Paul Shirley Downing Jr.


Paul Shirley Downing Jr.

Manila, Mississippi County, Arkansas, USA
Death 23 Feb 1992 (aged 59)
Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky, USA
Burial Hendersonville, Sumner County, Tennessee, USA
Plot Sec: Field of Honor, 31B-1
Memorial ID 13594987 View Source
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Noted Bass singer and co-founder of southern/contemporary gospel band The Downings.

Winner of The Singing News "Favorite Bass Singer of the Year Award" in 1973.

The following article was written (with the cooperation of Ann Downing Ministries) as a feature story on The Downings as part of the SG101 Series on

The Downings.

The story of the Downings begins as a classic boy-meets-girl (or girl-meets-boy) story…and proceeds from that. Appropriately then, let's begin with the girl!

Virginia Ann Sanders b: 6/12/45) of Pittsboro, MS grew up on a cotton farm and had dreams of singing gospel music all over the world. Her family was very supportive of those dreams, making sure Ann had the best music teachers and singing schools in the area to go to. Ann listened to a variety of music as a girl, and was a fan of Patti Page and Rosemary Clooney in particular, but since her aspirations were in gospel, it was her interest in Ginger Smith Laxson, soprano and pianist for the Speer Family, that would ultimately pay off for her.

Right out of high school, Ann was hired to join the Speer Family, impressing them with her knowledge of all their songs. For five years, Ann travelled and sang with the Speers, quickly becoming one of the more popular singers in gospel music, especially with her renditions of "I Must Tell Jesus" and "On The Sunny Banks". Ann's talents were honed and sharpened by her time with the Speers.

Enter now, the boy…

Paul Shirley Downing, Jr. b: 12/2/32 from Manila, AR grew up in Tupelo, MS (Elvis Presley's hometown). In 1948, Paul joined the Navy. Upon returning from the service, the charming and likable Paul became a successful salesman. But Paul was led to sing gospel music, and his deep bass voice attracted the ear of gospel music legend Lee Roy Abernathy.

Abernathy, who had been instrumental in bringing a similarly pitched London Parris into gospel music, was taken with the quality of Paul's voice, and likened it to that of another gospel legend, Aycel (A.D.) Soward, one of the great bass singers of the 1940s and 50s.

It might be noted that this writer has long maintained that Paul's bass voice is among the finest natural speaking voices he has ever heard. Lee Roy got Paul into the Abernathy's All-Stars Quartet in 1964, and from there, Paul eventually went to the Rangers Quartet and the Dixie Echoes.

Paul's role model as a bass singer was the late Bill Lyles, and Paul someday hoped he would emulate Lyles by joining the Blackwood Brothers. But when his eye caught Ann Sanders, those dreams took a bit of a detour.

Paul first saw Ann in a diner in Americus, GA…upon seeing her, he began to sing "There She Is, Miss America"…unsure if Paul was singing to her or not, Ann decided to give Paul some attention. Ann noticed Paul's smile as one so big, it appeared as if his head would hinge right off!

The two began seeing each other regularly. After six months, Paul ("the handsomest man I ever laid eyes on", said Ann) proposed to her by writing "Will You Marry Me" on a styrofoam Dairy Queen cup. She turned him down ("people don't go that fast where I come from" was her rationale)…but being the top salesman he was, Paul didn't give up…after a few more months, he proposed again…this time telling Ann that on the first proposal, he'd had a ring, but took it back and got a bigger one this time! This time, Ann said "yes", and soon, the couple became Mr. and Mrs. Paul Downing!

Shortly after they were married, Paul (who as a salesman, was only home on weekends) noticed Ann was unhappy not singing at this time, and decided to do something about that! He asked his wife if she wanted to form a group…after another "yes", they bought a bus, and the Downings were born!

Ever the good provider, Paul didn't just start any old group…instead, he put together one of the most talented and versatile ensembles imaginable! Along with Paul and Ann…there was soprano Sue Chenault (a former beauty contest winner), male lead Greg Gordon (son of Anna Gordon of the Chuck Wagon Gang), who had sung with the Chuck Wagon Gang, and played drums for the Oak Ridge Boys, and veteran gospel pianist Dickie Matthews, whose resume included stints with the Crusaders Quartet and the Deep South Quartet in the 1950s.

This original incarnation of the Downings wasted no time making an impact on gospel music, with hits such as "I'm Free", "I Believe What The Bible Says", and "Jesus Is Coming Soon" establishing the Downings as a force to be reckoned with from the start. In 1969, Ann was awarded the first Dove Award for best female singer.

With success came the ability to add singers and more versatility to the group, so by 1970 the Downings had brought Wayne Hilliard, Joy Dyson (who replaced Sue Chenault), and singer/pianist Dony McGuire (from the Rebels Quartet) into the group, and the hits kept on coming…"Sheltered In The Arms Of God", "City Of Gold", "Happiness", "Getting' Ready Today", and "He Touched Me" added to the legend that the Downings were becoming.

By 1971, the group consisted of Dyson on soprano, Ann on alto, McGuire on lead and piano, and Paul's rumbling bass and on-stage warmth. They recorded their first live album that year, "This Is How It Is" in Muncie, IN…and that album became legendary as the one you had to "put a dime on", to keep the record from skipping because of all the energy that was literally packed into the grooves. This album was the biggest seller of the Downings' career.

Along with their obvious crossover appeal to both young and traditional audiences alike, one of the Downings most distinctive attributes was their dynamic concert style. They moved around at will on stage, often interacting with each other while doing so.

The effect of all that movement and their dynamic arrangements was one of intense energy…it was very difficult to remain still at a Downings concert! Both of their live albums, the above mentioned recording and 1975's double album "Praise Him" were two of their best-known recordings.

Throughout the mid 70s, the Downings continued to rack up the hits…songs like "I've Got Confidence", "I'll Soon Be Gone", "Bridge Over Troubled Water", "Greater Is He That Is In Me", "Oh, I Want To See Him", "I Feel So Good About It", and "Operator" all added to the Downings' legend. In addition, Paul was the winner of the Singing News' "Favorite Bass" award in 1973.

Some say that all good things come to an end sometimes, and by 1977, Dyson (who by now had married McGuire) and McGuire opted to leave the group…and their hitmaking days came to an end.

In 1978, the Downings disbanded for a time, and financial troubles and marital difficulties plagued Paul and Ann. The 80s were a trying decade for the two, as they tried to salvage their marriage and their individual lives.

But through counseling, and prayer…Paul and Ann persevered and saved their marriage, and their fortunes began to turn. It seemed they had come full circle, and were ready to set gospel music on fire as they had 20 years earlier. But this time, they had become involved in extramusical ministries…they began to counsel couples in trouble and also troubled youth…Paul and Ann began a women's retreat, which continues annually to this day under Ann's leadership.

But there was always music…they reformed a new Downings to do concerts, and Paul was helping Ann begin a solo music ministry of her own. They also began appearing on Bill Gaither's famous Homecoming projects. As the 90s dawned, it appeared Paul and Ann were poised to conquer gospel music as they had in the 70s.

But on Feb. 23, 1992, while preparing for a service in the Lexington, KY area, Paul Downing's heart stopped beating. At the age of 59, that resounding deep bass voice of Paul Downing was stilled. As was always the case (particularly since the late 80s) Ann was at his side. The man who wooed her with a Bert Parks song and a proposal on a Dairy Queen cup was now home with the savior they had sung about for so long together.

Fittingly, just days before his passing, Paul had been vocalizing in a session at a studio…and reportedly voclaized the lowest note on the piano. This writer cannot vouch for the veracity of that event, but feels that if any man could do that, Paul Downing could have.

Stricken with grief, Ann continued to do what she did best…sing and minister to others. Musically, she has unveiled a heretofore untapped songwriting talent, and continues to sing on the Gaither projects and those of her own. And she continues ministering to women, seniors, and youth…continuing the legacy that she and Paul established together.

As for the Downings, eighteen top 20 songs in a seven year period (1969-1976), many successful concerts and albums, and the acclaim of young and old alike has firmly established them as one of gospel music's most talented and noteworthy groups.

And their alumni are still making legacies of their own…Sue Chenault continued her marvelous singing with the Speers, and later, as a soloist and wife…she is now known as Sue Chenault Dodge. Wayne Hilliard formed a fine group, Higher Ground, which carried on in the tradition of the Downings, and Joy Dyson has remarried and as Joy Gardner, continues to use her magnificent talents in singing for the Lord. Dony McGuire also remarried, and he and his wife, the former Reba Rambo, are still involved in gospel music ministry.

Others who were a part of the Downings and contributed to their legend include Larry Ford, Gary Chapman, Fred Satterfield, Mack Peters, Linda Robinson, Don Breland, Dave Waits, and their vocal coach, Allen Hinson.

This writer would like to thank Ann Downing and her manager, Laurie Winton, for their invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article. The Downings truly deserve a book of their own, but in the meantime, the hope is that this humble article can help increase awareness of and appreciation for their contribution to gospel music.

Copyright 2005 © and John Scheideman, reprinted with permission.


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