Should there come a time in the not-too-distant future when Cincinnati’s King Records studio has been restored as a historic site, Martha High wants to be at the opening ceremony.
“All you have to do is make a call and I’ll come running,” she tells CityBeat during a Zoom interview from her fiancé’s home in the Netherlands.
You may be thinking, “That’s nice, but who is she?”
That’s understandable. Although High was born in Virginia and raised in Washington, D.C., she’s better known in Europe than the United States But High is perhaps the strongest active link to the Original Funky Divas associated with James Brown, arguably King’s most successful recording artist. These women performed as lead vocalists, background singers or both during Brown’s exciting stage shows, which also featured superb performances from the band and Brown’s own virtuosic singing and dancing. High joined Brown’s retinue in 1966 and stayed with him for 32 years, with only a few breaks.
Their work together included Brown’s massive hits for King, his funk classics on the Polydor label and his final hits on Scotti Brothers Records, including “Living in America.”
Brown died in 2006 at age 73. After his death, High sang lead female vocals for the touring Original James Brown Band and performed with Brown’s saxophonist Maceo Parker before starting a career in Europe as a headlining singer rooted in soul and funk. She’s still going strong at age 77.
One thing that might help her American profile is the Sept. 2 U.S. release of Soul Brother Where Art Thou? Vol. 2 on the Ropeadope label. High is the credited artist and sings lead on super-hot versions of seven Brown songs, accompanied by stalwarts and standouts from his band with background vocals from the Bittersweets. Selections include “It’s Too Funky in Here,” “There It Is,” “Prisoner of Love” and “Get It Together.”
Greg Hester produced these and other tracks shortly after Brown’s death and released the first volume of Soul Brother Where Art Thou under his own name in 2015. High did not sing on the earlier album.
High views Soul Brother Where Art Thou? Vol. 2 as her tribute to a great artist.
“I feel that Mr. Brown was like a father to me,” she says. “A father, brother, friend, mentor and my boss. He created music that can never be forgotten.”
High became a professional singer in the early 1960s, when she joined the Jewels, a Washington, D.C.-based “girl group” of the day. Recording for Dimension Records, which had been created to showcase songs written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, the Jewels had a regional hit in 1964 with a song by other writers, “Opportunity.” Touring behind the record, the group met Brown and signed up as singers in his touring show.
Brown had a reputation for being a very bossy boss — a taskmaster who could micromanage the singers and players working for him.
“He was a hard man to work for,” High explains. “Shoes had to be shined, nails had to be right, your hair, everything. We found ourselves dressing the way he wanted us. As ladies, we couldn’t wear jeans on the show. But that didn’t bother me because I felt I was on a higher level now that I’m with James Brown.”
Brown’s control even extended to telling her to change her surname to High (it previously was Harvin). And while she had not been a lead vocalist with the Jewels, Brown said he wanted her to take the female lead for him occasionally.
“A little after that was when the other girls from the Jewels decided they wanted to go home,” High says. “But I wasn’t ready. I was thrilled to travel and see other places. We went everywhere; we even had a chance to go to Paris with him.” (While with Brown, the group did release one single on King and another on the King-affiliated Federal label.)
Still, High primarily saw herself as a background singer. So when the archival James Brown’s Original Funky Divas came out in 1998, it was a surprise — maybe even a revelation — that the album ended with her duet with Brown on “Summertime.” The standout track had debuted on his 1977 ecology-themed Mutha’s Nature.
The pair’s funk version of George Gershwin’s 1934 classic starts with Brown intoning, “You’re my beautiful sister and I love you.” High replies, “I’ve been with you a long time and you’ve seen me grow up and become who I am.” The vocals that follow are tremendously moving.
High recalls that around the time of the recording, she also traveled with Brown as a hairstylist; he wanted one with him at all times, even in the studio when recording “Summertime.” High mimics Brown’s gravelly voice when explaining the duet’s origins. “‘Come into the booth; I want you to do the song with me.’ I said, ‘Mr. Brown, I don’t know “Summertime.’” He says, ‘Everybody knows “Summertime.” Come on.’ And we did the song — I was not expecting that.”
High moved to France in 2004 and lived there for much of the aughts. Eventually, she moved back to the United States to take care of her parents, who are now deceased. But then she moved to Spain in 2017 to resume work in Europe. She came back to Augusta, Georgia, when the pandemic stopped the touring business, but she’s been busy again now that tours have resumed. Next year, once she marries a Dutch man she first met during her years with Brown, she’ll settle into their home outside Amsterdam. It will be her third marriage; she has a daughter and two sons are deceased.
High is full of energy and excitement about her future, personally and professionally. She hopes it includes a U.S. tour as a headliner with a band of Brown alumni.
“I really hope so,” she says. “I’m praying that I will get the chance to tour in the States and perform with some of the original guys who know Mr. Brown’s music."
"I don’t want his music to ever not be known. I would like the people to know the history of Mr. Brown and where he came from. It was what I was raised up with. I have my own style, and pray to God I was able to find my own way and my own sound, but I still love to do Mr. Brown’s music.”
Purchase Martha High’s Soul Brother Where Art Thou? Vol. 2 and watch for upcoming tour dates at ropeadope.com.