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