Musicians move to Austin to rejuvenate their careers. Yet when Donna Hightower decided to relocate here 23 years ago, it was with thoughts of retirement. The Missouri-born singer, who signed her first recording contract with Decca in 1951, had made a pretty good living in Europe, where she went to sing for a week at a swank London jazz club in 1959 and stayed 31 years.
But God came to her one day in 1990, she said, and told her to move to Austin, a town she had never visited before. “I didn’t know it was supposed to be a music town or anything,” Hightower said in 2006 from the North Austin home she purchased on arrival. “Didn’t really know anything ’bout Austin except that it was in Texas.” And Austin didn’t know anything ’bout the ageless jazz firecracker, who was billed as Little Donna Hightower when she toured the “chitlin circuit” with Louis Jordan and B.B. King in the 1950s.
Hightower, best known for her 1960’s message song “The World Today Is a Mess,” passed away Tuesday in Austin. She was 86.
“Donna celebrated her birthday at the Driskill in late December and sat in with Redd Volkaert and me,” said piano player Floyd Domino. “She always drew the audience to her through her voice and her spirit. In other words, she stole the show without trying.” A jazz belter, Hightower didn’t just delight audiences, she shredded them, jerked them to their feet, with a voice pure and powerful.
“She’s an inspiration,” said her protege Denia Ridley, the former Bad Mutha Goose funkster, in 2006. “I think she could still go on tour and blow people away.” There was also a verve in Hightower‘s conversational voice, as she recounted hanging with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Della Reese and Quincy Jones in Europe, where the American-invented art form of jazz is the musical soccer. “The audiences in America don’t generally pay attention like they do overseas,” Hightower said for a Statesman article to celebrate her 80th birthday. “So much (success) in the U.S. is tied to who you know, but over in Europe they just really appreciate some good jazz.”
She didn’t get wealthy during her European heyday – a good gig paid about $3,000, from which she had to pay her combo – but she made a living from singing, which is all she ever asked for. She also acquired quite a taste for alcohol, she recalled in 2006. “I’d have five beers before lunch. Everybody drinks over there, but I was the only one getting drunk.” She belonged to a church in Madrid, her home base for over 20 years, but Hightower said she wasn’t saved until one night in 1980 when she came home from a gig staggering drunk and angrily challenged God to show her a sign that he existed. She turned on her radio to hear a voice she couldn’t comprehend. (“I’m conversant in all the languages I can eat in,” she joked, listing Italian, French, Spanish and German.) Then a gospel song from her youth came on. It turned out the spoken voice had been a Turkish preacher. “I just fell to my knees and started crying,” she said. “I’ve been talking to God ever since.” She also started singing more in church than in clubs, especially after moving to Austin, where she was a member of Calvary Baptist Church. Hightower became active in the Austin Chapter of the Gospel Workshop of America and in 1996 was enlisted to sing “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” at the funeral of Green Pastures owner Mary Faulk Koock, who always loved the Mahalia Jackson record.
Hightower‘s version riveted funeral goers, including Abbe DeLozier, a Realtor by trade, who became Hightower‘s champion, booking the singer on John Aielli’s show on KUT in 2000. “That may very well be one of the finest voices that has ever graced my show,” Aielli told DeLozier after the performance.
Hightower‘s voice was discovered more than 60 years ago while she was doing two things she loved – cooking and singing – at a diner in Chicago. She was back in the kitchen one day when a customer asked that the radio be turned up. “That ain’t no radio,” the owner told Bob Tillman, a reporter for the Chicago Defender. “That’s just Lil’ Donna.” 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 barely dented the charts with a series of singles for Decca and RPM, and in 1958 she was without a record deal, working as a demo singer in New York. That’s where the second phase of her career began. Producer Dave Cavanaugh had set up a session for Dakota Staton, but when the sassy jazz-blues singer canceled, Cavanaugh scrambled for a replacement. He remembered a voice he heard on a demo that Peggy Lee emulated on a million-seller. Eventually, Hightower was tracked down in Brooklyn. “My boss at the publishing company called one morning and asked if I wanted to make a record for Capitol and I said, ‘You bet!’ ” Hightower recalled. “He said, ‘Then get yourself to the studio by noon.’ ” After taking the quickest shower of her life, Hightower made it in time for the sessions, featuring sax giant Ben Webster, which resulted in the critically acclaimed “Take One!” LP. Six months later came “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You,” which led to the continent-changing 1959 booking at the Stork Club in London.
“It was just such a struggle in the States; you had to claw your way every inch,” she said. “But in Europe they rolled out the red carpet.”