On Top of the World: An Interview With Martha High
Vocalist Martha High spent three decades with James Brown, and she tells PopMatters about her resurrected solo career as well as her path through the music industry.
Nothing's Going Wrong
10 January 2020
For 30 years, Washington DC-raised Martha High sang with James Brown, touring the world and even doubling up as the Godfather of Soul's hairdresser. It wasn't her first big break. As part of the vocal troupe, the Four Jewels (later, the Jewels), she'd charted some songs in the States in the 1960s, including the #64 Billboard Hot 100 single, "Opportunity". Unlike some of the other members of the James Brown Revue, in particular Lyn Collins, High never quite got her moment in the solo spotlight. True, there was a Brown-produced album in the late 1970s (on the Salsoul label), but it wasn't conceived or timed well, pushing High as a disco diva just as that genre found itself under assault by the pugnacious "Disco Sucks" movement. When her album came and went, High returned to her day job as part of James Brown's touring company.
Then, a few years ago, High was lured her back to her abandoned solo career. First came a live album. It was followed, in 2008, by a studio set, It's High Time. She hasn't looked back since. Her latest album, Nothing's Going Wrong, credited to Martha High & The Italian Royal Family, represents her second collaboration with Italian songwriter/producer, Luca Sapio. PopMatters caught up with her as she got ready to go on the promotional trail.
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Can you tell me how you discovered your voice – was it through singing in church or were there other contributory factors?
When I was around seven or eight, I thought I could sing, so I used to walk around the house going "la-la-la-la-la". My brothers used to say, "Would you please tell her to stop that noise?" and my mother would say, "She isn't making noise, she is singing." I thought, yes, that's right, I'm a singer.
When I started singing in truth in Mount Olive church in Washington in the junior choir, I noticed I could stay on my pitch more than some of the other girls. I was always trying to help them find their parts. So I learned then that I had a voice and was able to hold my notes.
Was your family musical?
Absolutely not. No one in my family was interested in music that way. They loved to listen to it but as far as being a musician or a singer, no one but myself. When my brother found out I was on the road, he was away doing army service. My mother told him I was in New York City on the road, and he was very confused; he'd had no idea I could sing. He was very surprised to find out I had become a singer.
In the 1960s, you were part of the Jewels. Do you remember the day you joined the group?
Absolutely not. All I know is it was the early 1960s, the exact date I can't remember. I am a little too old to remember dates. We were all at Roosevelt High School in Washington. Sandra [Bears] and Grace [Ruffin] were a year older than Margie [Clarke] and I. I knew of them when they were singing as the Four Jewels at school. I joined them around 1963. It was a great, great feeling – I was really happy to be with them because, by the time I joined them, they'd had already had a hit in Washington DC.
Bo Diddley had me audition because one of the girls was leaving the group, and they wanted to remain the Four Jewels. I was singing with a group I'd founded called the Bo-ettes as we were working under Bo Diddley. We rehearsed at Bo's house, and the Jewels also rehearsed there. One day Bo said to me, "I want you to go and audition to be the new girl." I was like, "No, I can't do that. Those girls can really sing. I don't think I can sing with them."
He said, "Martha, you're the best in the group, so I think you should audition." The next night I did. I was very nervous and scared. They gave me some parts to sing, and I was able to hold the harmony. I did really well, and they said I blended well with them, but they also had two other girls to audition.
I left the audition, not sure if I would get the part, nervous and wondering. Two days later, Sandra, the leader, called me and said, "I just want you to know I chose you to sing with us." When I hung up, I was so excited and happy to become the fourth Jewel. It remained that way until 1966 when one of the girls decided she didn't want to go on the road with the Godfather. That's when we became just the Jewels.
How did you come to choose 'High' as your stage surname?
My real name is Martha Harvin. Mr. Brown was a funny cat and said, "That isn't a name for the stage. We need to find you a new name. Oh, I know, I'm going to name you High, Martha High". So I became Martha High.
You spent over 30 years touring with James Brown. What are your favorite memories of that remarkably long tenure?
I will tell you a couple of stories. When we played Madison Square Garden in New York, it was around the time "The Payback" [1973 R&B #1 hit] had come out, and the highest note at the beginning of the song was my voice. I came out on stage looking for my mic and couldn't find it, so Mr. Danny Ray [Ray was James Brown's right-hand man and MC for over 40 years], who used to throw the cape, walked me over to this big wooden box and said, "Mr. Brown wants you to stand up on here, and your mic is up there."
I was like, "What?" I got up on the stand and was towering over everyone, up on a pedestal and so excited. I knew that we were opening up the show with the big "Payback". Here I am on top of this pedestal just looking over everyone, and when we started the show, of course, you heard me first. That was a career highlight, playing Madison Square Garden, overlooking everyone and my voice being first.
My second fond memory was on my 50th birthday. That particular day I decided I just wanted to be alone and do my own thing. I said, "Well, I am going to get dressed, take a movie in, have dinner and go to my favorite club and see some friends down there."
I was wrong. Mr. Brown called me and said, "Miss High, meet me at the office." I was thinking, "Oh my God, I don't want to meet him in the office. I want to go out and have some fun – it's my birthday." I was living in Augusta, Georgia, at the time, so it was easy for him to get in touch with me. I drove up to his office, he met me there, and said, "Miss High, before we go in, let's head over across the road to the Sheridan Hotel and get something to eat, are you hungry?"
I said, "Yeah, ok, I am hungry." I wasn't feeling this at all. I wanted to be alone and not hang out with my boss on my birthday. I spent too much time on the road with him. I was his hairstylist back then, so I had to see him before the show for his hair, I had to do his hair after the show, and I would do his hair when we traveled from gig to gig, so it was 'Enough!'
Anyway, we went over to the hotel, and they showed us to a lovely table, set for maybe six to seven people, and I said, "Why are we sitting at such a big table?" Then I heard all these voices wishing me a happy birthday. It was the members of the band and Kelly Jarrell, one of the Bittersweets. Mr. Brown said, "It's your birthday, Miss High – you didn't think I was going to let you be by yourself, did you?".
I felt so bad; he had planned all of this for me. It really turned out to be a great evening. Kelly was hired to sing with a band and did a great job. And the most special thing about the birthday was that Mr. Brown gave me the titles to my car. I had recently got a car, and I had payments to make every month. Mr. Brown paid it all off and gave me the titles and, wow, that was really big – no one had ever given me anything like that before. It turned out to be a very special day for me.
And what things do you miss about it?
I miss the true entertaining Mr Brown did, for 30 years. Watching him on stage and studying him. He was a great entertainer. He knew his audience. He knew how to change things from one song to another. You don't really see a performance on stage like that, or if you do, it's rare. To this day, there is no one who can entertain better than Mr. Brown. It is something I miss and will never forget. I learned a lot being with him for 30 years. I believe in entertaining and making my audience feel like they are part of the show.
Your first solo album appeared in 1979. Can you tell me how you came to sign with the Salsoul label and make that record?
It was a disco album that Mr. Brown produced and it was very, very different from most of the things he did when he recorded someone. I was not really happy about it, but I was happy to have the chance to record with him. When I went to the studio, I thought I was there to do backing for some of Mr. Brown's tracks, but then I found out it was for me, my recording. Mr. Brown had made a deal with Salsoul, and they were very happy to have me. Of course, a few things didn't work out like they should have, such as the business side of it. During that time, entertainers got duped out of their money and all that. I kind of went through the same thing. At the same time, though, it was an honor and blessing to be on Salsoul Records.
Were there opportunities to continue pursuing solo recording work after the Salsoul album? You didn't make any more solo albums until the next millennium, so I'd be very interested to know whether that was not for want of trying or whether other things simply occupied you.
I didn't get another chance to record as a solo artist. For Salsoul, it was a one-time deal, and it was over. The disco album got lost at the end of 1979 when the disco era went out. Everyone went back to live bands and disco kind of faded. I didn't give it any more thought to have another chance. I don't think I was ready either. You know the saying "the time will come, be patient". So I went back to singing with Mr. Brown. Then, after I left Mr. Brown, I joined Maceo Parker [composer and saxophonist with James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic] and worked with him for 16 years. During the time I worked with Maceo, I started making records again.
I did a live album recorded in Paris for a small private record company. Then I did It's High Time , and that was put out by another small label. It made a little bit of noise, and I was very proud of it. That is when my solo career started – when I was with Maceo, I could spread my wings and be more free to pursue a solo career.
I left Mr. Brown because I wanted to try and do something on my own, see if I could really sing and see other things and other places. So I approached Maceo to ask if there was a spot for me on his show and praise god there was. He was open and said, "If you have something you need to do and have to leave for a while, we will make it work." He opened the door and really pushed me to do my solo career.
What music do you listen to for pleasure and inspiration?
When you're on the road and touring, and you have one-nighters, every night you are listening to yourself do the show. At times, we record the shows, and I listen to the recordings to critique myself. When I get home, I don't listen to any of that. I listen to gospel and smooth jazz, which is very, very soothing. It puts you in a mood of being able to relax and know that you're at home now, just relax and listen to this music. It gives you time to think and open your mind and feel good inside.
What singers among recent generations of pop/rock/soul/hip-hop stars do you admire and why?
There are a few new artists that I love to listen to. I am a big fan of Ledisi, Jennifer Hudson, and Lalah Hathaway. I also enjoy Indie Arie. I think these young ladies have beautiful voices. Their music is serious. They carry a message in whatever they sing, and I love it. I like Will Downing, and that's about it right now. I like a touch of Usher's music too.
Is there anything in your career history or life, in general, you'd change if you had the opportunity, and if so, what?
I don't think so. I feel I have learned about the music business. This is life, and the things I went through were meant to be. I have had some tragedy and some great times. The things I went through helped me learn about life, so I wouldn't want to change them. God knows what he is doing, and I just feel like this is my time right now. I don't want to change anything – it all got me to here. I feel like I could give people advice based on what I've been through. I like to share with people if they need hope. If they choose to use my advice, that is a pleasure and honor for me.
The abuse of power and sex in entertainment and the wider world has come under much more scrutiny than ever before in light of the #MeToo movement. What have been your thoughts and feelings, observing this?
I am glad that all of this is coming out into the open, that something is being done about it and we as woman speak on it and stop holding back. These things shouldn't be happening and shouldn't have happened, and I am glad women are getting together to speak up. That is why I said my experience in the music business helps me give people advice and share my part about what you can do, what you should do, and what you don't have to do. We have to keep on speaking up.
Your recent work, including the 2016 album, Singing For The Good Times, and your new album, have been made with Italian musicians, producers and songwriters. What first took you to Italy and how did you come to start working with Italian musicians?
I had been going to Italy quite a while before I met them. I traveled to Italy with Maceo Parker and Mr. Brown, so I had been going for quite a few years. This particular time I was doing my own thing, performing in a club in Rome. I met Luca Sapio, who came to interview me. While he was interviewing me, he said. "I would love to talk to you about going into the studio because I hear something. Mr. Brown should have done something like this for you a long time ago. I would really like to do something."
We swapped numbers, and about a month later, I got a call from him. We started talking and decided that we should make an album together. I was all for it. I was excited and very grateful. We talked on the phone, and he passed lyrics back and forth. We chose the songs together, and we came up with our first album Singing For the Good Times. It was quite an experience working with him. Then I heard the musicians he had on the record, and they had a proper soulful, funky sound.
Do you think Italians have a good feel for American musical genres like soul?
There is nothing wrong with having an Italian band. I love the combination. I feel like we have a totally different and great sound. A strong feeling of knowing each other. Feeling this music, what we put together, I think it came out fantastic. It is a great mixture. They play soul very well because they know it. They have made themselves familiar with the music for many years, and why not? Why not give us something fresh and new in soul music?
Nothing's Going Wrong is written and produced by Lucia Sapio and is your second album for Blind Faith Records. Were all the songs specifically written for you to sing, and do you get involved in selecting the material and other aspects of production?
Of course the songs were written from me. I know the guys, and they know me. It feels like they've been following me around. I think 'how could they know that, how they could feel it?' We went through the lyrics, and we discussed what it all means and how it feels. I am comfortable with all the songs we do, and they make me a part of all the songs. It's a beautiful album. All the songs have meaning.
These guys, the Italian Royal Family, know me very well, and I know them. They are very caring guys. I love being on the road with them. I don't feel like I'm alone. These guys put the music together, and when it came to the lyrics, of course, I was a part. We talked out every song I sung. There was no doubt in my mind that these lyrics were for me. It seems they have known me for 40 years, not just four.
When you wrap a recording project such as this, is your mind already turning to what you might do next? Do you have any thoughts on what that might be?
After recording and being in the studio for weeks and weeks at a time am I thinking about the next project? Not really! I have to give myself some space. The album is new, and I want to take it all in and enjoy it. I don't want to move too fast, but of course, I'm sure the musicians and Luca have written the next album already, as that's what they do. But I am going to sit back and enjoy this.
What is the greatest reward of being a singer?
It is to be able to share my music and to perform for the people that come out to see us. When someone comes to see you, they've left whatever they have been doing to come out. Whatever time you are performing, they've come to see you. My greatest reward is to look out at the audience, see the smiles on their faces, and share my music with them. That is my greatest reward as a singer.