Welcome to the fourth edition of Track Tales with Michael Primiani. Track Tales is a series in which we aim to highlight artists, albums and tracks that have a unique story surrounding their music. These stories can be funny, shocking or sad. Everyone loves a good song and a good story. We believe that this juxtaposition works to enhance the enjoyment and experience of both.
Martha Wash is far from a household name, but I bet you have heard her voice before. I’ll up the wager and bet that you’ve heard her singing in the past month. Perhaps you heard her voice on the 1990 smash hit “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” playing on a recent commercial for Uber Eats or in an episode of Family Guy that aired just two weeks ago. Knowing that this song is by “C&C Music Factory” is great trivia fodder and could probably win you a Bluetooth speaker or a gift card comped dinner from a radio station, but there’s more to the story than that.
Although the seats may be empty, perhaps you heard her voice roaring through a stadium between whistles in a recent NBA game singing the house music anthem “Everybody, Everybody” by Black Box. Or maybe it was that targeted Instagram ad for Downy Unstoppable laundry scent boosters.
If you happened to tune into your local radio station playing adult contemporary, a week day morning dance mix or even just the hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s in general then you’ve also heard her 1982 megahit “It’s Raining Men” performed by Martha and Izora Armstead as The Weather Girls. Wash’s unmistakable gospel meets groove style vocals are cemented in the popular music zeitgeist. These dance music hits are as ingrained in our culture as the voice of Mickey Mouse. As evident as this is, what is to account for the fact that the music and entertainment business have trained our ears to instantly recognize her voice but not our eyes to see who’s behind it? This is the story of how the music business exploited Martha Wash’s uncredited voice on several hit records – and how Martha Wash fought back to ensure that this wouldn’t happen again. Featuring an interview with Martha herself!
Martha grew up listening to gospel music and singing in a choir. Martha was “fascinated” by different genres of music and although she wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music in her youth, she still tuned into the major radio stations and found her “first love” by hearing soul and R&B. Through singing in gospel groups, she met her future partner Izora Armstead. When Martha decided to audition as a backup singer for disco sensation Sylvester, his manager was impressed and asked her if she knew anyone who could be her partner – to which she recommend Armstead. The duo – which began as Two Tons O’ Fun and later changed their name to The Weather Girls – sang backup on a plethora of charting dance hits by Sylvester.
Here’s Martha and Izora singing “Dance (Disco Heat)” with Sylvester on the CBC
In 1979, Songwriters Paul Shaffer and Paul Jabara wrote a tongue in cheek song about men of all sizes and shades falling down from the sky. With homosexual undertones quite controversial for the time, the track was turned down by Barbara Streisand, Donna Summer, Diana Ross and Cher. By 1982, Jabara was begging Martha Wash to sing the song with The Weather Girls. Martha was initially hesitant about it but told us “Jabara was insistent, he was convinced it was going to be a hit”. He was right. “It’s Raining Men” spent two weeks as the number one Dance hit in America. Although a high energy disco track, it incorporated soul and R&B – featuring Martha’s gospel influences in shouts of amens and hallelujahs. It became an anthem of the LGBTQ community while also working as a song that “people of all ages and differences” can to dance to. Remarking on this feat, Martha exclaimed “the LGBTQ community took the song and ran away with it” and she felt proud because this is a community she had been an advocate for since the 1970s through working with Sylvester.
Here’s the music video – a campy fun time featuring green screens and speedo clad angels
With The Weather Girls, Martha sang backup vocals for Bob Seger on his 1986 album Like A Rock as well as the title track of the same name made famous in commercials for Chevrolet. Martha said with a laugh – “that commercial played for almost 15 years…which I’m thankful for”.
Throughout the 1980s, Martha had a string of success with The Weather Girls releasing several albums. In 1988, they disbanded and Martha took up a solo career and began working as a session vocalist. In 1989, Martha Wash was recruited by Italian house music group Black Box to demo six of their upcoming house music tracks to be released on their debut album Dreamland in May of the following year. Without Martha’s consent, the group used all six of Martha’s demoed vocals on Dreamland. Many of these tracks charted, including “I Don’t Know Anybody Else”, “Strike It Up”, a cover of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Fantasy” and the most enduring and popular track – “Everybody, Everybody”. Since Martha was only paid a flat fee to be a session vocalist, she was not credited for any of these songs nor was she paid royalties for their airplay and usage. Martha was furious, and for good reason. The popularity of these songs were due to her infectious, soaring vocals weaving in and out of the house music four on the floor beats. Her voice grabbed the hearts and dancing feet of clubgoers across America, but she wasn’t given her dues. Unfortunately, there were larger injustices to come.
Here is Martha performing “Everybody, Everybody” in 2014. Almost 25 years after the initial release of the song, Martha doesn’t skip a beat!
While performing with Izora Armstead, Martha met David Cole who “sort of became a music conductor for The Weather Girls”. Cole was a music teacher turned record producer and club music DJ along with his partner Robert Clivillés. David and Robert recognized Martha’s talent and recorded a variety of vocal demos with her once she went solo. For better or worse, Cole and Clivillés were about to kick off 1990 with one of the biggest dance hits of all time under their new moniker – C&C Music Factory.
“Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” – like the Black Box hits – was produced by splicing together a bunch of different demos from Martha that Cole was hanging on to from a session five months prior. Martha had no knowledge as to what would become of the vocal session, to which she was paid a flat fee for similar to the Black Box case. To further take credit from Martha’s iconic vocal performance, the music video starred a woman named Zelma Davis lip syncing to Martha’s vocals. Martha was baffled: “why would they do something like this, eventually someone is going to ask questions as to who is singing”.
The official answer remains elusive, but in Martha’s opinion “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” was released as a single and took off before they were finished with a full album, which would come a month later. Davis sang on the rest of the album’s songs, so Cole and Clivilles did not think it was such a big deal for her to be center stage in the video for this song as well, although she had no part in it. In the scramble to put out the music video, Martha believes they decided to cast Davis and thought “they would get away with it and no one would notice”. “It was wrong, they tried to take away my livelihood”. Almost as an ode to their name, C&C Music Factory became so lost in manufacturing a hit that they used a musician as an uncredited cog in a machine.
Music listeners familiar with Martha Wash’s vocals were perplexed to see Zelma Davis singing her hook on this track
In a coincidental turn of events, a few months later Black Box put out the music video for “Everybody, Everybody” and once again – it featured a different woman (this time it was French fashion model Katrin Quinol) lip syncing Martha’s vocals. The videos for “Strike It Up”, “I Don’t Know Anybody Else” and “Fantasy” featured the same treatment. “I couldn’t believe this was happening again. This is not right, this is not cool”, Martha said. We need to keep in mind here that these were the days where the music business and record labels were mostly responsible for an artist’s promotional image. Music videos were one of the most important sources of seeing and being seen for popular musicians. Having someone else appear in a music video lip syncing to your vocals is perhaps the modern day equivalent to having another person pretend to be you on Instagram. When I asked Martha why these groups chose to have a model lip syncing her vocals, she said that it “could have possibly been my size” and that “they wanted a different person to be at the forefront”. She said “I’ve dealt with this all my life, I wasn’t going to let it get in the way of what I was doing” but to the music industry sometimes “image is everything”.
Martha would not take this unfair treatment lying down. Martha and her attorney Steven A. Brown filed a lawsuit in the Los Angeles Superior Court against David Cole, Robert Clivillés and Sony Music Entertainment for fraud, deceptive packaging and commercial appropriation. In an interview with the New York Times, Brown stated “The state of proper contractual documentation in the music business is deplorable” and “if you branded or labeled a drug, or cookies, the way the music business documents its products, the Government would force them off the shelves”.
The pair also sued RCA Records and Black Box for similar charges. The RCA case was settled out of court a few months later with RCA agreeing to pay Wash a substantial fee for lost wages, sign her to an eight album recording contract and finance her national tour. Additionally, newly released copies of Dreamland credited Martha in the sleeve credits. They also won the Sony case for an undisclosed amount of money. One of the results of the Sony settlement was that a disclaimer had to be played affixed to airings of the “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” music video correcting that the “singer of the song was Martha Wash, the visualization you are seeing is Zelma Davis”.
These were groundbreaking legal cases that set an important precedent for intellectual property in the music industry. According to Rolling Stone federal legislation was introduced following the settlements to “mandate vocal credits on all albums and music videos”. The brackets beside most modern dance tracks and songs with guest appearances that state who is featured on the track are rooted in Martha’s fight for proper credit. “We fought for it and now it is the standard as opposed to someone singing in the background and not getting any credit”, Martha said.
Many believe Martha’s lawsuits spawned an early 1990s crackdown on fraud in the music industry. This culminated in the Milli Vanilli scandal, where the group were caught lip syncing live on MTV and later admitted that they didn’t sing on their records. They had a class action lawsuit filed against them, where 10 million record buyers and concert attendees were eligible for a refund. They also ended up returning their 1990 Grammy award for “Best New Artist”. “The time frame between my cases and Milli Vanilli was so close, it was almost uncanny” states Martha. “It was a worldwide exposure” of the kind of practices Martha fought against.
In a performance in July 1989, Milli Vanilli is caught lip syncing when the track began to skip on “Girl You Know It’s True”. The lawsuit would occur shortly after Martha’s in November of 1990.
These days Martha is still making music and can be found doing a show on YouTube called “Ten Minutes With Martha Wash”. In 2020, she released an album called Love & Conflict. Martha’s voice is incredible over nearly a half hour of amazing soul & R&B tracks. Our favorite track is “Soaring Free” – an upbeat, feel good romp featuring Marth’s voice soaring as free and high as ever!
“Ten Minutes With Martha Wash” sees Martha interviewing classic artists, making vlog style content at her various live shows and even performing some of her most notable songs. Speaking on the interview portion of the show, Martha said “I wanted to see what these artists and musicians have been up to all these years and shine a spotlight on people still working, grinding and doing their thing”. These artists include Shabba Doo, Marsha Warfield, Dorothy Moore and even “It’s Raining Men” writer Paul Shaffer.
Towards the end of the interview, I asked Martha how she feels when she hears either Black Box or C&C Music Factory as of today. She told me that she feels happy and for “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” she thinks “people know my voice and what song it is based off of just those three words”. She also believes that with the advent of the internet, the recognition for singing these tracks has only grown and people have looked her up and heard the music she has put out more recently because of these staple tracks. Through Martha’s fight for credit and how she overcame adversity, she laid the foundation and established the infrastructure for house and dance music to thrive. The relationship between producers and singers within the genre could have looked a lot different without Martha. “I’ve had some of my friends and even people I didn’t know come up to me and say – I’m glad you did what you did”, Martha concluded.
Martha’s story also presents a contrast against what many in the music business believe. The uncanny juxtaposition of Martha’s voice coming from skinny models is a real testament to image not being everything. According to Martha, “it’s not about what you look like, it’s about how you resonate with an audience and how you make them feel”. With Martha’s music being an omnipresent cultural staple of feeling good, I’ll bet you for a third time that her voice has been the soundtrack to some of your good times. Hopefully in the last month.
Special thanks to Simone Denny, Martha Wash and James Washington for their assistance with this article. All photos have been used with permission from Martha and James. You can check out Martha’s YouTube channel here and listen to her album Love & Conflict below:
Newman, Jason. “Meet Martha Wash: The Most Famous Unknown Singer of the ’90s.” Rolling Stone, September 2, 2014. https://www.rollingstone.com/feature/martha-wash-the-most-famous-unknown-singer-of-the-90s-speaks-out-231182/
Pareles, Jon. “Lawsuits Seek Truth In Music Labeling.” The New York Times, December 6, 1990. https://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/06/arts/lawsuits-seek-truth-in-music-labeling.html
Philips, Chuck. “Read Her Lips : R&B; Singer Says Hot Dance Hit Is Lip-Synced.” Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1991. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1991-02-21-ca-2111-story.html