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Singing with James Brown was a great opportunity but the traveling takes a toll



Time now for StoryCorps. Sandra Bears grew up in the late 1950s, and more than anything else in the world, she loved to sing. At 13, she started her own group with a few friends. Later, at Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., they held an audition for a new member and met 16-year-old Martha Harvin.

MARTHA HIGH: I was really nervous, and I was so bashful.

SANDRA BEARS: We were all kind of shy because we were young, and your voice just blended right in with ours. We kind of looked at each other when you started singing, yeah, yeah, that's the right one.

MARTÍNEZ: Martha officially became one of The Jewels. They made a name for themselves touring across the country. Martha and Sandra came to StoryCorps to remember a night at the Apollo Theater that changed their lives.

HIGH: So we came off the stage, and we were in our dressing room. And somebody knocked on the door and we said, who is it? (Imitating James Brown) It's me, James Brown. Open the door. We was like, what?

BEARS: (Laughter).

HIGH: I remember he came in to the dressing room, and the first thing he did was kind of look in the mirror. (Imitating James Brown) How y'all doin' - you know, while he was messing with his hair.

BEARS: And he said, I'd like for you all to join my show.

HIGH: Yes, he did. My father, you know, he felt that I should have a 9 to 5 like everyone else. He said singing is not a job. I said, yeah, but, Dad, you know, this is what I want to do. We joined Mr. Brown in 1966. And after that, it was just go, go, go, go, you know, being on the road two and three months at a time.

BEARS: You know, it's not easy because you want to stay out there and you want to do it. But coming up, I got married and had planned - and I loved singing, but that's a wild combination. I just missed my kids. So I just up and left.

HIGH: I never really thought that I would be on the road as long as I did with him. I had three children, and I missed out on a lot - graduations and birthdays and not being home for Christmas. But when we wasn't working, I would come straight home to be with my kids.

BEARS: I remember coming to see you at the Howard Theatre, and you hit every note. I think I screamed louder than anybody in the theater. I was so excited for you.

HIGH: Oh, honey.


HIGH: (Singing) It's hustle.


HIGH: (Singing) It's hustle.

BROWN: (Singing) Martha.

HIGH: You know, I can remember calling you sometimes when I needed to talk or had a problem or something.

BEARS: You would always call me like I was your mama.

HIGH: I know.


HIGH: That's the closeness that we had.

BEARS: But I loved it, and I still do.

HIGH: And it's still that way.

BEARS: Yeah.

HIGH: We're a family, and we're a part of each other.

BEARS: We are. We are.


THE JEWELS: (Singing) Take a lesson from a fool's advice.

MARTÍNEZ: That was Martha Harvin, now Martha High, and Sandra Bears for StoryCorps. You can hear more about them on the StoryCorps podcast at


THE JEWELS: (Singing) They say opportunity is like a father time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Vassili