Martha Wash: The Most Famous Unknown Singer of the ’90s Speaks Out
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.'”
“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.
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