From Cooking to Crotchets

Donna Hightower stars in Bandstand

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From the TVTimes for week commencing 27 December 1959

AS far as the money went, it didn’t matter to the 16-year-old coloured girl whether she cooked hot meal or sang hot songs. She was paid 35 dollars a week either way.

Donna Hightower, who sings as a guest in the next two Granada Bandstand programmes, “realised that sleeping all day and doing three or four hours a night in a club was better than standing in front of a stove for eight hours.”

So she threw away her apron, bought a couple of evening gowns and started singing.

Donna Hightower

For a long time she thought her voice was not good enough to take her to the top. “What, me sing professionally?” she said, and dismissed the idea as a lot of hard work with no returns.

“My father was a musician, and we were very poor,” said Donna. “He was also a farmer. Sometimes he worked his own land; sometimes he worked for others.

“It didn’t seem to make much difference; we were still poor.

“He taught music, too, and could play any instrument he could lay his hands on — harp, piano, accordion, harmonium.

“But I never saw a trumpet or anything like that when I was a kid. I reckon they were out of our class.

“He tried to teach me to read music, but I could never learn.”

Now she wishes she had. For, in addition to singing, Donna composes.

“A tune comes into my head and, as I think of the melody, I make up the words. Then I sing it over and over again until it is photographed in my memory. Then I go to sleep.

“When I wake up I find I’ve forgotten it. But it comes back and I sing it into a tape-recorder.”

It sounds a rough and ready way to compose. But she has reached the Top Twenty in America too often for her methods to be laughed away.

It all began in a Chicago restaurant when a customer asked the girl behind the counter to turn up the radio. There was no radio … Donna was singing over the stove.

The customer persuaded her she had talent, and she started singing at weekends in a club for five dollars. Then a newspaperman took her on a tour of Chicago, trying to get her a booking. They began by asking for 100 dollars a week. They ended by accepting 35.

“A woman from a record company came down and she said I had a kinda unique style,” Donna went on. “I guess I had. I could hardly keep time.”

She recorded, and waited for success to come. But nothing happened.

She went back home to Los Angeles. “I must have been pretty good, because I won a talent contest; and then I made some more records for another company.”

But they brought in little money, so New York was the next stop, “knocking around, doing practically nothing.”

Then, a year ago, she met a group of song-writers, who asked her to make some demonstration records of their songs.

They liked her voice even better than they liked the songs. “We’ll try to get you a recording,” they said.

In her smooth caressing voice Donna told what happened then. “I picked out my best tunes, and we just went in and sorta jammed something. The disc came out last January.”

It was a hit. The 35 dollars a week cook turned out to have a million dollar talent – both as singer and song-writer.

It has brought her to London and soon maybe it will take her to Paris. And though she still likes cooking she is in no hurry to get back to her home in Brooklyn.

“Things are just beginning to break for me,” she said. “I’ll be around for a while.”

Musicians say that this girl, at 24, is a singer’s singer — which is their way of bestowing high praise.

I’m no musician, but Donna Hightower is my kind of singer.

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