Martha High Interview
ORIGINAL SOURCE: SoulTrain
“Goddess of Soul” Martha High was the longest-running female vocalist in James Brown’s band—36 years to be exact—but she had a career in music before that. Originally from Washington, D.C., she sang with a local group managed by rock and roll pioneer Bo Diddley before becoming a part of the Four Jewels, who had quite a few hit singles. High later worked with other big names in the music industry such as B.B. King, Little Richard, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations. But it was when she connected with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, that her career took off. In this interview, High, who currently performs solo, discusses her early career and her illustrious journey with Brown and other highlights of her career.
SoulTrain.com: Ms. High, I have to say you have one of the greatest voices in music. Did you get your start singing in church?
Martha High: Yes, I was brought up in the church. I went to Mount Airy Baptist Church.
SoulTrain.com: Who were your musical influences?
Martha High: Baby Washington, Maxine Brown, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin and Etta James. I was fascinated with their music. Then there were Gladys Knight and Patti Labelle. They both have that soulful, funky kind of thing and are real strong singers.
SoulTrain.com: What was your first experience singing professionally?
Martha High: When I attended Roosevelt High School, I put some groups together and sang alongside Marvin Gaye’s sister Zeola and Yvonne Smith. We sang at school concerts, sock hops and local talent shows.
SoulTrain.com: It was around that time that Bo Diddley discovered you, right?
Martha High: Yes. What happened was that he saw me singing and told the group, the Four Jewels, about me. At that time, Bob Lee was tutoring and managing me and my group. We even used to sing in Billy Stewart’s basement. But then Bo Diddley began to manage us and he helped us get our first recording deal with Chess/Checker Records. He liked us and rehearsed us and gave us the name the Bo-ettes. We performed at a couple of places but because of our ages, we didn’t perform at clubs.
SoulTrain.com: You later became a member of the Four Jewels, correct?
Martha High: Right. Before I joined them, they had a big local hit called “Loaded With Goodies.” They were becoming well known in the D.C. area. The group consisted of Sandra Bears, Grace Ruffin and Margie Clark. After I joined the group, we recorded the song “Opportunity” under the name The Jewels with the help of George Clinton, who was with the Parliaments at the time. He and his group helped put the record together and it became a national hit on the Dimension record label. It was really important that your record even made the charts. Our follow-up, “But I Do,” didn’t do as well and we were dropped from Dimension Records. But while I was with the group, we opened for a lot of entertainers like the Temptations. I was good friends with one of their members, Paul Williams.
SoulTrain.com: How and when did you become a part of the James Brown revue?
Martha High: We were performing at the Howard Theater one night in 1965 and all of a sudden we heard this ruckus and we saw that James Brown came into the theater. This was when he was at his peak. After the show, Mr. Brown came to our dressing room and told us how much he enjoyed our show. We were jumping up and down and so excited that Mr. Brown liked us! Three or four months later, we performed at the Apollo. He came backstage and told us, “Y’all need to join my revue.” He told us to think it over. Four or five months went by and we were invited to Carrs Beach, where all the entertainers would perform. Mr. Brown was there and he told us he would like for us to be on his revue and wanted our manager to go over our contracts. We talked to our parents and then signed the contracts to do the theater circuit with him in 1966. We performed at the Uptown in Philadelphia, the Royal Theater, the Apollo in New York and the Regal in Chicago. At each theater, we’d perform seven days and did six to seven shows a day.
SoulTrain.com: Wow! That must have been grueling!
Martha High: Yes it was! It was new to us but it was exciting. We were happy. We were with James Brown! We would start the first show at noon or 1PM and we’d be finished with the last show at 12AM. At each show, James Brown, his Famous Flames and his band turned it out. It was totally amazing.
SoulTrain.com: James Brown was a perfectionist and he demanded that from everyone working with him. What was it like at rehearsals?
Martha High: They were quite an experience. It was more than I had ever seen or experienced. We rehearsed a lot. We’d then go to do soundcheck then did two or three more rehearsals. We felt we knew all the songs but Mr. Brown wanted us to rehearse even more. He is without a doubt the greatest entertainer ever.
SoulTrain.com: Indeed. He was the consummate professional entertainer with no lip-synching in his concerts ever, not even when he was older. I heard one time he performed to the point that his knees were bleeding after dropping to the floor one too many times and just kept right on performing.
Martha High: Yes. I knew his knees were damaged from all the performing he did.
SoulTrain.com: What are some of your favorite James Brown songs?
Martha high: “Lost Someone” and “Bewildered.” I loved seeing him perform those songs. I also liked “Please Please Please.” My favorite fast songs by Mr. Brown are “Think” and “Bring it Up.” The Jewels did background vocals on one version of “Bring It Up.”
SoulTrain.com: What are among your greatest memories performing and touring with James Brown?
Martha High: There are so many, but among them are performing at Madison Square Garden, the Hollywood Bowl, Radio City Music Hall and our shows in Paris. He had us fly with him in his jet. I would also do his hair while we were on tour. I did his hair for years. Another great experience was performing on Soul Train.
SoulTrain.com: James Brown and his JB’s, along with you and Lyn Collins, presented one of the greatest shows in Soul Train’s history. What was that experience like for you?
Martha High: It was a long taping, but I was very excited! Mr. Brown never gave that much time for a television performance. I had on this very nice jean denim outfit during one performance. I even helped Mr. Brown’s daughter, Deanna, get prepared and ready before she went on stage to perform with her dad. I remember certain dancers, Damita Jo Freeman, Patricia Davis and some others, being a part of Mr. Brown’s concerts at the Los Angeles Forum after that taping.
SoulTrain.com: When I recently interviewed one of the dancers, I was told that at the taping, JB’s member Maceo Parker had to do a certain part of a song close to forty times before he got it right at the insistence of James Brown.
Martha High: Yes. Even though we were performing on television, Mr. Brown wanted to hear what he wanted to hear, that certain note.
SoulTrain.com: What were your impressions of Don Cornelius?
Martha High: Don Cornelius was amazing, the brilliant man with that voice. I had very much respect for him. I loved the way he managed everything on the set. He did something really brilliant for us, doing a quality show for many years
SoulTrain.com: Tell me about the album that James Brown produced for you.
Martha High: Mr. Brown recorded an album on me in 1979. In 1979, disco was dying and live music was coming back. The single from that album was “Showdown.” I used to perform that song during Mr. Brown’s shows. “Showdown” was about how we did things in the old school days. We had gangs, but there was no shooting or cutting each other up. We’d come to a club, the east side would be on one side and the west side would be on the other side and their best dancers would come out and resolve their differences through dance. Mr. Brown would have dance contests at his shows and would give $50 to whoever danced the best.
SoulTrain.com: One of the most classic moments in music history was when Michael Jackson came on stage during one of James Brown’s concerts at the Wiltern Theater to not only sing but also dance. What do you remember about that special evening?
Martha High: That was just totally amazing! Michael showed up a couple of times before at some of Mr. Brown’s other gigs, but this time he came on stage. After he danced, he hugged me and whispered to me, “I love your voice.” When Michael died, it was such a huge loss. He was an icon. I am still excited when I hear his music. His music is forever.
SoulTrain.com: Who are some of the current singers that you like?
Martha High: Ledisi, India.Arie and Beyoncé. She’s doing her thing while being a mother and a wife and I love her for that. I still love old school artists such as Etta James, Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin. As far as male vocalists, I like Kem and Anthony Hamilton, who just has that old school sound, and Al Green. The old school artists’ songs have great lyrics, great music and great messages.
SoulTrain.com: What do you think about some of the current music of today, which is filled with cursing and profanity, and a lot of the videos that accompany the music that have women in baring outfits?
Martha High: The ladies have to realize how they are presenting themselves. They wonder why so many of them are being hurt. Mr. Brown always had the Jewels in gowns or nice suits. I also have a real problem with what the guys and ladies sing about today. It’s really messy. There are some current artists’ songs you won’t hear in the next three years.
SoulTrain.com: Another great female soul singer who doesn’t get a lot of recognition is Lyn Collins, who also recorded, performed and toured with James Brown.
Martha High: Absolutely! Lyn Collins and I were close like sisters. We were on a two week tour in Europe as part of the Funky Divas tour consisting of myself, Lyn and Marva Whitney. She hadn’t been out on the road for a long time but I convinced her to come on the tour. We all had a great time! During a break from the tour, I got a call that Lyn was in the hospital. I didn’t believe it because I had spoken to her earlier that day. Later on, I got the news she had died. I was so saddened. She was like my sister.
SoulTrain.com: Some of the members of Brown’s backing band, the J.B.’s, don’t get a lot of recognition.
Martha High: I wish there was a way the J.B.’s could perform more, chiefly Fred Thomas, Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley. They haven’t been able to work very much since Mr. Brown passed. These are the guys that have played on his music and toured with him for years. I don’t know why people are not giving them a chance. They can’t get bookings.
SoulTrain.com: I remember the night in New York at Lincoln Center, you and the J.B.’s did an excellent show to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Soul Train. I was honored to share the stage with all of you being a former dancer from the show. I remember one of the songs you performed was “The Payback” from a woman’s perspective.
Martha High: Yes! That was a wonderful evening! I recorded a version of “The Payback” on my It’s High Time album which can be downloaded via iTunes.
SoulTrain.com: Where were you on Christmas Day 2006 when James Brown passed away?
Martha High: I was in Germany. My daughter was in the service and I was visiting her for the Christmas holidays. I was at my daughter’s house and I got a call that Mr. Brown died.
SoulTrain.com: You actually almost had a problem attending his funeral, right?
Martha High: Yes. A policeman was closing the doors to the church as I was about to enter and I was belligerent. I told him who I was and that I was like a sister to Mr. Brown and he let me in. Later that evening, Mr. Brown’s daughter Deanna wanted me to perform in tribute to her father with the Bittersweets, a group of girls I had trained. Charles Bobbitt, who began working for Mr. Brown again because of me, was overseeing the event. When it was time to perform, Mr. Bobbitt stopped me and asked, “What are you going to do?” I told him Deanna wants me to sing with the Bittersweets but he would not let me on the stage. I was shocked and hurt. I helped him and Mr. Brown get back together.
SoulTrain.com: What was your overall experience working with the Godfather of Soul?
Martha High: James Brown was the man of music. He was like a father to me. I was only 18 when I joined his revue. He was always telling me, “Ms. High, don’t do this, don’t do that.” He didn’t want us to be involved with the band members. He always said, “Be a lady. Don’t fool around.” That stuck with me. He looked out for me and the Jewels. If he felt I was doing something wrong, he would call my parents. I appreciate every moment I had with him.
SoulTrain.com: What word of wisdom do you want to share with SoulTrain.com readers?
Martha High: To the singers and artists of today, sing songs that your mother would be proud of. Sing songs with lyrics we can appreciate for the rest of our lives. If you are blessed to have a big name, remember where you came from, this is a gift from God. Be grateful and thankful.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer/performer, choreographer, Soul Train historian and soul music and movie historian. He is also a former Soul Train dancer. He is featured in the Soul Train documentary Show Me Your Soul and is also featured in the book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train.