Jimmy J. Hughes, an R&B tenor singer, was born on February 3, 1938, in Leighton, Alabama. He began listening to Radio WLAY, a country music station in Littleton, Alabama, when he was five years old. He sang country because that was the only radio station he could hear until he discovered WLAC, a Black-oriented station broadcasting from Nashville, Tennessee. That station introduced him to R&B, blues, and other music genres popular among the Black community. At the same time, Hughes was influenced by religious music heard at Leighton’s Galilee Missionary Baptist Church.
Hughes was a member of The Singing Clouds, a gospel quartet, while a high school student at the Leighton Training (Rosenwald) School in 1954. By 1962, Hughes, 24, was performing as the opening act for legendary R&B artists Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Bobby Womack. Simultaneously, he worked at Robbins Tire & Rubber Company in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Hughes wrote the majority of his songs at the factory and regularly performed with a gospel group in northern Alabama and on the Tuscumbia, Alabama radio station WZZA.
Later that year, he auditioned at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios and signed with the Guyden label in Philadelphia, where he released his first single, “I’m Qualified,” a rhythm-and-blues ballad written by Hughes and disc jockey friend Quin Ivy. The song was not a hit on the charts. Hughes, undeterred, released the 1964 R&B ballad “Steal Away,” which he claimed was inspired by the Negro Spiritual “Steal Away to Jesus.” The song peaked at number seventeen on the Billboard Hot 100. Hughes’ follow-up single, “Try Me,” peaked at number 65 on the Billboard Hot 100.
As a result of his success, he signed with the Vee-Jay label and released his debut album, Steal Away. “I Worship the Ground You Walk On” from that album peaked at R&B number 25 in 1966.
Hughes’ single “Why Not Tonight” peaked at No. 5 R&B and No. 90 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967. “Don’t Lose Your Good Thing” peaked at number 121 on the Billboard Hot 100. Hughes released three charting singles a year later, in 1968, including “Neighbor, Neighbor,” which peaked at no. 4 R&B and no. 65 Billboard Hot 100.
That song was followed by “I Worship the Ground You Walk On,” which peaked at no. 25 on the R&B chart, “Why Not Tonight,” which peaked at no. 5 on the R&B chart and no. 90 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “It Ain’t What You Got,” which peaked at no. 43 on the R&B chart. Hughes signed with Stax in 1968 and released “I Like Everything About You,” which peaked at no. 21 on the R&B chart.
Hughes released three albums on the Volt label in 1969, including Something Special, but by 1971 he had left the music industry and began working for the Leighton City Government. “Steal Away” was re-released in 1976, along with the B Side “Here I Stand.” Both songs had only moderate success.
The Town of Leighton held its first “Jimmy Hughes Day festival” on Main Street in 2021.