Virginia Ann Sanders Downing is one of the most accomplished women in southern gospel music. Born on 12 June 1945 in Pittsboro, Mississippi, she grew up on a cotton farm, where she developed a love of music via music teachers, singing schools, church singing, and listening to such popular favorites as Rosemary Clooney and Patti Page on radio and recordings. Sanders wanted to sing gospel professionally, and by the mid-1960s she had become a fan and acquaintance of Ginger Smith Laxson of the Speer Family, a southern gospel group that had been around since 1921. The Speers were looking for a female vocalist and asked Sanders to join them when she graduated from high school. She toured with them for five years, and her versions of “I Must Tell Jesus” and “On the Sunny Banks” made her a popular performer. Sanders went on to become a member of one of the most significant gospel groups of the 1970s, the Downings, after she married Paul Shirley Downing Jr. The Downings charted eighteen Top 20 gospel songs from 1969 to 1976, including “I’m Free,” “I Believe What the Bible Says,” and “Jesus Is Coming Soon.” The group members’ lively concert style made them especially popular on tour. In 1969 Ann Downing won the first Dove Award as the gospel music industry’s best female singer.
The Downings disbanded in 1978, and Paul and Ann Downing began a women’s retreat and other ministries. Paul Downing died in 1992, but Ann Downing has continued as a solo performer and songwriter. In 1999 her rendition of “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” became a gospel hit. Downing has long been a regular on Bill Gaither’s Homecoming video concerts, and she remains active in ministries, using music as part of her work with women’s groups, older people, and youth.
- James Goff Jr., Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel (2002)
- Absolutely Gospel Music website, www.sogospelnews.com