Tony Hightower’s ‘Legacy’ borrows from his jazz past to define his future

Earlier this summer, Tony Hightower released his second album, “Legacy,” a tribute to his mother, “Mr. Cole” (jazz icon Freddy Cole), his grandmother and “Pops,” all of whom had passed away since his first album in 2016.

“Originally, the album was to be an ode to my mom,” Hightower says. “I want to keep her legacy alive as I start my own.”

Credit: Courtesy of Tony Hightower

Credit: Courtesy of Tony Hightower

For decades, until her death in 2018 at age 64 from colon cancer, Theresa Hightower was Atlanta’s first lady of song. From her appearances at music festivals to her recordings to her theater and movie roles and to her steady nightclub gigs —- including a near 20-year stint at what was then the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead — if you lived here you knew of and probably had heard Theresa Hightower sing. She is considered one of the great jazz and blues vocalists of her generation, admired for her range, vocal phrasing, stage presence and her universal appeal.

“How much I miss being able to talk shop with mom,” Hightower says. “When I started my professional career, she was always my first call, somebody who could totally understand what I was trying to do, who could really relate to that.”

On “Legacy,” Hightower expresses his devotion to his mother in “All For The Good,” and “Here’s To Life,” which was one of her favorite songs. He sang it at the celebration of her life, and thought then that he should record it someday.

His career as a singer began long before his first professional appearance. “Mom was a fiery and versatile vocal pro by age 16 and had me when she was 19,” he says. “One night she was singing Aretha Franklin’s ‘Spirit in the Dark,’ a song with a gospel edge, and toward the end started jumping around. People were looking nervous and saying, ‘Oh my, she’s going to have that baby right there on stage.’ So I guess you could say I’ve been performing since the womb.”

As Hightower turned 7, Theresa’s career was blossoming, which made Hightower something of a celebrity himself among his childhood friends, especially when his mother set aside time to perform just for them. “She came to sing at my elementary school, and we did ‘Ease on Down the Road’ together,” he says. “And she performed at our high school graduation.”

Credit: Courtesy of Tony Hightower

Credit: Courtesy of Tony Hightower

As the son of one of the city’s most recognized and respected female vocalist, Hightower grew up amidst many of Atlanta’s finest musicians. “I got to soak up more than I understood at an early, early age,” he says.

Hightower’s first professional gig came at age 14 as the drummer in the stage band for a theatrical production, “Queen of the Blues: The Dinah Washington Story,” in which Theresa Hightower played the lead. He later played drums for Atlanta-based jazz singer-pianist Freddy Cole, and often for his mother, who all the while was pushing him toward singing.

“For a time, she had a residency in Canada,” Hightower says. “At that time, I was 12 and she’d take me with her to open her show singing Bobby Brown’s ‘Girlfriend.’ She was showing me off, getting me ready, helping me learn and get better.”

But it wasn’t until high school, the Northside School of the Performing Arts, that Hightower’s focus changed to singing. He and three classmates performing as 4.0 were signed to a record deal just two weeks after their graduation.

“We had a nice run,” he says. But when they lost their record deal and he returned to Atlanta, he also returned to the drums. “I was a little disgruntled with the industry,” he said, until he hooked up with friend and pianist John Beal in 1998, which led to two extended club gigs, more than seven years each at two different suburban clubs.

Hightower was steeped in R&B, but now as a soloist became attracted to the freedom of expression characteristic of jazz. “I didn’t want to sing R&B anymore; I felt tied down by it,” he says. “So I talked to Mr. Cole and Carl Anthony (Atlanta’s nighttime jazz voice as host of WCLK-FM’s Serenade To The City).”

They agreed, Hightower was for jazz and jazz was for Hightower.

He admired most of the greats, like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, and wanted to do “something with those more traditional tones.” As well, at the insistence of Nat’s brother Freddy Cole, he began to write his own songs, including “Kiss Me Baby” and “All Belong to You” for his 2014 debut CD. Hightower said the songs sounded so authentic that some local jazz musicians were scouring their jazz “fake” books for lead sheets. “My hope was to create a new kind of standard.”

Hence the CD’s title, “The New Standard,” of which Carl Anthony (see two graphs up) said, “It is evident he possessed clarity to hear the touch that is required to give each song new life.”

With “Legacy,” which is already getting substantial airplay on SiriusXM’s Real Jazz and internationally on Jazz FM out of London, Hightower has not only freed himself from the restrictions of R&B but also from the more traditional approaches to jazz. “Legacy” is a freedom romp, a completely original mix of melody and vocal pyrotechnics.

“On the first album, I did less on purpose,” Hightower says. “I wanted people to know that I respected the music, wanted respect from musicians for an authentic take, my take but authentic. This record has a few more vocal acrobatics but hoping to stay true to what jazz is.”

If you want to play jazz, do nothing but play jazz. So goes the jazz musician’s mantra that suggests how challenging that musical genre is and the level of dedication required to learn to play it well. It’s inspiring Hightower as he moves into a next phase of his career.

“I’m getting comfortable and seeing what works, trying to push my limits,” he says. “I wanted to challenge myself to keep growing. And I had to prove myself, because what I had done over there doesn’t matter over here.”

That challenge is driving him now, to the point that he has started studying piano. “I have a good ear, can articulate what I hear to other musicians, can sing the notes, but I couldn’t tell you how to voice a chord differently, how to build the chord,” Hightower says. “By playing more, I’ll start hearing more intricate things, have more knowledge. I’m glad people like what I’m doing now, but I pray to do huge things. I feel like I’m growing, and I love that I have so much room to grow.”

Hightower is taking what came first from his mother and building on it. As such, “Legacy” lives up to its title, both a reflection on Hightower’s past and a forecast of his future.

Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL


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