‘The Hardest Working Woman’ is one of the song titles on Martha High’s new album, ‘Singing For The Good Times.’ It’s an apt description of the Washington DC-born singer, herself, now seventy-one, who has been toiling in the music business since the early 1960s when she was a member of a group called The Four Jewels.
High’s strong work ethic was something she picked up from her longtime former boss, funk and soul legend James Brown, the man who described himself as ‘the hardest working man in show business.’ It wasn’t the only thing she learned from the man they dubbed ‘Soul Brother Number One,’ though. High confesses that like Mr Brown (as she still refers to her ex-boss), she rehearses constantly and is a hard taskmaster when it comes to directing and drilling her musicians. “I don’t want to do anything without the best rehearsals that I can get out of the band and they have to pay attention and keep their eyes on me when I’m on the stage,” she says. “I don’t fine anybody like Mr. Brown did but I let them know that I know when they make a mistake – and the reason they make mistake is because they don’t have their eyes on me.”
Like James Brown did, the singer says she’ll change something up at the drop of a dime during her performance and therefore likes to keep the band on its toes. “Mr Brown never did a show the same way twice,” she reveals. “The songs weren’t in the same order all the time. It’s the same with me. I don’t know what song I’m going to do even though I give the band a set list but sometimes I might want to change it because of how I’m feeling my audience. So, I learned that from him.” Fortunately, it seems, the softly-spoken and affable Martha High – who laughs a lot and sees the humour in life – doesn’t have Mr Dynamite’s explosive temperament though she does confess that “I have a few other ways of his, like handling business.”
Perhaps that’s why, then, she’s survived and continues to work while many of her peers and contemporaries have fallen by the wayside. Admittedly, she spent many years cocooned in James Brown’s soul revue but elected to leave in 2000 to see if she could go it alone. It was a brave move but sixteen years on she has no regrets. She has some fine albums under her belt – including 2009’s ‘It’s High Time’ and 2012’s ‘Soul Overdue’ (with Speedometer) – and now unleashes a new long player, recorded in Rome with songwriter/producer Luca Sapio.
Here she tells SJF’s Charles Waring all about her latest project and also recalls her early years, and, of course, her experiences working for a certain James Brown…
Tell us about your new album, ‘Singing For The Good Times.’
I met Luca Sapio in Rome, Italy, while I was performing there with another Italian group. We started talking and he told me how much he admired me as a singer and my work with James Brown and thought I should be doing more. Of course, I agreed with him (laughs) so he told me he’d been trying to communicate with me to talk about maybe doing an album together and I said sure, why not: let’s see where we can go from here. We kept in contact for about five or six months talking back and forth and he actually wrote songs for me and sent them to me to see which ones I liked. I read the lyrics and listened to the music and actually picked out the ones that seemed like he had been knowing me for years. Each song that I chose was very special to me.
Which one has the deepest personal meaning for you?
The one that’s really deep for me is ‘I’m A Woman’ because we have a lot of struggles being the woman that we should be. Women of the world should hold their heads up and show that we can be just as strong as the men in life and the choices that we make to be strong and make the right choice. It’s for the women.
I think women are stronger than men actually. You able to juggle more things than we can…
(Laughs) We are, aren’t we, we’re quite strong (laughs). They always say behind a strong man is always a strong woman.
Or an even stronger woman maybe. Tell us about the recording process.
I went to Rome and recorded my vocals. It wasn’t a full band but the feelings were there to the point that I adored the songs. By the time I got to Rome, they were my songs. So I had the feeling that I felt I should have had with all of the albums that I had recorded but this one is very special. I did another original album called ‘It’s High Time’ that I recorded in Charlotte, North Carolina, and those songs were songs that I had written on my own. All of my original songs are special to me but this particular album is different. It’s so soulful but it’s something that I would not have written myself, but it has a feeling and it’s something that I really enjoyed. It was a challenge for me but I enjoyed it. Then when I heard what I had done, I was really proud of myself because it was something totally different with a different feel and sound for me.
It’s a great album and it really works with your voice. It’s a kind of old school style soul album, isn’t it?
Yeah. Absolutely. It comes from my era and I was very comfortable with it. ‘It’s High Time’ had more of a James Brown funky feeling with the original songs but this, like I said, feels like it touches all genres of music, and I love it.
What’s Luca Sapio like to work with in the studio?
He’s very strict (laughs).
He’s not like Mr Brown, is he?
Well, kind of (laughs). But it’s all good, because I don’t want to go in the studio with someone who’s so relaxed and says this is okay and it’s not. He talks with me about certain things and sometimes I felt that I didn’t do my best but he was just there with me, working with me every step of the way and I appreciated that very much. I appreciated his constant support when I needed it and he’s a very intelligent man when it comes to the music. He was just a bundle of joy to work with.
It seems that he knew what he wanted as well.
Oh yes, he always wanted me to present it the way I felt it. He didn’t want me to sing what he wanted me to sing. He wanted me to sing what I felt and what I wanted to sing. And that did everything for me.
It makes it more personal to you.
Yes, yes. More personal and I was more relaxed in the studio, so it was great.
Going right back to the beginning when you were Martha Harvin, when did your interest in music first begin?
I started singing at a very young age around the house like I was an opera singer. I think I was about six or seven. And my brothers would tell my mum, tell her to stop that noise, she’s making too much noise around the house. My mother said she’s not making noise, she’s singing. I said yeah, I’m an opera singer. (Laughs). But they were like no, that’s noise. Anyway, around the age of 16, I started a group. We all went to school together but a couple of us was in the same class in Washington DC. We started singing around and we met two guys that became our managers and then they introduced us to (blues legend) Bo Diddley. We started going back and forth to his home to rehearse because he had a recording studio. So we got very close with him and he ended up naming our group, The Bo-ettes. In my group it was Zeola Gay, Marvin Gaye’s sister, plus a young lady by the name of Yvonne Smith, and another lady joined us, Sharon Madison. And so we were the Bo-ettes for a while until I met the Four Jewels at his studio and they were pretty popular. They had some local hits around Washington DC and Maryland and one of the girls decided to leave. They started to audition other females to join their group and then Bo Diddley told them, “why not try Martha? She sings with the Bo-ettes and she can sing pretty well, she has a good voice.” So they did, they auditioned me, and I felt that I blended very well with them and they did too. So they ended up hiring me and we sang as the Four Jewels up until ’65. Then we recorded a song called ‘Opportunity’ which became a national hit, so that gave us an opportunity to travel to other places than just DC and Maryland. We played at the Apollo Theater and different places up and down on the East Coast. When we performed at the Howard Theater one time we met James Brown. He came in and the audience went crazy. Of course, we thought it was us that they were going crazy over (laughs) but we found out that James Brown had entered the theatre. After, he came backstage and introduced himself and told us how much he enjoyed the show. We were thrilled to death. That was during his peak when he was the biggest entertainer there was at that time and he was just crazy for us, loved us. About four months later we met him when we were at the Apollo Theater again. The same thing happened again. We thought we were getting down as people were hollering and screaming – I was thinking oh yeah, they love us, they love us – and little did we know that James Brown was in the audience again. (Laughs). He did the same thing, came backstage and came to our dressing room and told us that he loved us and then he told us that he wanted us to join his revue. That was the biggest thing that ever happened to us. We went home and thought about it and talked with our families and everybody was thrilled. We met him three months later and joined his revue.
How much of an eye-opener for you was it being on his show?
Oh my gosh, yeah, it was. I had seen him many times before we joined and I was always mesmerized by his dancing and his costumes and everything. I had never seen anything like that but then to be on stage with him and be right there, watching him, and seeing his feet – which seemed to move even faster – I couldn’t believe it. He was definitely a real eye-opener and that’s when I knew that this is what I wanted to do the rest of my life, to become an entertainer.
Who else was with his revue during that time?
The Famous Flames, Vicky Anderson, James Crawford, TV Mama, and, of course, his big band.
What was the running order of the show?
James Crawford would open up, then Vicky Anderson would come out, then we would come out on the show. Mr Brown would follow with some instrumental music with the band and then I think Bobby Byrd would do a couple of songs by himself. And then there would be TV Mama and after that James Brown would come back on stage…
And do his ‘Star Time’ bit I suppose?
The Jewels left the revue. What did you do?
When they decided to leave I went to Mr Brown and told him I don’t want to leave and was it possible that I could stay in work and he said “Miss Harvin, I didn’t fire you; you all chose to leave but yes, you can stay and work with me as my personal background singer.” And that’s what I did.
In the early ’70s you became one-half of the Soul Twins on the Brown revue.
Yes, he had formed a group behind Lyn Collins which was myself and this other young lady from Washington DC and we were called the Soul Twins. After that, Vicky Anderson came back and we worked behind her. Then she had a fall on stage. She wrenched her ankle and Mr Brown called for me to come into his dressing room. He said: “I want you to go on stage.” I said go on stage and do what? (Laughs). He said: “you have to take Vicky’s place because she wrenched her ankle and she can’t go on stage.” I was like: oh my God! He said: “can you do it?” I said yes. He said: (mimics James Brown’s voice) “I want you to go out there and sing.” So I had to do (Aretha Franklin’s) ‘Respect.’ I was shaking like a leaf because this was the first time that I had ever been on the stage by myself as a solo artist and that was actually in London at the Odeon. That was my first time and gee-whiz, I was surprised because the audience gave me a great round of applause, and that started my solo career.
You stayed with James Brown (pictured left with Martha) longer than most people. What made you stay and persevere when other people had had enough?
He became like a father figure and it just seemed like he took to me. When his hairdresser, Mr Henry Stallings, left I actually became his hairstylist. He knew I could do hair because I used to do The Jewels’ hair and all of the dancers, and sometimes when his hairdresser wasn’t there, I’d do his hair. After Mr Stallings left I did Mr Brown’s hair up until I left, which was in 2000. So for about 15/20 years I did his hair and that caused me to travel with him at all times.
What was it like working with James Brown? We’ve all heard the stories about him being like dictator but what was he really like?
Yeah, he was like that. He wanted what he wanted. He was a perfectionist on stage. We would rehearse weeks at a time. Everything had to be right. Even with his hair. He had a certain way he wanted to grow and style his hair and it just had to be that way. He was quite strict when it came to the stage. And I don’t blame him because I felt like he wouldn’t have been who he was if he didn’t do the things he did to make everything pop like it did. So the rehearsing paid off. And it was just really great. I have even got a few of his ways (laughs) because I was raised by him. I was 18 when I went on the road with him and about 61 when I came off the road with him.
Did you ever get fined by James Brown?
Yes I did.
Can you remember what you did wrong?
Yes I do. I’m not going to tell you about that one. You going to have to read my book (laughs).
When’s is your book coming out?
In the next couple of months.
What’s the title of it?
He’s A Funny Cat, Miss High. That’s a saying that he had. I’m going to tell you one story. I remember we were on the road travelling overseas and Mr Brown was hungry so we had to stop at a restaurant. He had an entourage with him, of course, and we went to this restaurant and we ordered our food. I think it was prime ribs that he had ordered so we all ordered the same thing. When they served him his prime ribs, they put the plate in front of him and Mr Brown looked at the meat and he opened up his cloth napkin and spread it across the table. He took a fork and jabbed it down into the meat, took it off the plate and jabbed it into the napkin. He folded the napkin over the meat and started banging on the meat with his fist. Bam Bam Bam. We all looked at each other as if to say what’s going on. Then he politely opened the napkin, took the fork and took the meat out of the napkin and put it back on his plate. We were all stunned. So when we were served our prime ribs, we just did the exact same thing (laughs). The waiter was looking at us like what in the world is going on? He had the strangest look on his face and when he walked away, Mr Brown leaned over and said “Miss High, did you see his face?” I said yes sir. He said: “He’s a funny cat. What’s the matter with him?” So he had a way of using that saying when he didn’t quite understand or something was strange to him, so that’s why I named the book that.
He gave you the opportunity to record your first album, ‘Martha High,’ which came out on the Salsoul label in 1979.
Yeah. Disco was at its peak and also on its way out and I think it just got lost in the shuffle because it was going out (of fashion) at that time. So it wasn’t a big thing for me but I was still grateful because of the fact that I did have an album of my own
What was Mr Brown like in the studio?
Well, I’ll tell you. My experience at that time was a pretty rough one because I had no idea that I was going into the studio to do my own recording. I thought I was going in the studio to do backgrounds behind Mr Brown because he often sent for us when we weren’t working on the road to do backgrounds and stuff. I was totally shocked when I got into the studio. I was living in Virginia and he sent for me to come to Atlanta. When I got there I was expecting to see somebody else there to do backgrounds with me but no one was there but me, the two writers (Thomas W. Stewart and Harold B. Daniels) and Mr Danny Ray (Brown’s MC). Mr Ray said, “Miss High, you need to get to work because this is your session.” I said what do you mean, my session? You’ve got to be kidding. I hadn’t seen the music before and it was very, very stressful for me because I had to actually learn the songs in one day. At one point I refused to do them and Mr Ray called Mr Brown. Mr Brown got on the phone and told me: (imitates Brown’s hoarse voice) “Miss High, you do the songs and you do them now. You might not get another chance. I want you to sing them songs.” And of course I said yes sir and did the session. As the years go by I still listen to it every now and then and always think I could have done better.
You stayed with James Brown for a long time. What persuaded you to leave?
He wasn’t happy about it but I realised that if I was going to do anything on my own, if I was going to become a solo artist, and have a chance to perform with other bands or with my own band and do my own thing, I would have to leave Mr Brown because he didn’t want me to leave. He had formed several groups around me while I was with him – including Bittersweet – and there was always the promise “I’m going to put you out on the road with your own group,” but he never did and I don’t think he really intended to.
So you left.
I’ve always had hopes to do something on my own to find out whether I really can sing or whether I could do what I felt I could do just by being with him and watching him. I want to have my chance to do that too and staying with him it wasn’t going to happen. So I did a video with (saxophonist) Maceo Parker. It had to do with James Brown and had all of his old members come back. We did a video for a Museum in Seattle, Washington. During the time that I was out there I talked to Maceo and told him that I wanted to work with him and finally he said okay and that’s when I decided to leave because I felt that that would give me a chance to breathe and to experience other things, other ideas, and where I could go with my music. And that’s what happened. I was able to have a chance to start writing and do my own thing.
Did you feel a bit apprehensive about leaving James Brown?
I did. I was frightened because I had been with him for so many years. He raised me, he protected me, he taught me about the music business and now, here I was, basically on my own even though I’m working with Maceo. Maceo was just an open door for me to adventure out on my own and to start feeling me and that’s what happened. I was afraid but I felt that this was my chance and I just moved by faith and said okay, I’m going to do this.
What’s the most memorable concert you’ve done?
Oh gosh, there have been many, many different shows. Working at Madison Square Garden. At that time Mr. Brown put me on a pedestal and I thought, oh wow. (Laughs) That was a great moment for me, a wonderful time to remember. Also, doing the Hollywood Bowl in LA and being on the stage with Mr. Brown, Prince and Michael Jackson at the same time. That was amazing. The best part about it was when after Michael Jackson did his thing and danced, he actually walked over to me and whispered in my ear, “your voice is beautiful,” and gave me a kiss on my cheek. I was saying to myself: is anybody taking a picture of this? (Laughs). I was really thrilled about it so that’s a moment I will never forget.
What can we expect from you in the future beyond this album?
I’m looking forward to being out on the road with Luca Sapio and the band, performing this album. I’m also doing a project with my grandson, Val Vito, who’s a rapper. I’ve also done something with Osaka Monaurail. So I’m just grateful and hopeful that I can continue to extend with my music and come up with some more great songs in the future. That’s what I’m praying for.
MARTHA HIGH’S NEW ALBUM ‘SINGING FOR THE GOOD TIMES’ IS OUT NOW ON BLIND FAITH RECORDS