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  • Urodzony

    28 grudnia 1926

  • Urodzony w

    Caruthersville, Pemiscot County, Missouri, Stany Zjednoczone

  • Zmarł

    19 sierpnia 2013 (wiek 86)

Ms. 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!" He asked to meet Donna, and asked if she had an engagement performing somewhere. While she wasn't singing professionally at the time, he introduced her to Benny Stroller, owner of the Strand Hotel Lounge at 63rd and Cottage. She auditioned for him by singing Ella Fitzgerald's "Love You Madly," Dinah Washington's "Baby Get Lost," and "one of Sinatra's songs." Mr. Tilman negotiated with Stroller, who offered her $35 a week to sing with Horace Henderson's orchestra in his nightclub. Donna was excited as it was the same amount as she was getting paid to work all week long at the diner. Later, Belinda and Bill Putnam, a husband and wife talent scout team from Decca Records, approached her in the club and asked if she had any original material. Ms. Hightower states that “since I didn’t have a clue of what they were talking about, I said no. They asked me if I had ever written a song. I asked, ‘what kind of song?’ Belinda said that she wanted an answer to Muddy Water’s ‘I'm in The Mood.’ I had to write ‘I Ain’t in the Mood.” Hightower says that she went home that night and stayed up all night and wrote the lyrics to "I Ain't in the Mood.” (NOTE: This may have been John Lee Hooker’s “I’m In The Mood.”) About three weeks later, on October 9, 1951, she went into the recording studios and cut her first sides with Horace Henderson’s band. Her first single, “I Ain’t in the Mood,” was backed with her cover of Johnny Ray’s “Cry.” While she didn't receive credit for having penned “I Ain’t in the Mood,” she did receive some acclaim with her debut single. During these early days in her career, she was billed as “Little Donna Hightower.” The single was released in December, 1951. Several other sides were recorded for Decca in Chicago through April of 1952, though none were hits. Several of these sides feature overdubbing of Hightower’s voice, a technique introduced (with the advent of magnetic tape recording) and popularized by vocalists, Patti Page, Mary Ford, and Connee Boswell in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s. She spent three months performing at the Strand Hotel Lounge, followed by a few weeks stay at the Crown Propeller in Chicago. After the release of “I Ain’t in the Mood,” she went to Minneapolis, MN and performed at the Key Club. There, she performed with the Hank Hazlett Trio. She recalls this group included guitarist, Hank Hazlett, who “was a wonderful man,” Maurice Turner on bass, and a man named Buddy, who played piano. Ms. Hightower says, “we were one big family. Hank’s wife was a tall woman named Edith, Buddy’s wife was Mercedes, and Evelyn was Maurice’s wife.” Ms. Hightower recalls that Minnesota “was getting colder,” so she returned to Chicago in 1953. She was disappointed to find little work so she moved to Indianapolis, Indiana and again found little opportunity. In 1954, she and her friend Pat drove from Indianapolis to Los Angeles, CA to deliver a car. They found a place to stay in West Hollywood. Ms. Hightower recalls, “as luck would have it, Donna and Pat would hang out at a small hotel on the strip, across the street from the Creshendo- one block and a half from Ceros, where Sammy Davis (Jr.) had two rooms. The hotel was called Sunset Colonial.” Apparently, Donna and Pat rented one of the rooms from Mr. Davis for a while. (She remembers Sammy Davis, Jr. as being one of the nicest people that she met in show business.) When she first got to California, she needed money and went to work as a maid. She remembers the lady that hired her asked if she was in show business. She needed the work so she told her, “no.” The lady reportedly told her that if she ever found out that she was in show business, she would be fired. As fortunes would have it, she landed a gig on a television program that featured the Platters, Duke Ellington and others. It was filmed but wasn’t broadcast until later. She arrived for work one morning, not knowing that the program had been broadcast and was promptly fired on the spot by the lady. “Since it was a new thing for a White person and a Black to live together, (Pat) decided to send for (a) friend in Indianapolis to come out to help her pay the rent.” Donna got a new roommate, who was ‘a tall, beautiful Black girl named Barbara Walden. She let me share her one room and a half. We were like sisters.’” This friendship was a fortunate one for Ms. Hightower. “She was a girl from a well-to-do family from Camden, New Jersey. She knew a lot of people in Hollywood. Because I could sing, she took me to many places and one night, we ended up in a club in West LA, where a talent show was going on. Redd Foxx was the headliner. Anyone who could sing could register to participate in the show. The prize was a recording contract with RPM Records.” That night, she won the contest over singer Etta James. (NOTE: The club was the “Oasis.”) “After the first recording ‘made a little noise,’” she went to the Apollo Theatre in New York City in October, 1955. Also, during the late summer and into September, a “dynamite package featuring Johnny “Guitar” Watson, B.B. King, Louis Jordan, Harold Conner and Dottie Smith hit the road in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Sellouts were the order of the day in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and Little Rock.” She also spent several weeks performing at the Eastwood Country Club in San Antonio, Texas, where she and Della Reese shared the billing. She fondly recalls another singer, Margaret Baker, who was a talented singer and seamstress that she met there, and would be nicknamed “Margaret Baker, the Dressmaker” by her and Miss Reese. She briefly called Houston, Texas area home, and tells of how she integrated the bus system in Houston. Apparently, she went to board a bus one day and found that it was full; however, there was an empty seat open next to a White lady. She politely asked if she could sit there, and the woman basically said something about her place being in the back of the bus. Hightower says that she was not used to this type of treatment and confronted the woman. The lady backed down and allowed her to sit next to her. Donna states that starting then, African-Americans began sitting wherever they wanted on the buses. She also recorded several other sides for RPM Records. Backing Ms. Hightower was Maxwell Davis and His Orchestra. Several of the tracks have vocal groups, which have been attributed to The Jacks or The Cadets. However, Ms. Hightower has no memory of having recorded with them and believes the group vocals must have been added in the editing phase after her session. CAPITOL RECORDS Sometime after her gig at the Apollo Theatre ended, she found work at a music publishing company in Manhattan, NY. There, her job was to sing and record demo records of songs they intended to promote. It seems that one of those acetate demos made its way into the hands of legendary producer, Dave Cavanaugh of Capitol Records. (While Donna had forgotten which single this was, a 1959 “Melody Maker” article, in which Donna graced the cover upon her arrival in England, has her quoting the song as “Light of Love.” Reportedly, Lee even emulated Donna’s vocal for her 1958 album.) One morning in 1958, her phone rang and startled Donna from sleep. Her agent told her that Capitol Records wanted to do an album with her. She said she fell out of bed from surprise. Her agent continued by saying that Dave Cavanaugh remembered her vocal from the acetate recording and had intended to record an album with Dakota Staton. But, it seems that Dakota was a follower of astrology (or numerology) and felt that this was not a good time for her to record an album. Cavanaugh needed an album and needed a good singer, so he called for Donna. Donna’s first album, "Take One," was recorded for Capitol in 1958. While the album liner notes state that the band was led by Sid Feller, she says the group of all-star performers made the sessions with “head arrangements on the spot.” The debut record is a mixture of jazzy, bluesy, swinging numbers, such as “Perfidia,” a brilliant, lightening fast reading of “Lover, Come Back to Me,” and soft, sentimental ballads, such as the seldom heard, “C’est la Vie.” The album was released on January 5, 1959. Several of the songs were released on 45RPM singles. She recalls that her first big show after “Take One” was at the Civic Opera House in Chicago, Illinois. The lineup included Johnny Mathis, Connie Francis, George Shearing, Louis Prima and Keely Smith. She also cut a hard to find demo disc with Sid Feller and His Orchestra of “Ain’t That Love,” backed with “Forgive Them.” Sid Feller was one of many arrangers and conductors of the recording studio system. He would later gain more notoriety from his collaboration with Ray Charles in the 1960’s and for his work on the ”Flip Wilson Show.” The disc was never commercially issued. Following the buzz created by the release of “Take One, she was brought in to record the second, more expansive album, “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You,” in early 1959. Sid Feller’s lush, jazzy big band arrangements served as a showcase and helped to further display her wide range and powerful, bluesy voice. Her personal favorite recording from the album is "A Cottage for Sale." The album was released November 16, 1959. When asked why she left the United States in July of 1959 for Europe, she simply says that she “couldn’t get arrested in the US,” referring to how difficult it was to find gigs in the States. When asked if she thought Capitol records tried to promote her, she says “yes.” (It's clear that Capitol did some promotion of the recordings, as portions of both of her LP’s were released as demo 45 RPM EP’s for disk jockey’s, and that a track from “Gee Baby” appeared on an LP that Capitol released in November of 1959 to promote their up and coming stars.) Still, her success in the United States was limited and she is known most amongst diehard fans of R&B and jazz collectors. Regretfully, only one of her Capitol tracks, “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” is known to have been re-released on CD. (The original pressings are now valued and considered relatively rare.) Her first stop was London, where she found some club dates for three weeks and some interest in her “Take One” album. She spent three months in Stockholm, starting in September of 1959 and came back in London in November for a gig. She was asked to perform with the great Ted Heath Big Band on a Granada TV series in December, 1959 through January, 1960. Then, she was off to Spain in 1960, Germany and Belgium in 1962, and back to London for TV in 1962. She performed in Paris, France at the Olympic Theatre for a month with the Platters, Johnny Mathis, Quincy Jones and others in 1959 or 1960. British Magazine Review of “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You,” November, 1959 Ms. Hightower recalls that she quickly had to adapt to living in Europe. Having little formal education in the United States (until she put herself through night school), she quickly learned the languages well enough to be able to communicate, shop and go about day-to-day living. In Europe, she participated in her first jazz festival on July 12, 1960 and later, also took part in the Musique aux Champs Elysees at Zabrab on March 3, 1961. She participated in the Johnny Halliday tour starting May 12, 1961. Also, Donna participated in the European Antibes “Juan Les Pins” contest in France, and won a recording contract from Marfer Records of Belgium. In 1963, she recorded a French version of “My Guy Lollipop," (“C’est Toi Mon Idol”) which hit the #1 spot in Canada. She recorded a number of singles for the Marfer label, though none did as well as “C’est Toi Mon Idol.” Donna then joined a group of Americans who wanted to go to Turkey and Greece to entertain our troops. She says that “we didn’t make much money, but we did find we had a lot of laughs.” Somewhere along the way, she met Ivon Vanoutrie and married for the second time. Over the next few years, she played various gigs and locations throughout Greece, France, Germany, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and Spain. She performed and had concert tours with a band directed by Heinz von Hermann. In 1967, she traveled to Germany and recorded four sides for a record producer named Clem Brendl. The sides were intended to be part of an album but he became ill and died before the record was completed. It was never released. DISCOS COLUMBIA Donna’s first European song festival was in 1970 in Barcelona, Spain. She won 1st place as “Best Interpretation,” for version of “Soy Feliz.” At her second festival in 1971, she won 2nd Place for her duet with Danny Daniel on “Dreams Like Mine.” The next festival was in Malaga, where she won 1st Prize for her songwriting talents with “If You Hold My Hand.” She also won 1st Place for her song, “Tus Manors.” The prizes and accolades kept coming and won the notice of Discos Columbia (Columbia Records in Spain). She landed a recording contract with Columbia, and began issuing a number of very successful singles. Her duet with Danny Daniel on “El Vals de las Mariposas,” stayed on the chart for more than twenty weeks. Her collaboration with Daniel lasted several years and proved to be a successful move in her career. Then, her 1972 single, “This World Today is a Mess,” hit it big and by 1973 sold more than one million records, and earned her two gold records. Her first Columbia album, “This World Today is a Mess,” which was a collection of the previous successful singles and a few newer recordings, was issued in 1973. The album is a blend of pop tunes, Spanish-funk and some jazz. Her next album for Columbia, “Here I Am,” featured songs written mostly by Donna, with music written by Danny Daniel. Of “Here I Am,” Donna says that she wrote and “recorded this for ‘the kids,’” referring to the album’s appeal to a younger audience with its pop-oriented feel. In 1974, she won 1st Prize as composer at a contest held by Columbia records in France with her song, “Don’t You Feel Alone Sometime.” The song was recorded by Diana Maria Linklater, and was a big hit in Europe. Donna returned to the recording studios in 1974 and produced her album, “I’m In Love with Love.” She feels that this record is some of her finest work and says that this is her favorite album. This album is again, a mixture of pop tunes and jazz, having a strong Spanish influence that can be heard throughout. She penned seven of the ten numbers. “I’m In Love with Love” was also released on Metronome as “I’m In Love with You.” Donna returned to the big band sound with her 1976 album, “El Jazz y Donna Hightower,” which she recorded with Pedro Iturralde. They had been working together with a jazz combo for her performances, when she says that Pedro approached her and suggested that they do an album with a big band. He gathered, arranged and conducted the recording session, as well as a series of concerts at the "Centro Cultural de la Villa de Madrid.” Several of the tunes are Hightower originals, though many are standards, including “Lush Life,” which was selected at the encouragement of Ms. Hightower’s friend, Ava Gardner. (NOTE: It’s also worth mentioning that no less than three-dozen of Hightower’s recordings during her career were her own compositions, whether under her own name or her pen name, “Dee Dee Brinson.”) Pedro Iturralde and Donna Hightower, about 1975 Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, she traveled and performed extensively throughout Europe, Spain, Germany, and South America. She also took time out to record a mostly religious album, “Prima Donna,” which was released by Master Vision records of Barcelona in 1985. Her final European album was “Corals de Mallorca,” which was made in 1989. Donna “officially” went into retirement and moved to Austin, Texas in 1991. After moving to Austin, she did some work in local television commercials as well as local fundraisers. She also sang and acted in a documentary on Annie Mae Hunt, which was filmed in the mid-1990’s. Most recently, she recorded with the Monster Big Band and was honored at (name of the festival) in Spain in early July, 2006. REFLECTIONS ON A 50-YEAR CAREER Today, Ms. Hightower is a warm but private woman, and is reserved on topics of her personal and family life, marriages and politics. At 78, her health is good, she is active with her church, and prefers to spend her time cooking, sewing, and enjoying the company of friends. She still performs occasionally in the area at clubs, private concerts and other gigs of her choice, and easily gathers much-deserved standing ovations. Her voice, while a bit more limited in range, still remains a honey-warm, emotional, and beautiful instrument that is a joy to hear. She recently has embarked on a project with a new multimedia group to document and preserve her story on film. The possibilities of her going back into the studio again to record a solo album is occasionally discussed but, after having spent more than fifty years recording, she feels that there is little she hasn’t already done. She says that if she ever did go back into the studios, she would do a country album. She still performs locally with the Marc Devine Trio and her duet partner, Denia Ridley. While she has no plans of touring again, she would like to be remembered by her fans and, would like to be known here in the United States to the degree she is in Europe and other parts of the world. Ms. Hightower states emphatically, “I’m a household name in Europe.” Furthermore, it’s most confounding to note that her recordings in Europe consisted of songs almost entirely with English lyrics, and yet they sold into the millions in countries where the Spanish, German, French and other languages were the norm. Who were her influences? She recalls listening to the big bands of Kay Kyser and Glenn Miller, and of first hearing vocalists Frank Sinatra or her friend, Dick Haymes. She also says that being from the South, she always enjoyed listening to Country-Western performers such as Hank Williams, Sr. on the radio. She learned to yodel by emulating singer/comedian Judy Canova, who was featured in movies and on a radio series sponsored by Phillip Morris in the early 1950’s. But listening to her style, it’s easy to hear her the three influences she cites- Ella Fitzgerald, Kay Starr and Ella Mae Morse. And while she easily handles rhythm, blues, gospel, standards, country, and even rock, she simply defines herself by saying, “I’m a jazz singer.” Looking back over her career, it is easy to see how her career evolved in a path similar to that of other African-American female vocalists of her time- her first recordings were made in the R&B style, with some of the influences of the big bands still evident in the style of Horace Henderson’s Orchestra. Then it changed along with the emerging Rock and Roll sound of the mid to late 1950’s, swung back around to jazz in the late 1950’s and through the 1960’s before once again, it adapted to the pop/funk sound of the early 1970’s. Still, through all of those changes, her recordings prove that Donna Hightower was to keep up with the times.

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