ve been doing it for 20-something odd years and I’m used to working the room, kissing some babies—and I can’t just leave it all for Barack to do (laughs). No seriously, I told myself as soon as I was healthy enough to hit the trail to promote my album I would.

Essence.com: How have your fans been responding to you?

W.D.: Obviously when they see me they are in shock and amazement because I am walking again. Thank God for his mercy and my therapy. But we talk about the music and my illness.

Essence.com: Is your new album, After Tonight, what your loyalists are used to hearing from you?

W.D.: Well, it’s a reflection of what I’ve been through. I had completed about three songs and a lot of the songs speak to where I was in that moment like “God Is So Amazing.” I’d definitely say this project is autobiographical. I think what I’ve done is probably the best work I’ve ever done. It’s heartfelt, sincere and has a lot of lessons.

Essence.com: They say your condition is hereditary. Was there anyone in your family who suffered from it?

W.D.: No one in my family has ever heard of this thing so I’m not a 100 percent certain how it started because no one could give me a real answer. I’ve talked to other people who have had it and like me, they started feeling weak initially and then you think I’m just tired and then it just takes its toll.

Essence.com: How quickly did your condition weaken you?

W.D.:January they told me I was going to lose my voice and as soon as I finished the last song on this album within two weeks later my voice was gone.

Essence.com: Wow! Were you devastated losing your instrument?

W.D.:Oddly enough, I was not. You would think losing my voice because I’m a singer was the biggest issue, but it didn’t bother me. I wasn’t even afraid of never being able to sing again because I’ve done so much in my life with my instrument and God has blessed me to touch more people than I could have ever imagined and has allowed me to travel the world. However, the thought of becoming immobile messed with my head. I’m not going to say I was the picture of health and athleticism but I enjoy basketball, bowling, riding bikes, driving and running around with my kids.

Essence.com: Sometimes God has a drastic way of making us be still. Were you workaholic before your illness?

W.D.: Absolutely. I was chasing that dollar because I felt I had to get it all while the getting was good. My wife and my mother always tried to warn me to slow down, but I never listened. My sickness has helped me change my priorities and taught me that life is not all about money and you find out what’s what’s really important—family and love. It was a wake up call.

Essence.com: We’ve all been guilty of going on a paper chase. How long were you in the hospital?

W.D.: I went into the hospital in 2007 and I was in there for about seven months.

Essence.com: During that time did you suffer with depression?

W.D.:.: Oh please I went through a period of depression. I cursed God like you would not believe. It’s a very strange situation because you don’t have a grasp on reality. I was extremely weak and couldn’t move, yet in my mind I kept telling myself I was going to be fine in a couple of weeks. Yet, I still had to call two nurses to help pick me up and take me to the bathroom but again in my head I was fine.

Essence.com: A fighter never allows himself to accept defeat.

W.D.: You’re right. I can remember my folks visiting me and telling me you have to eat. And I’m saying, ‘I’m eating fine and besides this food is nasty.’ Finally, the doctors and nurses tell me they want to put a feeding tube in me because I was wasting away. I’m thinking, What for? I’ve been eating fine. For a few months, I never once looked in the mirror. Some of my friends stopped by and would give me shave and a haircut, but I never once looked in the mirror. Then folks start flying in from all over the country to visit me and it dawned on me, Oh y’all think I’m going to die!

Essence.com: Did a part of you give up on the possibility of a full recovery?

W.D.: Oh no, I saw it as an inspiration. I decided right then and there that I was going to start eating especially after I finally saw myself in one of the hospital mirrors and had to ask, Who is that? I was skin and bones. I was 215 and had dropped down to 115 in a few months. I would literally take two teaspoons of soup, eat a piece of bread, drink water and be full.

Essence.com: How difficult was it for your wife?

W.D.: Of course, we had a 24-hour nurse. It’s the sort of thing that you watch happen to someone else and never think it could be you, so we were all learning together. This is my second marriage and we’ve been married for six years and it’s a true testament to your wedding vows when you say for sicker or poorer, they mean it. You never think it will ever come to fruition and when it does that’s when you find out whether you married the right person. Not that I ever questioned whether my wife wasn’t the right one, but now I know without a doubt that I am with the right woman.

Essence.com: Did your children have difficulty dealing with your condition?

W.D.: Yes. I have three children, 23, 16 and 11. When I came home from the hospital my youngest daughter was so happy that I was home. A few weeks later she starts crying saying she wants me to walk so that was my motivation and I started taking a few steps. Then it was, ‘I want daddy to walk faster, then run.’ I’m like, Okay now I can’t keep up. But my family helped motivate me to recover.

Essence.com: Did your two kids from your first marriage visit you from Arizona while you were hospitalized?

W.D.: I didn’t want them to visit. My eldest son is 23 now and my daughter is 16. I couldn’t let them see me because to see a person reduced to nothing is hard to witness. I never ever wanted my kids to look at me like I was less than.

Essence.com: What do you hope your musical legacy will be?

W.D.: That people say I was someone who always gave 100 percent and that they always knew what to expect and remained confident that I gave them quality music that stands the test of time.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Will Downing
Credit: Courtesy of Will Downing
Will and his wife Audrey Wheeler Downing with Oprah