Martha High, James Brown’s longest running female vocalist, in Annapolis, MD in 2014.
Martha Harvin had a difficult decision to make. She loved the touring with Mr. Please Please Please, aka James Brown, but the rest of her group, The Jewels, was growing tired of being on the road.
She’d been with The Jewels—Sandra Bears, Grace Ruffin, and Margie Clark—since they began rehearsing together in Bo Diddley’s Road Island Avenue NE basement in Washington, DC. The girl group had several hits and received national attention with their 1964 single “Opportunity,” on Dimension Records. They met Brown after a performance at the Howard Theatre.
The Jewels joined the James Brown Revue in 1966 and traveled with them for a year and a half, recording “This is My Story” and “Papa Left Mama Holding The Bag,” on Federal and Dynamite Records respectively, and background vocals on a few of Mr. Dynamite’s songs such as “Ain’t That A Groove” and “Don’t Be a Dropout.”
“I wasn’t ready to leave yet,” says Harvin of the choice she had to make. “I loved the fact of traveling and being with the biggest singer in the world at that time.”
So Ruffin, Clark, and Bears returned to DC as The Jewels, but Harvin decided to stay on with the Revue. For marketing purposes, Brown suggested Harvin replace her surname with “High.”
High became an integral part of Brown’s repertoire, and remained on the James Brown Revue for more than 30 years, making her The Godfather of Soul’s longest running female vocalist. She sometimes even styled his hair.
High briefly left Brown’s show between 1968 and 1970 and when she returned Lyn Collins had emerged as the Revue’s lead female vocalist. In 1972 High, Collins, and another DC resident, Mercedes “Binky” Arrington, performed as a trio in the Revue, the Soul Twins.
High recorded on many of Brown’s releases, including all the background vocals on the 1973 double LP, “The Payback.” Her voice is particularly recognizable on the album’s titular song. In 1973 High released a cover of Brown’s “Try Me” on People Records with the popular classic, “Georgie Girl,” on the b-side. She also recorded background vocals on Soul Brother Number One’s 1974 LP, “Hell.”
The vocalist from DC began to develop as a lead singer when she performed Collin’s “You Can’t Love Me If You Don’t Respect Me” on episode 13 of Brown’s “Future Shock” TV series. In 1977 High recorded a duet of the George Gershwin classic “Summertime,” with Brown, and in 1978 sang lead on “Georgia Disco” and “Soul of the Disco” as Martha and The Lazers on J.B.’s Internationals “Jam II Disco Fever” LP. Both were released on Polydor Records.
In 1979, High recorded her first LP as a lead singer, a self-titled disco album on SalSoul Records produced by Brown. She released one single from the LP, “Showdown/Ding Dong Man,” the latter being an answer to Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.” High continued to tour with Brown through 2000.
Shortly after she left the Revue, High began to tour with The J.B.’s indispensable saxophone player, Maceo Parker. In 2008 the vocalist recorded a live album with the French funk band, Shaolin Temple Defenders, and the next year released her second solo album, “It’s High Time.” In 2012 High released her third LP, “Soul Overdue,” with British funk band Speedometer on Freestyle Records. High continues to tour worldwide with Parker.
You can purchase High’s music here.