Always Worth The Pain: Martha High Flew with Legends, Now Ready For Her Close-Up [Interview + Premiere]
Speaking with Martha is the conversational equivalent of fly-on-the-walling your way through 60 years of black excellence. An integral component to the sounds that shaped a generation, a millennium, really, Martha High is one of the only pillars left standing of a foundational regime, singing from the wings, and then from the chest, of James Brown's blockbuster revues. She sharpened her chops and stage presence at the behest of The Godfather, who was never shy in coaching his supporting talent, no matter the cost to their wallet or his reputation, and can now proudly say that she wields what has to be the most hilariously-accurate JB impression that ever was. Itself worth all of the humble brag rights.
But all those years under the wing of a Titan hasn't hardened her heart or jaded the seasoned vocalist in the least bit, in fact, she intends to publish a book this year on her time touring with The JBs and Bo Diddly before that. Her voice is warm, her disposition is something of a reserved elation, and if our talk was any indication, the winds of time have merely rolled off her back. Martha High may not have been the focal point of her past life as a an unspoken cornerstone to the James Brown sound, but in this new one, as she readies the release of her first solo album of original compositions, she'll be front and center with no caped-crusader to steal the show, armed with 30 years of on-the-road experience supporting some of the best to ever do it.
Today, we have the pleasure of bringing you the first taste of Singing For The Good Times with the premiere of "Always Worth The Pain". Take heed to this smokey blues-infused ballad down below and scroll through to become acquainted with one of the preeminent voices of the 20th and 21st centuries, who shared just a sliver of her screenplay-worthy tale with us over the phone. Her new album Singing For The Good Times is out now and can be purchased via Bandcamp today.
OKP: I've been sitting with the record. It's an incredible piece. I'm really happy that we're going to have the opportunity to share at least a piece of it with the world.
MH: I love it too.
OKP: This is your first record since 2012?
MH: Yes. This is my first and like I said I'm really excited about it. It's been a long time and it was time to do something and to have all originals, that's definitely a plus.
OKP: What was your writing process like for this one?
MH: Well, actually, I collaborated with Luca Sapio, my producer. He came up with the songs and he sent me the songs back and forth to the States. From Rome to the States and I just checked the songs out and every time he sent me one it seems like he had been knowing me for years. "How did you write this? How did you know this is me? This is how I feel. This is how I look at certain things." I'm excited about it. I said, "You know me. We must have known each other from another life or something." A couple of the songs I just felt like, "Oh, no, I can't. I like this song but, that's not me. I can't do it." As I listened to it more and more and more, I really liked the words and where it was going and I said, "Yeah, I want to try it." It was like a challenge.
OKP: Kind of sitting with them and trying to find yourself within it all?
MH: Yeah, I would go there and the thing about it is I've always liked Rome. I remember staying there 3 months when I was with The Godfather. I actually stayed there for 3 months because it was a certain area that I visited and I felt like I had been there before. I said, "This is really strange. I know this place." I always felt that I had a connection with Rome. To go back and be there for the weeks that I was there to record it was like ... I was so at home. The guys I worked with, and Luca, were just great. I felt comfortable. It was the atmosphere and everybody's attitude was just ... everything fell into place.
OKP: That's beautiful. How did your time singing with James, and with basically that whole revue, influence you as a solo artist?
MH: When I first joined Mr. Brown ... of course you know I was singing with a group called The Jewels. We had the record opportunity and during my time with The Jewels, I never really would lead any kind of songs or anything. I was always background. That's why I called myself a connoisseur when it comes to background singing, harmonizing and everything, because I was just knew how to do that and I didn't never have a problem. Working with Mr. Brown when I first started and then after The Jewels broke up, after we left Mr. Brown, of course, I stayed with him. During that time I backed up Vicki Anderson and Bobby Byrd and Lynn Collins.
OKP: Oh, wow.
MH: When I first started I was like just singing background off the stage. I would do background behind them, off the stage. Yeah, yeah. Then it came a time I was working ... It was Lynn Collins I was doing background behind and it seemed like the audience wanted to know: Where was this voice coming from?
OKP: Who is that faceless voice?
MH: Mr. Brown had to end up putting me on stage. He actually said, "Well, we have to bring her out." So I went on stage with her and then from that time on I started working with her on stage, as Mr. Brown formed a group around Lynn Collins. We were called Lynn Collins and the Soul Twins. I actually hired another girl from Washington, DC, which is where I was raised up and worked with The Jewels. But she left and I sang with Mr. Brown for maybe 10 or 15 years just actually by myself.
OKP: One-womaned it, huh?
MH: I was the only female background singer. Then he would form groups around me. At one time there was a group called Fire. There was a group called The Lazers. He would hire two other young ladies, one of them was Kathy Jordan, Reverend Al Sharpton's wife.
OKP: Sharpton and James were really close at the time, weren't they?
MH: Yeah, yeah, they were very close. Mr. Brown took him in as his son. He would go with us every once in a while. I remember when Kathy joined the show, he was out there quite a bit. I think he was maybe hitting on her. He would come out often. More often than he used to.
OKP: That's incredible.
MH: Yeah, and then there was a lady named Florence Braxton and Ann Beedling. We were called The Lazers. It was different female singers that came out that he formed a group around me and everything. That's when I started lead singing ... well, before The Jewels left he gave me one song to sing and that was "Don't Mess With Bill." I was dating the bus driver. His name was Bill.
OKP: The Marvelettes' track?
MH: Yeah, I used to lead that and I also, as you'll find this out in my book when it comes out, because there are songs that I did solo when I was just out there by myself, and with the girls. I've sang "Don't Mess With Bill." I've sang "Don't Ask My Neighbors" by The Emotions. I've done Denise LaSalle's "I Just Want to Be Free." Patti LaBelle's "Joy." Yeah, so that was an inspiration. At that time I thought I could never become a solo artist and actually I was never thinking about it. I was his background singer. But that inspired me to become a female solo artist. Then when he recorded me in 1979, which was my very first album, I was just like, "Oh my God." Now, that was a letdown.
OKP: That was the self-titled one, right?
MH: Yeah, yeah. Mr. Brown called me and said, "I want you to go to Atlanta. I got a session there for you to do. I want you to go there and record for me. You got a ticket at the airport."
OKP: That's honestly one of the most incredible James Brown impressions I've ever heard.
MH: I'm thinking that I'm going to Atlanta to record ... Do background singing behind Mr. Brown. When I got there, Danny Ray was there with me and he said, "Miss High, you know what you're here for?" I said, "Yeah, to do some background work." He said, "No, you're doing your album." I said, "Whose album?" -- "Your album." I said, "You've got to be kidding. No. I don't know anything about this." I'm telling you. I cried. I cried because I didn't know anything about the songs. I just didn't know anything and when I heard the songs they were beautiful but I was like, "I'm not ready to sing these songs. I don't know them. I want to make mine." I couldn't. I didn't have the time. I had to do everything ... I think it was in 2 days. I recorded my album in 2 days. I was very, very upset.
OKP: What gave you the confidence to step out then?
MH: This was the first day. I said, "I'm not doing this. I'm not going to do it." Well, Mr. Ray called Mr. Brown. He put me on the phone with Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown said, "Miss High, you do these songs, you record the songs, and you do it now. You don't do it now you, won't have another chance. You just sing the songs now."
OKP: James gave you an ultimatum?
MH: Yes, he did. I end up doing the album and that's where "Showdown" came from. The 1979 album. It was quite an experience. Every time that I recorded with him back in the days it was always a surprise. Just like when I did "Summertime" with him. It was a surprise. I was in the studio with him and Lynn Collins. He was actually showing Lynn how he wanted her to sing "Summertime." He ended up calling me into the booth with him and he said, "Miss High, I want you to sing Summertime with me." I said, "Mr. Brown, I don't know that song." He said, "Yes, you do. Just follow me." I kept that in mind and I always felt that way. I feel that way about my gigs and everything. Mr. Brown used to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse weeks at a time and everything like that. I feel the same way about my show. If I'm going to work I have to have rehearsals.
OKP: Can I ask what you've taken from your days on the road with James? What lessons or theories in entertaining do you carry with you to this day?
MH: I watched him for 30 something years performing on the stage. I've learned a lot from him and I try to keep that presence of being the best at entertaining you can be. He was that. He was a perfectionist and he learned me a lot of things on stage. I remember him telling me one time ... We had a little disagreement before we went on stage and after the show he called me to the dressing room and said, "Miss High, you've got a problem?" I said, "No, I don't have a problem. What?" "I didn't see you smiling. I didn't see your face. You wasn't smiling. Something wrong with you?" I said, "No, sir. There's nothing wrong. I'm fine." He said, "Well, let me tell you this. When you're coming on that stage I don't care where you're at you have a smile on your face from the time you get there until the time you come off that stage. I don't want to see nothing else."
MH: "You can't smile. Don't come on my stage." He's right. He's right. Whatever problems that I had or if I'm angry with somebody, forget all of that. When you come on that stage you let the people know that you're out there to perform for them and make them feel good.
OKP: That's a pearl of wisdom, m'am.
MH: Yes, absolutely. Those are the things that I remember, I cherish, I carry with me. It's that same way for me today. I even remember telling one of my background singers, "What's wrong with you? What's wrong with your face? I don't see a smile."
OKP: You gave them the James treatment.
MH: Oh, yeah, for sure.
OKP: I wasn't aware that you were working on a book. Do you mind opening up about that?
MH: Yes, yes, yes. The name of my book is He's A Funny Cat, Miss High. That's the saying that Mr. Brown always had and it was really ... It was comical to me because when something or somebody didn't quite gel with him or they might say something that threw him off he'd look at me, he always said to me, "Miss High, there's a funny cat. I don't understand him." Something like that, you know? My book is basically about how I came into the music, how I grew up, where I grew up, and how I met The Jewels. Also before I was with The Jewels, I formed a group when I was in the 11th grade with a couple young ladies. One of them was Marvin Gaye's sister Zeola Gaye.
MH: We got together and we end up singing as Bo Diddley's background singers for a hot minute. We met him from going to his home to rehearse. He had a studio to record and everything. That's where I met The Jewels. Bo Diddley took to us. It's all about growing up with Bo Diddley and singing with the Boettes, and then The Jewels, how we met James Brown and joining him. A lot of things are personal because I not only sang with Mr. Brown but I also was his hairdresser.
OKP: You were behind the do?!
MH: Yeah, well, I always traveled with him because I had to do his hair when he get up in the mornings and then when we get to the show, I'd do his hair and then after the show again. So I traveled with him all the time. I was with him all the time. Then I even moved to Augusta, Georgia because he wanted me near, somewhere near, even though he had somebody to fix his hair at home, sometimes. He liked for me to travel with him and on his vacations and stuff like that. Sometimes I would go to his house and do his hair. It's things that him and I shared, things that I know about him, and how he was with the band members and the singers and things like that.
OKP: I had no idea that you were working with Bo. He's another incredible showman.
MH: Oh, yeah, yeah. He was great.
OKP: Oh my God. I couldn't even imagine. You've had some very, very thorough lessons in stage performance from some of the best that ever did it.
MH: Yeah, yeah, I did. I'm very proud of the years that I was with Mr. Brown and the time that I knew Bo Diddley. I actually give Bo Diddley the credit too because that's where ... He's the one that introduced me to The Jewels and just that they auditioned me because he felt I was the best singer out of The Boettes.
OKP: That's incredible. You lived quite the life in music, Miss High.
MH: I was speaking with another lady, a journalist, just the other day and she said, "You've been quietly in the background but you know a lot." I said, "He was like my brother, my friend, father figure. When he got mad at me he called my dad, "Mr. Harvin, Miss High's not doing right." He gave me that name, Miss High. He said, "Miss Harvin, what kind of name is that for somebody to be on stage? That don't sound right. I'm going to have to give you another name." He said, "Let me think. Let me see. I know. High. That's your name. Martha High." He was so much fun. He was funny too. Funny and didn't know it.
OKP: The funniest ones never do. When are you planning on putting the book out?
MH: Hopefully within the next 3 months. I had some setbacks with some legal things. But we've got it all together now so it's working out. It's coming along fine.
OKP: On a final note, I have to ask. Do you think you're now as confident as James had always wanted you to be? Are all of these lessons now part of the Martha High fabric?
MH: I think I am. It's been a long journey and since I've been with Maceo Parker, and I'm still working with him, I'm looking at this year to be my year. I totally want to go out on my own. I have a great band behind me now. I've worked with a lot of bands. Still working with The JBs. I'm working with the band members. Some of the old band members that was with them during the time I was there and the guys that was with him when he passed away. We've gotten together and we're doing some things together as well as my band that recorded behind me for Singing For The Good Times.
MH: Being with Maceo and being able to get out and do my own thing has given me that confidence because when I was working with Mr. Brown, I was very protected and he wouldn't really let me get away from him. He always kept me up under his wing. He kept telling me, "Miss High, I'ma put you out on the road with your own group and blah blah blah." He never did. Then when he was incarcerated I remember some of the band members getting together and doing a couple gigs and everything. He said, "Leave Miss High alone. She can't work with y'all." This is like, "You're in jail. Why are you telling them I can't work?"
OKP: Still protective behind bars.
MH: Being around him I've learned a lot of things about the music business. Now that I feel like this is my chance. I remember when I left him in 2000 and he invited me to one of his shows in Columbia, South Carolina and Lynn and I went to see him and he sat down and talked with us and he said, "Miss High, you're on your own now and I want you to use me. I want you to use me as much as you need to. It's all right. It's fine with me."
That made me feel good too because I said, "Okay, well, he's not angry with me." At one time he was because I left him but he had given me his blessings and that meant a lot to me to go out there and to actually do what I can do. I'm very much confident in what I am doing and this album, Singing For the Good Times, has given me the opportunity to actually show what I can do. I'm not all things Brown music, the funk and everything like that. I like all genre of music. I feel like this album is presenting that.
You learn things and there's some ups and downs and everything but thank God I'm still here and I'm still able to do what I love to do most and that's singing and sharing with my audience, the people out there. I'm so grateful.