Hightower, Luebertha [Donna] (1926–2013)


By: Tiana Wilson

Type: Biography

Published: December 2, 2021

Updated: December 6, 2021


Donna Hightower, African American jazz and gospel singer, songwriter, and activist, was born Luebertha Hightower on December 28, 1926, in Caruthersville, Missouri. She was the daughter of sharecroppers Hannah Carrie (Burton) Hightower and Henry Hightower. Hightower and her eight siblings all attended elementary school while also working and assisting their parents as field hands.

     On June 6, 1942, Hightower married Levi Gildon, a farmworker, in New Madrid, Missouri. Gildon was recorded on muster rolls as an enlisted man in the U. S. Marine Corps in October 1944 and serving in the Pacific during World War II. The couple had a daughter, Judith Gildon. The marriage lasted less than a decade before Hightower and Gildon divorced. In the effort to start a new life, Hightower moved to Chicago to live with relatives during the late 1940s. In Chicago she had a fresh start with new opportunities for her musical discovery. While she was working as a cook in a diner, Chicago Defender reporter Bob Tilman heard her singing and facilitated a meeting and audition with a local club owner. Hightower, who adopted the name of Donna as her stage name, subsequently secured a regular job as a singer and eventually caught the attention of Decca scouts.

Hightower signed with Decca Records in 1951. Promoted as “Little Donna Hightower,” her first release was the song “I Ain’t in the Mood,” recorded with the Horace Henderson orchestra. Hightower’s musical career took off, and she performed jazz throughout the U. S. She went to Los Angeles in 1954 and was on the RPM label in the mid-1950s. In 1955 she performed at the Apollo Theatre in New York City and subsequently worked for a music publishing company in Manhattan. She signed with Capitol Records in 1958.  Her two jazz albums on Capitol, Take One! and gee, baby ain’t I good to you?, both released in 1959, received limited commercial success in the U. S. That same year she was privately funded to tour Europe.

Throughout the 1960s Hightower played various shows throughout Greece, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, and Czechoslovakia. Sometime in the late 1960s she permanently resided in Madrid, Spain. Hightower’s Spanish debut occurred on U. S. military bases, a historically-significant site of cultural exchange between locals and foreigners. In Spain, she became a renowned international singer, and her self-penned hit single, “This World Today Is A Mess” (1972), reportedly sold more than a million copies worldwide. An album of the same name was also released. She was signed to Columbia Records in Spain, but the record label chose not to sell her music in the U. S., which explains why her fan base remained largely in European countries. Hightower crossed over to gospel music with her album Prima Donna (1985). In an interview with a Spanish newspaper, Hightower indicated that, while living in Europe, she had married and later divorced a man with the surname of Vanoutrive.

After three decades of living abroad, Hightower returned to the U. S. to live out her retirement in Austin, Texas. When describing why she returned to the United States, she claimed that God instructed her one day in 1990 to move to Austin, a town she had previously never visited. Hightower was unfamiliar with Austin’s history as a music town, but that soon changed as she played different gigs throughout the city and appeared on local radio programs and television commercials. She also acted and sang in the film Guts, Gumption and Go-Ahead (1992), a documentary on Annie Mae Hunt, a Black Texas woman whose life spanned the twentieth century.

While living in Austin, Hightower maintained her religious and communal engagement within the Black community as she joined a predominately-Black church, Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and was an active participant in the Austin Chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America. In her local church, Hightower served on the music ministry, occasionally led songs during service, participated in jazz-inspired-themed nights at the church, and composed gospel music for church services.

Hightower was also an activist in the Austin community throughout the 2000s. In 2001 the Austin Outreach and Community Service Center, an HIV prevention organization, awarded her with a certificate of appreciation for her performance at their annual jazz and art fundraiser. Continuing her community engagement, in 2005 Hightower participated in the Texas Rally for Life, in which she along with other locals stood in front of the state Capitol building and protested against abortions and advocated that minors be required to have parental consent for abortions. Hightower sang gospel music at this demonstration. Her activism reached the youth as she traveled to different public elementary schools in Austin and sang for the students. In 2006 she returned to Spain as the guest of honor at the IV Festival International de Jazz. In 2008 the Austin Fire Department invited her as their guest singer for their annual senior citizen luncheon. On the morning before her passing, Hightower led worship in song at the Buda United Methodist Church.

Donna Hightower died at her home in Austin on August 19, 2013. She was eighty-six. She was survived by her two children, daughter Judy of Indiana and son Bobby of California.

Visit the Texas Women Project's standalone website

The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.

Visit Website

Austin American-Statesman, December 26, 2006; August 25, 2013. Donna Hightower Collection, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. “Obituary: Donna Hightower Vanoutrive, December 28, 1926–August 19, 2013” Dignity Memorial (https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/pflugerville-tx/donna-hightower-vanoutrive-5643722), accessed November 26. 2021. Tiana U. Wilson, “‘Spain’s Queen of Soul’: Donna Hightower and Black Women’s Internationalism during the 1960s–1980s,” The Journal of African American History 106 (Fall 2021).

Categories:
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
  • Advocates
  • Music
  • Genres (Gospel)
  • Genres (Jazz)
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
Places:
  • Central Texas
  • Austin

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Tiana Wilson, “Hightower, Luebertha [Donna],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/hightower-luebertha-donna.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

December 2, 2021
December 6, 2021

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: