Martha Wash: The Most Famous Unknown Singer of the '90s Speaks Out

Nicole Fara Silver
Martha Wash

How the voice behind "It's Raining Men," "Gonna Make You Sweat" and "Strike It Up" went from being a bullied victim to an industry pioneer

Martha Wash was sitting in a Los Angeles hotel room, furious and confused. It was late 1990 and the singer, relaxing before a show that night, had decided to unwind with some channel surfing. She stumbled upon a new music video by Italian house group Black Box, whose synth lines, horn stabs and pulsating, club-tailored drum patterns had already made them dance music stars. When the song's vocals kicked in, she was shocked to see French model Katrin Quinol, the ex-girlfriend of founding member Daniele Davoli, bending over and crouching in a unitard, lip-syncing Wash's vocals to the eventual hit "Everybody Everybody."

"I said to myself, 'I don't believe this shit is happening again," says the now 60-year-old Wash. "I called my manager and said, 'I just heard myself on TV in a video.'"

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 "Again" is the operative word, as just a few months prior, Wash heard her ostensible demo vocals being lip-synced by singer Zelma Davis in the video for C+C Music Factory's monstrous club hit "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)." A frustrating cultural conundrum had taken effect: Martha Wash's voice was famous, but she wasn't. 

MARTHA WASH 'MERGED A GOSPEL VOICE INTO POP AND DANCE MUSIC SEAMLESSLY,' SAYS RUPAUL

Wash is very likely the most famous unknown singer of the Nineties; a powerful, gospel-weaned belter who first earned fame as a backup singer for disco king Sylvester before forming the disco-pop duo the Weather Girls and recording the camp classic "It's Raining Men." In the early Nineties, however, Wash's booming, powerhouse vocals could be heard on the world's most ubiquitous dance songs, from Seduction's "(You're My One and Only) True Love" to Black Box's "Strike It Up" and "Fantasy" to C+C Music Factory's aforementioned Number One hit. At one point in 1991, Wash battled herself on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs, as "Gonna Make You Sweat" and Black Box's "I Don't Know Anybody Else" both bounced around the Top 5 for weeks on end.

"She merged a gospel voice into pop and dance music seamlessly," says RuPaul, who collaborated with Wash on 1998's "It's Raining Men... the Sequel." "Her voice speaks to both the church and a pop ear and was built to cut through the bass of a dance club. The timbre of her voice is so distinctive and beautiful. A lot of gospel-based singers have come and gone in dance music, but she is the one."

(Below: Martha Wash Sings Some of Her Most Famous Hooks)

 

No less importantly, Wash became an accidental linchpin for artists' rights. After the singer brought various lawsuits against producers and record labels for proper credit and compensation, federal legislation was created making vocal credit mandatory for all albums and music videos.

But 25 years before, Wash was just a middle school kid who sang well enough to join the choir at a San Francisco high school. Her music teacher had raised enough money for the group to travel to Europe and record albums. By the time she graduated high school, Wash's choir had released four albums and the fledgling singer had settled on her career path.

A daughter of devout Christians, Wash had been singing since she was three years old, absorbing and imitating gospel greats Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward in the house. "My mother and I would be cleaning the house and listening to these gospel artists," says Wash. "At the same time, I'd sneak in 45s of the Supremes, the Temptations and Rare Earth because I wasn't allowed to listen to secular music."

Wash began singing in public through her church. The activity offered one of the few refuges from constant bullying over her weight. After years of singing gospel, Wash started taking private lessons from an opera teacher, and began developing a vocal style that drew on those studies as well as the pop, rock and funk that she loved. 

In 1974, when the singer went to see a concert by funk and soul musician Billy Preston, she was captivated by the talent and flamboyance of his opening act. "Sylvester had this high falsetto voice and I'm watching him and saying, 'Oh my God, who is this guy?'" Wash said of the celebrated disco singer. "I didn't sit down." Two years later, Wash, then a jobbing vocalist, auditioned to be one of Sylvester's backup singers.

"The entire audition lasted five minutes," Wash recalls. "There were two skinny white girls that auditioned for him a few minutes before I walked in. I sang a gospel song for him and he tells the other two girls to leave and says, 'Okay, I'd like to hire you. Do you know someone that is larger than you that can sing?'" Wash contacted Izora Armstead, her co-singer in the gospel group NOW (News of the World), and Sylvester had found his backup singers.

Wash quit her day job doing clerical work at the University of California, San Francisco hospital to join Sylvester full-time, appearing on four of the singer's albums, including the disco hits "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real" and "Dance (Disco Heat)." Even at the height of disco — when social outsiders were finding their way in to the mainstream — an openly gay, cross-dressing frontman and, as Wash puts it, "two large women" was an anomaly. Still, Sylvester became one of the genre's most popular singers and personalities. 

While Wash and Armstead could make light about their Rubenesque figures, naming their post-Sylvester group Two Tons o' Fun, the emergence of a large, black female singer in disco was rare. "I never really thought about it at the time," admits Wash. "But years later, having conversations with interviewers, it made me think, There really weren't any women our size on the scene. I was just starting out in the business and was just happy to get a gig. You couldn't miss us. We were large women, okay? Some people called us a novelty act at the time. But the novel thing about us is that we could sing."

In 1981, songwriter Paul Jabara, who had written Donna Summer's 1978 disco hit "Last Dance," called his arranger Paul Shaffer — still one year from becoming David Letterman's musical director — and gave him the title of a new disco-pop song he was working on for Summer. "I heard the title and said, 'I'll be right over,'" Shaffer tells Rolling Stone. "Paul was openly gay and said to me, and I'm quoting him here, 'The faggots'll love it.' He knew Donna Summer's audience was a gay club audience, so let's give them what they want." The song's concept about men falling from the sky was rejected, however, by the newly religious Summer partly because it included the words "Hallelujah" and "Amen."

Jabara knew he had a hit, but none of his famous friends wanted to touch it. Diana Ross passed. Cher quickly declined. Barbra Streisand said no. But in 1982, Wash and Armstead, now known as the Weather Girls, accepted, releasing "It's Raining Men" to immediate success. The song sold six million copies worldwide — its shouts of "Hallelujah" and "Amen" nodding to the duo's gospel roots — and was quickly embraced by both the gay community and Hollywood film and television producers. "Could you imagine Barbra singing that song?" asks Wash, laughing and shaking her head.

"She delivered it straight," Shaffer says of Wash's contribution. "Not even with an arched eyebrow. She gets the joke, but the fun comes from how she doesn't try to take the joke and put a second one on top with her delivery. She takes it to church every time she sings. She's just a pure musical spirit."

The Grammy-nominated song became a worldwide hit, hitting Number One on Billboard's Club Chart and appearing in everything from In Living Color's "Men On…." series and the Simpsons to Arnold Schwarzenegger's Eraser and Magic Mike. "Initially, we laughed and said, 'You've got to be kidding,'" Wash says, recalling the moment she was first told the song's concept. "But now it's morphed into a song that grandparents, parents and kids can all sing and dance to."

Wash and Armstead continued their journeywoman careers, singing backup on everything from Bob Seger's "Like a Rock" to Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love" while occasionally releasing a Weather Girls album. (The duo officially disbanded in 1990, though Armstead would continue performing as the Weather Girls, with her daughter replacing Wash, until her death in 2004.)

As Wash continued her session work, she reunited with producer David Cole, a former New York City DJ and session musician for Fleetwood Mac and Janet Jackson who had previously been Wash's pianist and musical director in the Weather Girls. Cole was now the co-founder of house music production team C+C Music Factory (the other C standing for DJ/producer Robert Clivillés). Before the group struck out on their own, Clivillés and Cole had been a prolific house production duo, working as freelance producers for Chaka Khan and Grace Jones alongside countless other groups.

"David would call me up and I would go and do demos for him," Wash says. "That's how Seduction came about." Seduction was originally just another studio project put together by C+C until Wash's vocals for their second song "(You're My One and Only) True Love" made it an unexpected hit. The production duo quickly put together a trio of three beautiful women to be the "face" of Seduction, with Wash only getting "backing vocalist" credit on her own song. It would be a harbinger of things of come.

In 1989, Wash received a call to record with a trio of Italian house music impresarios named Groove Groove Melody, who produced for outside singers. Unbeknownst to Wash, the trio had already used vocals from Loleatta Holloway's 1980 disco song "Love Sensation" — the same song that Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch would use legally and liberally for "Good Vibrations" two years later — for "Ride on Time." Now operating under the name Black Box, GGM brought in Quinol, a thin, French model, to lip sync the song in clubs before Holloway found out and sued. Although a settlement was eventually reached, the trio subsequently hired British singer Heather Small to replicate Holloway's sampled vocal slices and re-released the song, assuming that no one would know — or care — enough to notice.

According to Wash, she was paid a flat fee to record demos to be presented to other singers. Instead, the producers included her vocals on nearly every song on Black Box's debut album Dreamland, including future hits "Everybody Everybody," "I Don't Know Anybody Else," "Fantasy" and "Strike It Up." Wash was never credited in the album's liner notes. While none of the producers in Black Box publicly said why Quinol was used as the face of Black Box in videos over Wash, it wasn't hard to figure out. When Dreamland was released in May 1990, the cover featured a crouching Quinol, clad in a cropped jacket and mini skirt, showing off her toned legs and staring longingly.

black box martha wash
Black Box, 'Dreamland.' (Photo: Courtesy Deconstruction Records)

Wash was fed up and angry, livid that just because she wasn't a size four someone could pass off another person as her. The slight was a painful reminder of her days getting bullied as a child over her weight. Except now, she had some success behind her to do something about it. In July of 1990, the singer filed her first lawsuit against Clivillés, Cole and Seduction's record label A&M Records for unauthorized use of her voice. Two months later, Wash would file another lawsuit against Black Box and RCA Records for "commercial appropriation," claiming she never received proper credit for any of the Black Box songs.

If fans couldn't tell who was singing on record, in a live setting, the truth rang clear. In a video that appears to be from that time period, Quinol can be heard singing "I Don't Know Anybody Else" live as Wash's backing track blared from the PA. Hers is a comically bad performance. For the first 80 seconds, Quinol struggles to hit her notes, caterwauling around the stage before her mic is mercifully cut and she is forced to lip sync Wash's vocals.

When Clivillés and Cole began recording under the name C+C Music Factory, they too paid Wash a flat fee to record background vocals, including the now-ubiquitous "Everybody dance now" hook. (Wash declined to say how much she was paid for the session, but court papers filed at the time alleged that the fee was less than $1,000 with no royalties.)

"I was told it was going to be a demo for another singer," Wash says of "Gonna Make You Sweat." It wasn't. In October 1990, the group released the song and subsequent video, featuring the band's other singer, Zelma Davis, lip-syncing Wash's vocals. 

"The record label, production company and management told me that it was OK to lip sync in the video as long as I sing live in public," Davis recalls. "I was 19, inexperienced and extremely gullible. On the video set, I told members of the crew that it wasn't me singing this particular song. As word spread throughout the set that I was revealing this fact, label representatives and our management pulled me aside and asked that I stop speaking about whose vocals they were." Despite being the track's primary singer, Wash was merely listed in the album's liner notes as one of six background vocalists.

I listened to the song and said, 'okay, that's me, but why am i in there under c+c music factory?'

"I was in Europe and started getting phone calls about it," Wash says. "People wanted interviews with me, but it wasn't for the Weather Girls. It was for me. That's when I started realizing that the song was out and people had questions." While the general public didn't know whose vocals were on the track, those in the industry did. "I listened to the song and said, 'What's going on? Okay, that's me, but why am I in there under C+C Music Factory?'"

Wash tried to get in touch with Cole's management, looking for answers to why her perceived demo versions made the final cut and why Davis assumed a lead role in the video, but no resolution was reached. Cole denied Wash's physical appearance had any role in the situation, arguing instead, to the Chicago Tribune, that Wash's ongoing Seduction lawsuit against them, "left us in an awkward position."

"Those [weight] accusations were ridiculous," Clivillés tells Rolling Stone. "We never would do something like that. We were cool with Martha way before C&C Music Factory and after. When it was time to do the music video, we didn't even know it would be wrong. We didn't do it to fool people in any way. It was as simple as, we were shooting a video, Zelma sang on 75 percent of the album and was a group member."

The Weather Girls martha wash
The Weather Girls in 1985. (Photo: David Corio/Redferns)

In an interview with A Current Affair at the time, Music Factory member Freedom Williams gave his opinion on why Davis was used over Wash. "I don't mean to be rude, harsh, callous, maligning or vilifying," Williams said. "But I'd rather look at Zelma onstage." Davis claims that when she auditioned to be the lead female singer, she was never told there were other female members of the group. 

Wash admits that she declined an offer from Cole to join his production company, though maintains that Williams' frequent assertions that the group hired Davis because Wash chose not to go on the road are not true. (Williams did not return a request for comment.) Wash sued Clivillés and Cole again, along with C+C's record label CBS/Sony, for $500,000 for "fraud, deceptive packaging and commercial appropriation." "It was false advertising," says Wash. "And the public needed to know about that."

Clivillés maintains to this day that the lawsuit "wasn't necessary" and that there was no intentional deception on his part, arguing instead that the media perpetuated the notion that C+C had tried to pull a fast-one on the music-buying public. 

Clivillés also says that, "David and I were very surprised and also disappointed when [Wash] sued us. We wanted to respond publicly to all the accusations at the time, but our lawyer didn't want us to. I've always regretted not expressing 'the truth' publicly. When I recorded 'Gonna Make You Sweat' and got the album deal, we asked Martha if she wanted to be a part of the group a few times. Her response was that she was pursuing her R&B career and wanted to be taken seriously in the R&B market at that time. If it were up to us, Martha would have been on every song. But we had to throw auditions and that is how we enlisted Zelma."

'it was false advertising,' says Wash. 'and the public needed to know about that'

Clivillés says in his opinion, a lawsuit could've been avoided with a phone call. "All Martha had to do was pick up the phone and say, 'I changed my mind' and just like that, she would have been on tour with us and given her proper royalties and deal as a member of the group," adds the producer. "The controversy was just lies and accusations. I ain't got nothing but love for Martha. It would have been great if everyone stayed and made a few great classic albums together."

Despite the brouhaha, during this time Wash was earning her nickname "The Queen of Clubland." She was the Midas of dance music, with eight songs featuring her vocals hitting Number One on Billboard's dance chart. "Gonna Make You Sweat" trumped both the dance and R&B charts before becoming a multi-platinum hit and topping the Hot 100. When Billboard published its annual Top Songs of the Year, "Gonna Make You Sweat" came in third behind Color Me Badd's "I Wanna Sex You Up" and Bryan Adams' "(Everything I Do) I Do it for You."

"When I first heard the records without the images, I said, 'Wow, there's Martha. She sounds great,' says RuPaul. "When the images came out, I'm like, 'What? Ummmm. Well, of course.' This is proof of the superficiality and hypocrisy of our culture. The people that buy music are looking for themselves in the images that they buy. It's unfortunate that the voice and talent is just a small part of the equation."

A&M, the label behind Seduction, would settle with Wash for an undisclosed amount. RCA and Wash reached an undisclosed financial settlement, described in court papers only as "substantial," in December 1990. "In the Black Box case, our company in England was dealing with another company in Italy, so it was like three times removed from what we were told in New York," RCA Records president Joseph Galante told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. "Once we were made aware that Martha was the real singer, we did the right thing."

Wash settled with Sony for an undisclosed settlement, with the label making the unprecedented request to MTV to add a disclaimer to the "Gonna Make You Sweat" video crediting Wash for vocals and Davis for the "visualization." After winning Best Dance Video at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, the members of C+C Music Factory thanked everyone but Wash, with Davis curiously thanking MTV "for showing that I can sing and I am talented." Today, Davis says she only learned about the "visualized" addendum when she saw the video on TV. "I was upset that no one informed me of the disclaimer or settlement," says Davis. "[Manager] Barbara Warren-Pace called me a brat. Robert and David spoke up for me in interviews, but by then it was too late. I was portrayed as the villain."

I wonder if Wash, who had more than a decade's worth of experience at the time, takes any personal responsibility for the shenanigans that occurred during this time period. Does she assign any blame to herself in allowing this to happen?

"I didn't necessarily allow it to happen," says Wash. "You could be in the business a long time and still get screwed. It all depends on who's doing it and how it's done. I think the labels were caught with their pants down and just weren't ready for this. I also believe that the record company had a big responsibility as well. It was making money and they were going to keep that thing moving."

Even after all of Wash's personal lawsuits, though, the story was far from over. In November 1990, nine days after Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus admitted that they didn't sing on any songs by Milli Vanilli, multiple class-action consumer fraud suits were filed by those who bought Milli Vanilli and Black Box albums. In their legal defense, even RCA, the label behind Black Box, said they thought Quinol, not Wash, was the actual singer on the album. As a result of the lawsuits, record labels were forced to assign proper vocal credit for all albums and music videos. Wash had become an unwitting industry pioneer.

When reached for comment, Davoli, the mastermind behind Black Box, offers Wash a backhanded compliment. "I'm not allowed to say anything other than: she is in my opinion one of the Greatest Singers in the World EVER!" Davoli wrote in a Facebook message to Rolling Stone. "Pity she does not write her own songs. She has the voice of a beast and an angel at the same time! She demands respect when you hear her voice."

In a 2013 interview with DMC World, Davoli took a contrite, if opportunistic, view of the situation. "We didn’t know any better at the time. I guess we had to learn from our mistakes," said the producer. "On the other hand, I think the controversy helped in creating the curiosity in the public, since nobody else before was so naïve to do it that way."

Davis, for her part, said it took her decades to get over her role in the C+C dispute. "For 20 years, I blamed myself. I experienced severe depression. No record label would touch me. I was branded a model and fraud. My career was over. I was blacklisted. Chewed up and spit out. I felt horrible about myself for the part I played. As a child, I was a fan of Martha Wash. I still am. I apologized to her several years after the scandal, placed blame on myself and claimed responsibility for my role. Martha's vocals were used as lead and I believe she had the right to sue for proper compensation."

Surprisingly, even after the lawsuits, Wash teamed up again with C+C Music Factory for their 1994 follow-up Anything Goes!, even appearing in the video for the album's biggest hit "Do You Wanna Get Funky." (Wash says she made peace with Cole before his death in 1995.) "You can't live in the past and mistakes were possibly made on both sides," says Wash. "I even went on the road with them this time [laughs]. Some people hold grudges for decades and I don't understand that. You just got to keep it moving."

Wash kept moving, releasing her eponymous debut album in 1992 (a byproduct of her settlement with RCA) and, appropriately enough, recording a cover in 1996 of Elton John's "I'm Still Standing" for the First Wives Club soundtrack. Numerous one-off tracks would follow, with the singer later establishing her own label Purple Rose Records in 2005.

In 2013, the same year Wash would appear in the documentary on backup singers 20 Feet From Stardom, she released Something Good, her first solo album in 15 years. It's a positive, inspirational album — more pop and rock than dance — whose titles "Proud," "It's My Time" and "Something Good" reflect Wash's current mind state.

"I'm a woman of a particular age and I've been a lot of places, but it's my time right now with this new music," says Wash. "I wanted to have a theme of empowerment and feeling good music that helps you get from one day to the next." A remix for Something Good track "I'm Not Coming Down" reached Number Two on the Billboard Dance Club Chart. "I was ahead of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Iggy Azalea," she says, laughing. "I was totally mystified." Elsewhere, Wash takes on Aerosmith's 1973 classic "Dream On," with the lines "Live and learn from fools and from sages" and "Everybody's got their dues in life to pay" taking on added resonance for the singer.

Wash continues to travel the world, performing solo shows alongside numerous pride events and festivals. The gay icon has been involved in LGBT rights and fundraising for the fight against HIV/AIDS for more than 30 years after watching Sylvester succumb to the disease, and she remains an outspoken advocate for the LGBT community.

There is, RuPaul explains, a direct correlation between Wash's career and the struggles many in the LGBT community face. "Gay folks understand what it's like to not fit into the grid. The C+C Music Factory and Black Box story really solidified that idea of, 'My skill is good enough for you, but you don't like me on the surface.' That story speaks to disenfranchised people."

I ask Wash if, after everything that's happened in her career, she feels that she's finally gotten proper credit for her accomplishments. Her answer is swift and resolute.

"Time has passed and I'm at the point now where it doesn't bother me," says Wash. "I'm still here. I had the knock upside the head a few times, but I wouldn't change it for anything because it's helped me be who I am. You got to go through those tough and unpleasant times where you wish you could go somewhere inside, but it shows you how you can be strong and okay. Your head hurts now, but later, you can say, 'I lived through it.'"

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