Payin' Dues: Martha High

Martha High in a black-and-white stripy top, sitting in front of a piano.
Martha High: the Godfather\u2019s right-hand woman.

She never gets the recognition that Lyn Collins, Vicki Anderson and Marva Whitney do, but like them Martha High sang with the James Brown Revue, belting out gospel proclamations from 1965 to ’95 when she left to perform with Maceo Parker and helm her solo career. “I learned everything from Mr Brown,” she says.

Your fourth album, Singing For The Good Times, was recorded with Luca Sapio.

We met at a concert I was performing at in Rome. He told me I should be performing my own songs and he wanted to help me do that. We kept in contact and he sent me some songs. They told stories I could relate to and it was a pleasure singing them. The Hardest Working Woman reminded me how hard Mr Brown worked on stage. I learned from him to give your all and no less.

You met James Brown in 1965 – what were your first impressions of him?

Oh my! I had seen him in concert many times before and I was indeed a huge fan, and still am, and he made a way for me. My album [High] Mr Brown produced for me in 1979 was a stepping stone.

How did your version of Summertime with James Brown come about?

I was in the studio with Mr Brown and Lyn Collins. He was in the booth and all of a sudden, he called me in. I was so nervous, I told him I didn’t know the song. He said, “Yes you do Ms High, you’re just nervous, just relax…” And it happened.

You were by James Brown’s side at some amazing points in music history, such as his Boston Garden Show, the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination.

I didn’t know Mr Brown could tame a quiet storm. He knew his music would keep them calm. When the audience started to jump on stage, I thought he was going to be removed from the stage but he refused to leave and told the policemen to get back, to leave the people who had jumped up on the stage alone. He spoke to them as if he was their big bro. They stopped rushing the stage and went to their seats. I knew then he was more than an entertainer, the people looked up to him.

And then there was the Rumble In The Jungle festival?

That was amazing. I had never been around so many entertainers at one time. We all flew on a private plane. It was so exciting, everyone singing and dancing on the way to Zaire, people like The Pointer Sisters, The Spinners, Bill Withers, Sister Sledge, Stevie Wonder, Ben E King, Lloyd Price.

Singing For The Good Times is out now on Blind Faith Records.