Rico Hightower: Gospel, R&B Singer

Rico Hightower was born into a religious and musical family on Oct. 21, 1942.

His father was the Rev. Nick Hightower; his mother, the former Susie Cook. The couple had a large family – more than a half dozen children. The Hightowers got their start in DeLand, Fl, but later relocated to Newark.

The Rev. Hightower was a minister at a church on Springfield Avenue and the family lived at 437 Belmont Avenue, now known as “Irvine Turner Boulevard.”

Early in their lives, the five Hightower sons (Johnny, Robert, Rico, William and Willie James) joined forces with their father in a gospel group that recorded as the “Hightower Brothers” in the late 1950s and early 1960s for the Savoy, Nashboro and Peacock labels.

One of Rico’s younger brothers, Robert, who sang and played the guitar, later made a name for himself with the Swannie Quartet and then the renowned Mighty Clouds of Joy.

Before his death in 2010, Robert “Sugar” Hightower (“Little Sugar” earlier in his career) was the guitarist for and later the leader of the popular Southern-based gospel group Slim and Supreme Angels for more than 30 years.

Writing in The Los Angeles Times in 1995, noted music critic Robert Hilburn described a “Best of the Hightower Brothers” album reissued by Nashboro as “a marvel” and “amazing stuff.”

Most appealing, he added, was “a gritty, impassioned singer named Robert Joe ‘Little Sugar’ Hightower who combines the youthful innocence of Frankie Lymon and the fury of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.”

Rico Hightower moved on from the Hightower Brothers as he got older and, as the 1960s drew down, found himself a back-up vocalist in the band of established soul singer William Larry “Billy” Stewart II of Washington, DC.

Stewart was a pianist and singer who wrote songs for himself (and others) and had played in Bo Diddley’s band before going out on his own.

He had several national hits on Chess Records, including “I Do Love You,” “Sitting in the Park” and a singular version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” his best-selling and signature song.

On Jan. 17, 1970, Stewart and his band were on their way in two vehicles to a performance at a club in Columbia, SC, when the brand-new Ford Thunderbird that Stewart had just bought and was driving left the highway, struck a bridge abutment and hurtled into the Neuse River near Smithfield, NC.

With Stewart in the car were Hightower, 27; William Cathey, 32 of Charlotte, NC, and Norman P. Rich, 39, of Washington, DC. All four drowned instantly. Stewart was 32, while Hightower’s death certificate listed him as living in Newark.

The fatal accident received little more than bare-bones press coverage and next to no in-depth articles.

Stewart’s wife later sued on a claim the Thunderbird was mechanically defective and, with the case dragging on for years, eventually settled out of court with the Ford Motor Co. Billy Stewart was buried in National Harmon Memorial Park in Landover, Md.

Following the tragedy, Rico Hightower’s body was returned to Newark. A wake was held at the Greater First Timothy Baptist Church on Springfield Avenue on Friday and Saturday, Jan, 23-24, 1970, while his funeral was held the next day.

Burial at the Woodland Cemetery off South 10th Street was on Monday, January 26.

The Cotton Funeral Home in Newark handled the arrangements.

For almost 50 years, Rico Hightower’s grave was unmarked.

Headstone, Tribute and Bio Research by Guy Sterling.

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