Vinyl Record Review

The Downings – Greater (1973)

1973 was a huge and busy year for the Downings.  Along with releasing 2 major albums (“Love Beyond Compare” and “Greater”), Ann, Joy and Dony each released individual solo albums (Paul had released a solo narrative album “In the Beginning, God…” a couple of years prior) and the Downings’ band released an album as well; totaling 6 albums released in one year!  At this time, the Downings boasted a full stage band with Dony on piano/keyboards, Mac Peters on bass, Fred Satterfield playing drums and B. James Lowery playing the electric guitar.

“Greater” was a remarkable album and was a major milestone for the Downings.  While it may not have been as progressive sounding as “Love Beyond Compare” was, it still wasn’t a truly traditional sounding album.  Once again, Bob MacKenzie was at the helm as producer, Bill Pursell was brought on to provide the string and brass arrangements (with the exception of the song, “Greater is He That is In Me”), and Dony McGuire provided vocal arrangements for the album.  For the first time, the backliner notes provide the credits for the musicians who played on the album, and 9 musicians are credited, where we find such notable names as Bill Pursell, Ron Oates, Bobby Emmons, Jerry Carrigan, Jack Williams, Weldon Myrick, Dale Sellers, Jimmy Colvard and Farrell Morris (as well as the Nashville String and Brass).  Also, I always really liked the cover shot for the album, with the Nashville skyline showing faintly in the background.  The cover has a similar feel to the Rambos’, “Sing Me On Home” album cover, which was released the same year as “Greater” was.

With simple chords on the acoustic guitar, the album slowly and quietly begins as Joy sings the Phil Johnson penned classic, “When I Say Jesus”.  Using a trick they had been using with several songs down through the years, the song starts off very slow, but by the time they get to the chorus, the beat finally kicks in.  I always thought this was an odd song to start the album with, but it works and is a highlight of the album.  Jimmy Swaggart eventually recorded the song a couple years later, and it became one of his signature tunes.  Also, a young lady named Sondra Burnett recorded the song back in 2003 and really did a remarkable job on the song, but the Downings’ rendition is my favorite version.

With its dramatic opening, Joy takes the lead once again on the song, “I Didn’t See, Yet I Believe”, which was written by Dony McGuire and Ruth Shelton.  Contrasting the beginning of the song, the ending is a bit more subtle, and I enjoy the dynamics of the song, as it’s one of my favorite tunes from this album.

I love the violin intro for “Then Where Would I Be”, which features a wonderful performance by Paul.  The song is one that many listeners can relate to and not many bass singers can render heartfelt performances like this song deserves, but Paul gives a genuine and meaningful performance on this testimony song.  Written by former Cathedral’s tenor, Roger Horne, the strings and steel guitar on the song really set the song off and makes it one of the highlights of the album.

Paul is also featured on the following song, “My Promised Land”, which was penned by Nancy Grandquist and published by the Downings.  Having a distinct “Rambos” feel to it, featuring strings and nice steel guitar accents, the song keeps things in a slow, reflective mood before horns come blaring through for the regal and majestic intro for the title song, “Greater is He That is in Me”, which was written by Lanny Wolfe.  The song became a signature hit song for the Downings, peaking at #3 on the Singing News chart in March 1974.  Featuring a boisterous arrangement, the song was an exciting part of any Downings performance and was a standard in their repertoire for the remainder of their time on the road.  With each member having step-out lines throughout the song, it crossed musical boundaries and was recorded by numerous other artists, and continues to live on in many worship services around the world!  Lanny Wolfe was already an established songwriter at the time, having songs recorded by JD Sumner & the Stamps, Doug Oldham, Henry & Hazel Slaughter, Speers, as well as the Downings, but this is the song that put him on the map!  One interesting bit of trivia about the music track for this song…the music track, which was arranged by Ronn Huff, was original arranged and recorded for Doug Oldham to record, but the arrangement just wasn’t a good fit for Oldham, so the Downings managed to snag it and use the music track as their own. 

With nice organ and steel guitar accents, to show the Downings could still shuck the corn, side 2 starts off with the exciting Southern Gospel feel of “Caught Up Together”, which has Ann taking the lead.  Another song written by Roger Horne, the song was a popular one for the Downings, peaking at #16 during its brief stint in the Singing News Top 20 chart.  This has that “old” Downings sound, and I would have loved to have heard them do this song live and wish they had included it on their “Praise Him Live” recording.  The Happy Goodman Family also eventually recorded the song a few years later, on their 1976 album, “99 44/100%”.  Ironically, it’s the only truly up-tempo song on the album and one of my personal favorite songs from “Greater”.

The tempo slows back down as the Downings render an excellent performance on one of my personal favorite Lanny Wolfe tunes, “I Love Him Too Much (To Fail Him Now)”, which features Ann, Paul and Joy on their respective verses.  This recalls the sound and feel of the Downings from just a year or so earlier, before the group turns in a nice, jazzed up rendition of the Bill Gaither classic, “Because He Lives”, which was a song everyone was singing and recording during this time including the Speers, Blackwood Brothers, Prophets, Doug Oldham and many others.  I like how it starts off with a distinct country feel with the steel guitar, but soon gets jazzed up with a lot of drums and horns; it’s a cool arrangement and it fit the Downings like a glove.

Paul steps up once again as he sings the first verse of the Mosie Lister classic, “Til the Storm Passes By”, while Dony delivers a heartfelt performance on the second verse.  Besides the wonderful comforting lyric, the song has a strong sentimental value to me as my mom would sing this song to me when I was a kid during thunderstorms (I was deathly afraid of storms as a kid), and even during the spiritual storms in my life as an adult, the song still ministers tremendously to me.

The final song on the album, “Thank You Lord”, which features Dony, has a Partridge Family feel to it with the “Ahs” at the beginning and end of the song.  Filled with horns, the song was indicative of the style the Downings were going for at this time, and totally encompassed that early 70s vibe.

This album featured mostly medium to slower tempo tunes, and has the general feel of some of their earlier albums in the early 70’s.  “Greater” was a great blend of the old sound of the Downings and the new sound, and it became one of their most popular and biggest selling albums.  With the release of this iconic album, it capped off a banner year for the Downings.  The group was enjoying tremendous success, they were growing as artists and creating great music, they were seeing hit song after hit song, and they were basking in the tremendous success in their concerts as well.  To top it off, Ann and Paul both took home the Singing News Fan Award for Favorite Female Vocalist (aka-Queen of Gospel Music) and Favorite Bass Singer, respectively for 1973.  Yes, things were looking GREAT for the Downings, and (as the album’s title alludes to) GREATER things were still ahead for the group!

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James Hales

James Hales, from Durham, North Carolina, has been a writer for since 2000. James is our featured reviewer and also contributes to monthly features periodically.
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