Donna Lubertha Hightower (December 28, 1926 – August 19, 2013) was an unjustly underrated yet great R&B, soul and jazz singer and songwriter. "Little" Donna Hightower had a dynamic, big voice and made some fine records for Decca, RPM and Capitol labels in the 1950's. Later in her career she was based in Europe, where she had a hit in 1972 with "This World Today is a Mess."
Donna Hightower was born in Caruthersville, Missouri on December 28, 1926, and is the oldest of nine children. Her family was typical of many poor Southern African-American sharecropping families and she remembers spending many days working as a field hand for $1 a day, picking cotton. Her father didn’t believe in education so she had very little formal schooling until much later in her life. She remembers getting in trouble for listening to radio programs and daydreaming of life better than what she saw around her. Being very determined to get out of that lifestyle, she married early and had two children. Since her first husband was in the military, they moved often and called many cities “home” for short periods of time, including St. Louis, Missouri and Gary, Indiana. After their divorce in the late 1940’s, she moved to Chicago, Illinois and lived with her cousin.
She was first discovered in 1951 while working as a cook in Chicago. Bob Tilman, a reporter for the “Chicago Defender” was in the diner having lunch, when he commented to a waitress that he really liked the vocalist singing "Star Dust." He asked if she would turn up the radio so that he could hear the orchestra's arrangement. The waitress looked confused, so he repeated his request again. Finally, she told the reporter that they didn't have a radio and said, "oh, that's just Donna...she drives us crazy with her singing all the time!" Tillman took Hightower around and introduced her to club owners and she soon got regular bookings fronting bands at the Strand Hotel Lounge, the Crown Propellor and other South Side hotspots.
She came to the attention of Decca Records, which signed her and suggested a name change. "They said it was too long and I said: 'Well, it's got the same number of letters as "Ella Fitzgerald" ', and they let it go." Hightower made a series of singles for Decca of which her first single was "I Ain't In The Mood", in 1951.
During the mid 1950s she recorded R&B songs, for RPM Records, often accompanied by the Maxwell Davis Orchestra as on her 1955 version of "Hands Off". She toured widely in the US, with Louis Jordan, B. B. King, Johnny Mathis, Della Reese and others. However, none of her records made the pop or R&B charts. By 1958, her career had slowed and she began working for a music publishing firm in New York City, recording demonstration records of new songs. Her version of "Light of Love" — later recorded by Peggy Lee — was heard by record producer Dave Cavanaugh, and as a result of his interest she was signed to Capitol Records. She recorded several albums for Capitol, including Take One! and Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You?, both released in 1959. While noted for her "range and power, she was equally compelling doing sentimental, soft ballads."
In 1959, she performed in England, France, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe with Quincy Jones and The Platters. She settled in France and then, in the late 1960s, in Madrid. In 1971 she won the Costa del Sol International Song Festival, following which she began recording in Spain for Columbia Records, although her songs were issued in much of Europe by Decca Records. She worked with singer Danny Daniel as a duo, Danny y Donna, and they had a hit in the country with "El Vals de las Mariposas". She also recorded solo, and her most successful record, "This World Today Is A Mess" ("Este Mundo es En Conflicto"), which she co-wrote, was an international hit — though not in the US, where it was not released, or in the UK — in 1972, reportedly selling over one million copies worldwide. She is also known for the song "If You Hold My Hand", which was later sampled for the UK 2007 hit single "Handsfree" by Sonny J.
She returned to the US to live in semi-retirement in Austin, Texas, in 1990. She was a member of Calvary Baptist Church, and appeared on local radio programs. Her last performance in Spain was at a jazz festival in 2006. She died in Austin in 2013 at the age of 86. (Info edited from www.rock-ola.be