If there’s one sound that signals the arrival of Pride season, it’s got to be the unmistakable sound of Martha Wash’s voice booming from speakers everywhere from Anchorage to the Big Apple. The legendary Queen of Clubland has provided the voice — if not always the face — to the soundtrack of the LGBT community for decades.
From her early work as a backing vocalist for fellow gay icon Sylvester to her camp classic “It’s Raining Men” to the voice behind some of the most memorable house tracks of the early ‘90s, Wash’s distinctive vocals are etched into multiple generations of gay men. Whether you were sweating in the discos or born an MTV baby, it’s hard to hear one of her many hits without feeling your pulse quicken.
Wash, however, was not just in the business of making music for the gay community. She’s been an outspoken supporter of LGBT causes and a champion in the fight against HIV/AIDS. She’s played Pride celebrations and LGBT events for years, and in 2012 she was honored with a lifetime achievement award from AIDS Emergency Fund for her activism.
“My gay fans have been my largest supporters over the years,” she told The Montreal Gazette last year. “They have kept me working, and I thank them for that. I think this love affair began when I started singing for [the late disco star] Sylvester, and it just carried forward.”
There’s also an element of Wash’s story that resonates with the queer community. Wash provided vocals on some of the most popular dance tracks of the early ‘90s, but didn’t receive proper credit or compensation. In some cases, thinner female performers lip synced to her performance live and in the videos, appearing to have performed them themselves.
RuPaul weighed in on the situation in an interview with Rolling Stone: ”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.”
Gonna make you sweat with some of our favorite Martha Wash clips, below:
Audiences were first introduced to Wash as one half of Two Tons of Fun. Along with Izora Rhodes, Wash sang back-up for Sylvester, a San Francisco-based disco performer. The androgynous Sylvester, Wash and Rhodes were stars in the gay community and beyond, leaving behind hits lie “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Sylvester was one of Wash’s earliest introductions into the gay community and seeing him die from complications from AIDS left a profound impact on her.
Wash and Rhodes later rechristened themselves the Weather Girls and scored a massive hit with “It’s Raining Men,” a song passed on by other gay icons Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Cher and Barbra Streisand. The 1982 track charted across the globe, peaking at No. 46 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the U.S. Hot Dance Club Play chart. It’s popularity persists today. “The song overall has become a classic for grandparents, parents, the kids and the grandkids,” she told The Huffington Post in 2012. “Everybody can sing the hook. I think that’s really what’s made it so timeless. You can hear it at any wedding reception, any bar mitzvah…you’re going to hear that song at least once, maybe twice.”
In the ‘90s Wash began lending her vocals to dance songs. She appeared on several tracks off Black Box’s album Fantasy, including “Strike It Up,” above. Her voice might be unmistakable, but that’s not her in the video. Instead, you’re looking at model Katrin Quinol lip sync to Wash’s vocals.
It wasn’t just the work with Black Box, it was also her singing on the inescapable hit “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” The song was a massive hit, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, but, again, Wash wasn’t getting her due. She filed lawsuits against Black Box, C+C Music Factory and their record labels, with all parties eventually settling and Sony asking MTV to add a disclaimer to the video for “Gonna Make You Sweat” that vocals are actually provided by Wash. With the Milli Vanilli scandal coming hot on the heels of Wash’s lawsuits, record labels were forced to give vocal credit on videos and albums.
Martha Wash has been playing Pride celebrations around the country for years. She discussed her love of performing at these events with Out Front: “Doing the Prides is fun, because I’m there to help celebrate their struggle, pain, strength, passion, and ultimately love on them. I also get a chance to meet a lot of the fans that have followed me for years, and sometimes get to catch up for a minute.”
What’s your favorite Wash song?