Interview: Martha High, the Godfather’s soul sister


Martha High isn’t a household name in these parts, but we’ve been listening to her for years. Any time you put a James Brown album on the box or caught the Godfather of Soul on tour, Martha High was there, singing backup in the band.

She joined Brown for his 1967 release The James Brown Show and stayed with him until 2003, whereupon High embarked upon an immediately successful solo career. She hasn’t stopped since, and she recently fell with in with the Prince Posse, at the top rung of the Twin Cities funk ladder. Producer-drummer Morris Hayes (Prince and the New Power Generation, Fonky Bald Headz), who brought powerhouse R&B rocker Kip Blackshire to Paisley Park, is working on Martha High’s latest CD. She’ll be the special guest of Dr. Mambo’s Combo this Saturday at the Cabooze.

You cut your bones with an immortal. Not many singers can say they worked James Brown at all, much less for over 30 years. What’s that mean to you?
It is an experience I will never forget. Being a part of Mr. Brown’s legacy is a blessing! My time with him has opened the doors to many great people and opportunities. Over the years, I learned what true entertainment is. Mr. Brown was a real professional showman, and he knew how to please his audience. I was always mesmerized by his performances and I kept my eyes on him. He made sure the audience was pleased, and he knew just when they weren’t. If he knew something wasn’t working, he knew just when and how to turn that around. I try to do the same thing. Entertaining is not just singing a song, but making the audience a part of the performance. He was a great mentor, a motivator, and an inspiration. I am very proud to have learned from the best.

How does it feel to have earned your own standing as funk royalty?
That’s a great compliment. In all the years I have spent with Mr. Brown, I am very proud to be in the same company of other protégés; Lynn Collins, Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Marva Whitney, Vicki Anderson. It is a great feeling and an honor. I am thankful and blessed to have received this blessing from God.

In 2000, you spread your wings. Why was it at that particular time you decided to go solo?
I was with Mr. Brown for over 30 years, and it was just the right time. Sometimes I thought about leaving sooner, but was hoping for a change within his circle. I knew Mr. Brown wanted me to be around him all the time and didn’t want to accept me leaving, but there were times in the end I felt constricted and smothered by him. I wanted to express myself through my own music. It was just time. That is why my new album is called It’s Time. It is so wonderful, as this album features some of my friends from the James Brown days—including Tyrone Jefferson, who is the producer, and Fred Wesley.

You’re a headlining hit throughout Japan, Europe, and South America, including last year’s four weeks of sold-out houses across France. Why come back and play the States at all?
I want to perform here because this is home. I want to come back to my roots. I have more dates coming up this summer in the USA, and also in Canada. It is also from performing with Maceo [James Brown sax legend Maceo Parker, with whom High is on tour] in the USA through the years that people have seen my performances. That has allowed me to come back as a solo artist and I am very grateful.

When the tour hits its European leg this summer, between audiences’ reaction to both you and Maceo Parker, there should be a world of excitement going on.
Absolutely! That happens all the time. Maceo is the all-time funk artist and still carries that charisma that Mr. Brown had. People still want to feel and hear the real music.

How was your experience working with Maceo Parker when you both were with James Brown?
Fun! Lots of fun and crazy times. Maceo is a great person, a humanitarian, and someone who kept things together: the music and the band. That was the time when James Brown was at his best, recording with Maceo and Fed. They were coming up with great horn lines to match his funky grooves.

Morris Hayes is working with you on the new album. How’d that come to pass?
That project is coming up after the release of my new album, It’s Time. Morris and I met when he joined Maceo Parker’s band, and he toured with us for nearly three years. I adore his performances as a keyboard player, and as he is also an excellent producer. We talked about putting together some songs, and it just seemed to work and come together.

Your album Quai Du Blues is spiked with classic jazz and down-in-the-alley, Chicago-style blues. Last year’s The Big Payback is a tribute to the Godfather. What kind of bag are you coming out of for It’s Time?
The Quai Du Blues CD songs are all covers except one. I am proud to say all the songs on It’s Time are originals. It has given me the chance to show my versatility of being more than a soul singer and to express my love for jazz, blues, inspirational songs and gospel.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.