August 19, 2013 – Donna Hightower was born on December 28, 1926 in Caruthersville, Missouri to a family of sharecroppers. She listened to singers such as Ella Fitzgerald in her youth, but never planned to have a singing career and by the age of 23 had been married with two children, and divorced.
While working in a diner in Chicago, she was heard singing by Bob Tillman, a reporter with the Chicago Defender newspaper, who then won her a booking as a singer at the Strand Hotel. Initially billed as Little Donna Hightower, she won a recording contract with Decca Records and recorded her first single, “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. While none of her records made the pop or R&B charts, she received good reviews and her discs did perform well in Decca Record’s own sales guides, with her “I Ain’t In The Mood” ranking #1 on their Sepia (race) 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 two 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 toured England, France, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe, later performing with Quincy Jones, The Platters and French rockstar Johnny Hallyday. She first settled in France, then Belgium and finally 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 Spain 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.
Age 64, she returned to the US to live in semi-retirement in Austin, Texas, in 1990. She was active in the Austin Chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America. 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.