Former Weather Girl Martha Wash showers us with hope as she places high pressure on the battle against HIV
Text & Photos by Sean Black
It’s late afternoon on a perfectly stormy day and Martha Wash is dolling up for her rooftop performance. Beauty, talent and wardrobe, check, check, check. She’s at the swanky Ink48 boutique hotel in Manhattan’s Midtown West district, where she’ll be delivering the richness of her honey-drenched roar. “Door!” hollers the spirited chanteuse, which happens to fall on deaf ears. Returning from having just answered it herself, she jokingly chides a small entourage for missing the knock. “Chi, chi, chi”—sounding like “kee, kee, kee”—puts us all in our places. Lips pursed, she says, “You’re like a bunch of old ladies over there chit-chatting, too busy gabbing to hear the door.” She bursts out laughing. Then so do we. Martha Wash is as delightful and down-to-earth as divas come.
Her career began in the late 1970s as half of the vivacious duo Two Tons O’ Fun and lead soprano backup for the famed falsetto voice of disco legend Sylvester. Today she is a sophisticated solo artist who is expanding her repertoire of dance and house music to include a smoother, more adult-contemporary groove. Epitomizing this direction, which she initially resisted, is the early release of her tender ballad “I’ve Got You.”
Guaranteed to lift your spirits, it is the first single off her upcoming studio album with an anticipated release date this spring. Imbuing a softer beat, it remains her distinctly resonant voice that continues to find its way out of the clubs and into our hearts and homes. She is responsible for some of the top-selling, most recognizable pop hits of the eighties and nineties as lead vocalist on Blackbox’s “Strike It Up” and C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” which has sold millions and given people a reason to jump to their feet and dance—just because she says to. In 1992 she released her debut solo single, “Carry On,” which, like many of her club hits, took a number-one spot on Billboard’s Dance/Club Play Chart.
In 2004 she created her own music label, Purple Rose Records. Her first independent release, “You Lift Me Up,” was a hopeful house track influenced by her gospel roots. Her voice has filled the airwaves around the globe and has been featured on family-friendly soundtracks, including Kiss Me Guido, First Wives Club, and Mighty Ducks. Limitless energy and talent, she has starred in the theater productions Body and Soul by André Heller and David E. Talbert’s Love on Lay-Away. A powerful voice when it comes to worthy causes, Martha Wash is on a roll and rarin’ to go.
“Oh no darling,” theatrically exclaims the heralded Queen of Clubland. She eye-balls and then quickly eliminates a four-inch pair of Marc Jacobs pumps offered
as one of her footwear selections for the evening’s charitable venue. Having done a run-through of her number just a few hours earlier, she knows exactly what she is up for, literally. Looking smashing in a form-fitting, asymmetric cocktail dress by Igigi, Martha will be performing at the top of a penthouse stage overlooking Hell’s Kitchen. Deadly, perhaps not. Terrifying? Hell, yes! Putting her best foot forward, the soulful diva slides into an equally stylish yet agreeably more sensible heel. “I am afraid of heights,” she humbly contends, while her stylist assists with jewelry and the finishing touches of her wardrobe.
It’s the 11th Annual Paws for Style fundraiser benefiting the Humane Society of New York and Martha will be treating the pet-loving patrons to an altered rendition of her pop classic, “It’s Raining Men.” The feel-good anthem is a guilty pleasure that has been inviting us to get absolutely soaking wet for nearly thirty years and, judging by the thunderclouds, it might just be the night. Boasting a tail-wagging theme of “Where Dogs Takeover the Catwalk,” the regal roster of rover-owners leading the way down the runway include Lisa Oz, Animal Fair Media’s Chief Pet Officer and co-hostess Wendy Diamond, Today anchor Natalie Morales, and the Real Housewives of New York.
When it comes to helping others, on two legs or four, Martha Wash has been digging in her heels for as long as she can remember. Along with her commitment to pet rescue initiatives, she is a consistent “go to” entertainer for amfAR and the official spokesperson for QSAC, a non-profit helping individuals living with autism spectrum disorder.
Born the youngest of her siblings, she was raised in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco. She began singing at two in church and continued on through elementary and middle school. At seventeen, her Poly High School choir was able to raise enough money from bake sales and car washes along with supplemental donations from the parents and Mayor Joseph Alioto to travel and perform throughout Europe for two weeks. “I became interested in opera and classical music when I entered high school,” admits Wash.
When pressed about her early musical memories, she chuckles, “I had this private teacher who was introducing me to arias and she would scold me about singing church music.” In an emphatic baritone, Martha mimics her tutor, “‘Don’t sing Gospel music,’ she would say to me with a stern warning.” In an aside Martha confesses that gospel music can be very hard on the throat. She continues, “I would reply, ‘But I have to because I am in church all of the time. I have to sing.’ She’d just frown. ‘Okay, just don’t sing gospel music so much.’”
Luckily, Martha didn’t stop singing gospel music and after graduating high school she continued with the gospel group NOW (News of the World). One day she got a call from a friend about an audition for the flamboyantly dazzling figure known as Sylvester. Hiring her on the spot, Sylvester asked if she knew of another plus-size vocalist with a powerful voice and immediately Martha contacted her friend from NOW, the late Izora Rhodes Armstead. The trio was destined to record the 1978 disco hit classics, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat).”
It was the 1970s and Martha’s hometown of San Francisco was changing. She began to see the rise of gay liberation, which she ferociously supports to this day, the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, and the onset of AIDS. HIV/AIDS causes are Martha’s most prolific passion. “I wanted to be there to support the people,” she warmly contends. It was a terrifying time, I recall out loud. She agrees, “Yes, but I never felt afraid.” Never?, I ask. “Nope, not at all. I just kept thinking that these people needed my help.”
She pauses and reflects for a moment. “I remember when we were just starting out, I was with The Weather Girls, with Izora, and we were getting phone calls to
do local benefits in all of these different cities. We were performing in the clubs because that is where these benefits were happening back then. We’d go in and do a thirty-minute show to help raise money for the people in that immediate area.” It was the early beginnings of AIDS service organizations and before the national system began fully addressing the magnitude of what was going on. “The money that we were able to raise was left right there in that community for hospice services, medications, and food. That was really grass-roots stuff.”
Next, I ask if Sylvester was the first person she knew of to die from an AIDS-related illness. She fervently responds, “Actually the first person I knew of was a band member by the name of Patrick Cowley. He was a programmer for a lot of the music that Sylvester had started doing,” she remembers. “You were shifting away from disco and moving towards an electronic sound, pre-house, a more synthesized type of music.”
In 1981, Patrick Cowley started Megatone Records with DJ Marty Blecman. Sylvester quickly moved to this label. Cowley’s first two releases, “Menergy” and “Megatron Man,” were instant dancefloor classics and are considered today the precursors to gay dance music, known then as hi-NRG, short for high energy. Cowley began to suffer frequent illnesses requiring extended periods of hospitalization. Upon one of Cowley’s fortunate recoveries, he and Sylvester once again collaborated, recorded, and released the hit “Do You Wanna Funk,” placing them back on the charts and furthering their critical acclaim. Cowley died later that same year, in 1984, and was one of the earliest celebrity casualties of AIDS.
“Nobody knew what was going on and how it was being contracted,” explains Martha in a sympathetically reflective tone. “All of these people were dying and the doctors didn’t know what they were dying from.” Syl (called that by Martha and his closest friends) sadly passed away in 1988. “I remember him calling earlier that same year to say that he was sick. It was a rough time. I would get a phone call almost every day about another friend or coworker who had died. It got to the point where I didn’t want to answer the phone.”
Martha recalls a particularly rowdy night in March of 1979. Sylvester was throwing a party in order to record a live album and she and Izora were performing with him at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. “It was a black-tie-optional night of wonder,” writes Joshua Gamson in his book, The Fabulous Sylvester. “The
Two Tons performed on a stage filled with gladiolas and backed by a sign reading ‘Flowers While You Live.’”
Martha begins to recount her version, eyes rolling to the back of her head. “It was the first time anything other than classical music had been performed at the opera house—up until that night. Anybody and everybody was there. Any kind of dress or outfit that you could imagine in your head showed up that night. Some women were walking around in ballgowns and some guys had their butts out. The event was completely sold out and it went from one extreme to the other, elegance to debauchery. It was a great night however and the energy was so palpable in the rooms above the balconies. People were so excited. They were jumping up and down, or dancing or something, but whatever they were doing caused the foundation to start shaking. It was kind of scary, like maybe an earthquake. I know the people at the opera house were not happy and we were never invited back.”
Though she has performed everywhere, from the San Francisco Opera House to Carnegie Hall, Martha finally received the invitation of her dreams. Their last Christmas in the White House, President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton [A&U, April 2005] invited her to perform for them and their family and guests. Martha had been hand picked along with Sister Sledge of “We Are Family” fame. “We were in the middle of a winter storm and I was living in New York then so I was able to get there easily by train. About 100 guests were unable to make it due to the weather but I was ecstatic to be there regardless. It was surreal,” says the beaming songstress. “I couldn’t believe it. I was watching a television special earlier in the week and Hillary Clinton was giving a tour of the White House. She was showing all of the holiday decorations in the different rooms. Then, less than a week later I was there in person. It was something I said that I would like to do someday.”
Over the years Martha has weathered many storms, some drizzly rain showers, others major hurricanes like the recent passing of a sister and a brother within
four months of one another. She has been a compassionate and steadfast supporter of numerous organizations, most importantly those fighting AIDS. In 2011 alone she rallied for three AIDS fundraisers: Fortitude, a President’s Day weekend celebration in Fort Lauderdale benefiting amfAR, a summer visit to two local San Antonio AIDS charities, and, just a little while ago, she stamped her signature vocals on the thirteenth annual Carols for a Cure 2011 holiday CD benefiting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Asked why she is still so involved, Wash sweetly replies, “As I have said about my own loved ones, if people are happy and not suffering, I want them to live as long and healthy as possible. I thank God for letting them see another day.”
Running the gamut of gospel and opera to disco and house this singer has a heart that is as big as her voice. At the PAWS for Style benefit Martha’s playful version of “It’s Raining Dogs” proved to be as crowd-pleasing as ever and in the end it didn’t rain cats and dogs. Whether rising to the occasion for puppy love or discussing her Presidential wish come true, it is Martha’s fight against AIDS that reigns supreme. Washing away any gloom with her optimism and warmth Martha predicts blue skies ahead and a gentle breeze.
For more information about Martha Wash log on to www.marthawash.com.
A special thanks to James Washington, Martha Wash’s manager, for his efforts in making this story possible and to Terranova Florist for the beautiful roses.
Sean Black is a writer and photographer based in Florida. He may be contacted by e-mail via his Web site: www.seangblack.com.