Interview: Martha High
PUBLISHED: 09:14 19 April 2013 | UPDATED: 09:14 19 April 2013
After more than 30 years as vocalist with legendary singer James Brown, Martha High is forging a solo career. She spoke to MARK NICHOLLS ahead of a show in Norwich this week.
James Brown, widely regarded as the godfather of soul, was renowned as a hard taskmaster and often described as the hardest working man in showbusiness.
One person who would know that better than anybody is Martha High, who was his backing singer for more than 30 years.
Martha, who still respectfully addresses the signer as “Mr Brown”, toured with him extensively over the years and has shared the stage with the likes of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, BB King, Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder and The Police.
She also sang on most of Brown’s albums throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s including the tracks Payback, Bodyheat, Doin’ It to Death and the duet Summertime.
But over the last few years, after leaving Brown’s band, she has forged a career as a solo artist and brings her show of classic soul and funk to the Epic venue in Norwich on the back of her new album, Soul Overdue, which she has recorded with British outfit Speedometer.
As with many aspiring vocalists in the 1950s, a love of singing developed from going to church every Sunday, and Martha High was no different.
“I was about 10 when I joined the church choir in Washington DC,” she recalled. “I always had a love of music, my father and mother used to play jazz all the time – singers such as Gloria Lynne, Ella Jones, Ella Fitzgerald. I loved their voices and I used to try to sing like them.
“My brothers would tell me to be quiet as I was making too much noise but even then I did think I had quite a good voice.”
At Roosevelt High School she formed singing groups “in the doo-wop days of the late 50s” alongside people like Zeola Gaye — soul legend Marvin Gaye’s sister – performing at school concerts, hops and talent shows, and they were eventually spotted by blues vocalist and guitarist Bo Diddley.
“He liked us, rehearsed us, and decided to call us the Bo-ettes,” she said.
But it was when she had the opportunity to join another successful group in her area at the time, The Four Jewels, that her singing career began to take off. They had a hit single with “Opportunity” and in 1964 joined the James Brown Revue until they disbanded.
After all the touring, with a highly-demanding schedule alongside “the hardest working man in show business”, some of the girls decided they wanted to go home, but she wasn’t ready to do that; Martha High wanted to keep on singing.
“I went to see Mr Brown and he said to me ‘nobody said you have to go home, stay with me and be my personal background singer’.”
That was in 1966 when James Brown was at the height of his fame and renowned for such hits as Sex Machine and later Living in America. Surrounded by bodyguards, he had the pick of musicians and singers at the time as the ‘godfather of funk’.
“I worked with him for many years as his personal background singer and he started to add other singers, forming groups around me with names like the Honeybees, Laser and Fire,” she said.
Over the years, James Brown had several brushes with the law and was jailed in 1988 for carrying an unlicensed pistol but when he was released in 1991, Martha High was waiting and became the heart of his latest backing group Bitter Sweet, staying until 1999 before making the first moves as a solo female singer.
“I really wanted to do something on my own but I sensed he was never going to let me go,” she said. “Mr Brown liked the idea that I was with him, he thought I would probably never leave him but I did want to do my own thing. He had built a number of groups around me over the years but I wanted to step out on stage for myself and see what I could do.”
She did a few shows in France, where she now lives, before teaming up with Speedometer, which has now led to the “Soul Overdue” album.
It features classic songs such as Sunny but there are original tracks including You Got Me Started and No Man Worries.
“Most of the songs are cover versions, old school songs that have been some of my favourites over the years but Lee from Speedometer wrote a couple of original songs for me,” she added.
The show in Norwich is part of a series of UK dates to promote the album, with Martha promising the performance will be “the best of funky music with Speedometer, who are the funkiest band in the UK.”
But she reflects on her time with Brown – who died on Christmas Day 2006 - as shaping her career and work ethic.
Martha said: “To me, he was like a father, brother, friend and my mentor, I learned a lot from him. He was a hard taskmaster, and I appreciated all of that, it got me where I am today.
“He was a perfectionist and he knew how he wanted the songs. We were rehearsed and drilled constantly, he was not an easy person to get along with but I can understand how he got to where he did. One compliment I received once was when someone said to me that I was ‘the hardest working woman in show business.’”
Perhaps that comes from singing alongside the “hardest working man in show business” for three decades.
t Martha High will be performing at Epic Studios, on Magdalen Street, Norwich, on April 18. Tickets £12 on 01603 727727 or at www.ticketsource.co.uk/date/59147
t Soul Overdue is out now