CD Review: Willie Hightower

Willie Hightower’s time in the spotlight was far shorter than you might expect from the quality of his recordings, the best of which can stand tall beside the classic work of Sam Cooke (his number one influence), The Temptations and Smokey Robinson. Hightower recorded on Bobby Robertson’s independent labels and on Capitol, and with Muscle Shoals producer Rick Hall (who’d made his name working with Etta James, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin). So the elements of success seemed to be present. I suppose the problem was timing: Hightower’s late ’60s recordings came at the tail end of the era of “classic” soul, when tastes were changing.

This collection should help bring Hightower, who is still active, out of his unjustified obscurity. “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” one of his two Billboard-charting singles, is one of the greatest soul records ever made. The other hit, “It’s a Miracle,” is a gorgeous, celebratory love song sung with achingly pure, strangely sad tones unlike anything Cooke had in his vocal arsenal.

Tracks like “If I Had a Hammer” and Hightower’s own utopian “Time Has Brought About a Change” reflect the passions surrounding the civil rights movement: “Once I wasn’t considered a man / Given no respect at all / But now I’ve got my pride deep down inside / And no one will ever take it again.”

“It’s Too Late” is another track worthy of classic status. Hightower wails this dark you’ll-come-crawling-back poor man ballad like his life depended on it.

Willie Hightower brought a strong, beautiful and versatile soulfulness to a set of fine songs over his recording career. This great collection, which appears to contain all his important recordings, will be a welcome delight to all lovers of soul music and an important discovery for many – like myself.