Martha Wash: We Carry On

By David Helton | David@LiveLeft.com

Rolling Stone Magazine recently called Martha Wash ‘the most famous unknown singer of the ‘90s’. But let’s get real. In fact, let’s get Mighty Real.  Martha’s voice has been a staple in the gay community since she stepped on stage with Sylvester in the late ‘70s with her friend Izora Rhodes Armstead – simply known then as the duo ‘Two Tons O’ Fun.’  She is, in fact, a two time Grammy nominated R&B, pop, soul, and house singer and songwriter with a career spanning over thirty years. She is also responsible for one of the most popular gay dance anthems ever created,  It’s Raining Men – a song that she recorded a second time with drag celebrity RuPaul in 1995. Wash continues to travel the world, performing solo shows alongside numerous pride events and festivals. This 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 gay 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.”

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Although she is primarily known for her spectacular soprano voice, Martha Wash is also responsible for getting some of the most important legislation on the books for vocalists. While she sang lead vocals on all three of Black Box’s U.S. top-forty hits, including the top-ten smashes Everybody, Everybody,  Strike It Up,  and I Don’t Know Anybody Else, Wash was not featured in any of the music videos as it was customary for Katrin Quinol, a French model, to be used to lip-sync the lyrics. She did not receive appropriate credit. Believe it or not, this wasn’t the first time she was surprised to hear herself on the radio. According to Rolling Stone, a few years earlier when Clivillés and Cole began recording under the name C+C Music Factory, they paid Wash a flat fee to record background vocals, including the hook “Everybody Dance Now.” (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.)

Martha-Standing-Tall“I was told it was going to be a demo for another singer,” Wash says of C+C’s 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 song was a smash hit around the world.  The group was recognized with a Grammy Award nomination, five American Music Awards, five Billboard Music Awards, two MTV Video Music Awards, and several European, Japanese and Australian Music Awards. Martha was completely cut out of the experience and denied credit for any of the success.  Consequently, Martha filed and won several lawsuits against both Black Box and C+C Music Factory.  As a result of those lawsuits, record labels are now required to give proper credit on both recordings and videos for artists.

<Left Magazine> You’ve dealt with discrimination your whole life – as a woman of color and even as an ally to the gay community, long before it was cool to be an ally to the gay community. However, you were marginalized because of your size and your voice was hijacked several times. That has to feel deeply insulting. How did you process that on a personal level?  Being in this business you have to develop a thick skin.  You take it on and stand up and just find your backbone. Honestly, it was embarrassing.  The fact that it happened twice in a short period of time was really devastating.  I mean, once was tough. But when it happened again, I knew that no one was going to stand up for me so I had to stand up for myself.

I feel like the gay community did have your back during that time. We’ve always known who you were. I don’t think we’ve ever forgotten your contributions. I do think that you led the way for a lot of other artists with those lawsuits and paved the way for creative people to get what they rightfully deserve.  At the end of the day, the music business is like any other kind of business.  You can’t just steal from people. It’s not right.  There is value in creative work.

Are you inspired by the new dance music that’s out there today? Or are you like me, and just turn the radio station? <laughs> Well, I really don’t listen to a lot of the new stuff. I love my gospel; probably because I grew up singing gospel. I am old school when it comes to my dance music. I like my ‘70s and my ‘80s stuff because that was such a fun time in my life I guess.

Where are you based these days anyway? I’m in New York, but I am a San Francisco girl at heart. I grew up in San Francisco with my family. My life truly began in the Bay Area.

I bet y’all had a lot of fun here in San Francisco during that time. Oh, yes. We sure did. Of course, I was younger back then. <laughs> You know, everything is fun when you are 22. <laughs>

We just celebrated Sylvester’s birthday back on September 6th.  Oh!  That’s right!  His birthday was last month.

Did your Mamma and Daddy freak out about Sylvester? Did they support you when you told them what you were going to do with your life? Or were they just like ‘oh, girl.’   <laughs> I can’t say they were happy when I started singing with Sylvester

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Oh, Jesus. I can only imagine. What did they think when they met Sylvester?
You know, they never really said anything. But honestly, I didn’t ask either <laughs> I mean, what could you say?! There was nothing to be said. <laughs> When I first started singing with Sylvester they were not happy, but it was mostly because of my religious background. My mother, especially, loved to sing. She was the one who really encouraged me to pursue my singing, but she didn’t feel that it was right for me to be singing secular music. I finally had to sit her down and say ‘Listen, I am not going to stop singing gospel music – but I am going to sing other things in addition to the gospel music.’  They eventually came on board.  Especially when I started traveling the world with Sylvester, they realized that I was grown. I needed to do what I needed to do. They even came to a few of the shows we did.

What was it like living in San Francisco during the onset of the AIDS crisis? How did that impact you as an artist? It was heartbreaking. I think it was such a time of unknowing. People just didn’t know what was going on. There was so much uncertainty in the air then. So many people were becoming sick and the media was just blowing it out of proportion. Of course, the first people they blamed were the people in the gay community.  That was unfair.  You know I wasn’t scared for myself, but I was scared for other people.

Did you know Rick Cranmer, Sylvester’s partner who died of AIDS in 1987? I did know Rick. I didn’t know him well, we weren’t close but we were acquaintances through Sylvester.

How did you find out that Sylvester was sick? He called me.  And we cried together – both my manager and myself were on the call. There were no treatments really at that time – at least none that were affordable or proven to work. So, we knew what this meant.


ABOUT SYLVESTER >>

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Sylvester’s partner, Rick Cranmer, became aware that he had become infected with HIV in 1985. With no known medical cure, his health deteriorated rapidly, and he died in September 1987, leaving Sylvester devastated. Although he recognized that he too was probably infected, Sylvester refused to have his blood tested, only noticing the virus’ first symptoms when he developed a persistent cough. Beginning work on an album that would remain unfinished, he moved into a new apartment on Collingwood Street in the Castro, and tried his best to continue performing, even though he became too sick to undertake a full tour.

Hospitalized for sinus surgery in late 1987, upon returning to his apartment, he began to be cared for by his mother and an acquaintance Jeanie Tracy, while other family came to visit him; he would proceed to give away many of his treasured items and would write up his will. He refused to take zidovudine, an antiretroviral drug that had serious side effects.  Having lost a lot of weight and unable to walk very far, he was pushed along in a wheelchair at the 1988 Gay Freedom Parade in the Castro, just in front of the People with AIDS contingent; along Market Street, assembled crowds shouted out his name as he passed. The subsequent 1988 Castro Street Fair was named “A Tribute to Sylvester,” and although he was too ill to attend, crowds chanted his name to such an extent that he was able to hear them from his bedroom. He continued to give interviews and took part in AIDS activism, in particular highlighting the devastation that it was wreaking in the African-American community. In an interview with the NME, he stated, “I don’t believe that AIDS is the wrath of God. People have a tendency to blame everything on God.”

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For Thanksgiving 1988, his family came over to spend the holiday with him, by which time he was becoming increasingly bed-ridden and reliant on morphine to ease his pain. He proceeded to die in his bed on December 16, 1988 at the age of 41. Sylvester had already planned his own funeral, insisting that he be dressed in a red kimono and placed in an open-top coffin for the mourners to see, with his friend Yvette Flunder doing his corpse’s makeup. He wanted Jeanie Tracy to sing at his funeral, accompanied by choirs and many flowers. The whole affair took place in his church, the Love Center, with a sermon being provided by Reverend Walter Hawkins. The event was packed, standing room only, and the coffin was subsequently taken and buried at his family’s plot in Inglewood Park Cemetery.


Gay men seem to have the AIDS crisis under control, but it’s still ravaging the black community – do you think the black community can learn from the gays?  Absolutely.  The bottom line is that we all have to be responsible for ourselves.  We know how this disease is transmitted.  This is not 1984 – this is 2014.  Wear a condom.  Get tested.  If you are going to put yourself out there – and if you are really ‘out there’ – and some people are really ‘out there’ <laughs> You know?! You might need to take extra care of yourself. People have to be responsible.

Do you have children of your own?  I don’t.  I never married.  I just haven’t found the right guy – that doesn’t mean I’m not still looking <laughs> 

Do you regret not having children?  <long pause>  I do.  I mean, sometimes I think about it. But I don’t dwell on that for long. I am a great Auntie to all my nieces and nephews.  I do know that if I had children my life would be very different and I am happy with my life.

You are always on the road it seems. I mean, I have seen you perform all over the place. Do you like being on the road?  I’m just so used to it that I don’t know anything different. I come home for a few weeks and then I get restless. I start thinking ‘where is the work? I want to get back out there.’   I was in the UK for a few weeks and that wore me out.  I was ready to get back home after that trip. <laughs>

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Have you always been close to God? You’re exposed to so much in the industry and I think that my faith is what keeps me grounded. I have seen it all. And believe me – people can loose their damn minds sometimes <laughs> All you have to do is look at some of these people out here today. I see some of the stuff that people are doing and that kind of stuff was never even a thought in my mind when I was coming up.

I guess with all the social media – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – these young people are exposing themselves to the world so much more. You are right about that! Thank God they didn’t have that stuff when I was growing up! <laughs> Can you imagine?!  You make a mistake now and everybody knows within minutes. It’s all over the place.  There is no real sense of privacy anymore.  I know that the media and fans want to know everything about you – and that’s not always healthy.  We all want our private space and our private time. I like to have my alone time. I think everyone needs that to regroup.

What about you?  Do you keep up with social media? I have my Facebook page and I do Twitter. I like to let people know where I am going to be performing and what I am doing professionally. I don’t really reveal too much about my personal life. I like to thank the people who are doing wonderful things for me. But yes, I do like to keep up on some of that stuff. I enjoy it! It’s a great way to communicate with my fans. But I don’t take it too seriously.

Of course, because of social media – a lot of these kids say ‘oh, look, I have 3,000 friends!’ But wait a minute; you’re home alone on a Saturday night? Looks like you don’t have any friends. No you don’t! <laughs> You don’t have 3,000 friends. That’s crazy! And you can’t measure the value of anything in your life with ‘likes’ and ‘followers.’  That is just not reality.

I love this new record. I especially love that track Proud. What inspired that song and who are you singing to?  Honestly, it can be a loved one or a friend or it can be of a spiritual nature. It felt spiritual to me. It’s a beautiful message and it feels very personal. I like for people to get their own interpretations from the music. I feel good when people tell me what they get from a particular song. We all hear different things and apply our own experiences to the meanings of the words. That is what makes it art; that’s why I keep going and making music. I’m always inspired when I sing. It is my life.


Martha Wash returns to San Francisco this month to perform two shows at Feinstein’s at the Nikko Hotel on October 23rd and 24th.

Martha’s album, Something Good is available on iTunes

‘Like” Martha at Facebook.com/themarthawash      And Follow her on Twitter: @Martha_Wash

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