When it comes to belting out powerhouse vocals, few can compare to the inimitable Martha Wash. This legendary diva has racked up a slew of chart-topping hits during a career spanning well over three decades. She is the lead vocalist on C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” (released 1991) which was a massive dancefloor hit. In addition, Martha provided lead vocals on Black Box’s landmark album, “Dreamland” (1990). Despite the phenomenal success of the aforementioned acts, there was one glaring omission from the spotlight: Martha Wash herself.
At that time, Ms. Wash was a much sought after session vocalist within the music industry. Her previous credits included a stint as back-up singer for disco sensation, Sylvester, and as the other half of the bodacious female duo, Two Tons o’ Fun, formed with the late Izora Armstead. They had scored a major hit with “It’s Raining Men” (1982), a dance floor and gay club classic before they disbanded in the late 80’s. Martha was subsequently tapped to do lead vocals for C+C and Black Box. However, she was not credited on the liner notes as the original vocalist. To add further insult to injury, Martha was not included in any of the live performances or music videos promoting the aforementioned acts from that period.
I remember when “Dreamland” took the airwaves by storm during the early 90’s. When “Everybody Everybody” first reached my nubile ears I was like, “Whoa – what’s this?” It was fresh yet soulfully slick, upbeat and ultimately radio friendly. Black Box had accomplished an enormous feat: bringing house music into the mainstream. The stylishly hip video featuring a tall, svelte, attractive sista caught my attention and that of millions of my peers, who were tuned into this new sensation. It received heavy rotation on Much Music and VH1, among other outlets. I thought, “She looks like a model AND she can sing like that? Damn…lucky!” It seemed Black Box had it made. More delectables followed: “I Don’t Know Anybody Else,” “Ride on Time,” “Open Your Eyes,” and “Strike It Up.” Fandom ignited. I bought both Dreamland and the remix c.d. of all the hits from that album. I never thought to question, “Hmmm….who’s really making the music?” I was sold on the image of the attractive sista and the songs themselves, accepting what I was being shown as factual.
A few years later, the proverbial shit hit the fan. The fallout was huge (no pun intended). Martha Wash emerged from the shadows to announce that she was the vocalist behind Black Box’s hits, as well as C+C Music Factory and Seduction (“You’re My One and Only True Love”). It came as a shock to yours truly to know that BB’s frontwoman was a French model who lipsynched her way through live performances and was featured on the cover of the album itself. The message: fat women aren’t pretty enough to be famous (unless they’re funny). Apparently, label execs had decided that Martha was too big to sell records, despite her earlier chart-topping success with The Weather Girls. They somehow managed to convince Martha that her image was “unmarketable” but her chops were solid gold. Gold that they so desperately needed minus the image of the magical goose. One can only imagine the immense emotional anguish Martha suffered, watching from the sidelines as the songs she provided vocals for became massive hits with a skinny model miming her parts while she remained ignored, forgotten.
Wash decided enough was enough and finally put her foot down. She took the labels to court and won, receiving royalties and proper credit for her contributions. As a result of her landmark case, legislation was enacted in the United States, making it mandatory for vocals to be credited on c.d.’s and music videos. At last, Martha had reclaimed her right to be respected not only as a talented singer, but as a human being. Normally, this kind of experience would crush a person with less moxie, but not Martha. She had the absolute audacity, the utter nerve to demand that as a fat woman with formidable talent, nobody could make her invisible any longer.
Ugliness ensued. Remarks were made to the effect that many actually sympathized with the labels’ decision to exclude Martha’s image from their marketing. “Yeah, I can understand why they did that; she’s too big,” was an oft heard sentiment. There was no question that sizewise, Martha Wash was big. But did that give the parties involved the right to discredit her involvement as a vocalist? Hell no! During the scandal that followed, I saw for the first time, pictures of Martha Wash. Personally I thought that although she was plus size, she was very pretty. I could not understand why they would not want to use her image. She wasn’t a size 4 but she was far from hideous. This debacle proved to be an eye opener. I realized that meanness didn’t stop at high school, but continued far beyond it. The people that were grown up, that should know better, really didn’t. If they could misrepresent a singer on their albums and videos, what else were they capable of? Mind you, this incident occurred during the post-Milli Vanilli period. As a result of that scandal, the general public became aware that on occasion, window dressing tactics were covertly employed in the music biz, all in the name of aesthetics. Subsequently, this paved the way for Wash’s case to be recognized as an indication of serious flaws within the system that needed to be rectified, in order to safeguard the integrity of recording artists.
To her credit, Martha recovered, dignity intact, and went on to record number 1 hits under her name such as, “Carry On” and “Give It to You” (1993). The unstoppable soul diva created her own label, Purple Rose, in 2005. She is very active as a performer within the gay community, having supported numerous events and causes. This can be interpreted as Martha’s way of showing gratitude for all the love and support she has received through her many ups and downs. Just as many gays refuse to accept being marginalized about who they are, so did Martha. Her rich, booming voice has graced dance floors around the globe, and that is a testament to her triumph over adversity.
The good news is that attitudes towards plus size women in the music industry are changing, with the success of vocalists like Susan Boyle, Jennifer Hudson and Adele. Record honchos are realizing that at the end of the day, talent matters more than dress size. Consumers are informing them of this fact by supporting artists that, in many instances, resemble them. Any business that ignores this upward trend is guaranteed to miss out – bigtime.
Perhaps Martha Wash’s story serves to exemplify the importance of demanding respect for one’s abilities, in a world that equates thinness with talent and beauty. It is also an example of how we sometimes allow others to dishonour us in order to gain acceptance. Self-negation might seem rewarding in the short term, but often comes at high personal cost in the long run. By remaining silent about exploitation, we give others permission to continue taking advantage of us. Recognizing your own self-worth is key to reclaiming your power. Then and only then can we attain the rewards we so richly deserve. As a true survivor, Martha said it best in “Carry On”:
I stand alone in the eye of the storm
Pressures all around, tryin’ to wear me down
But I hold tight to what I know is right
Still can hear the way, mamma used to say
Never, never let your spirit bend
Never give in, to the end I carry on.
Copyright © 2012 Frankie Diamond. All rights reserved. Excerpts of less than 200 words may be published to another site, including a link back to the original article. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety and posted to another site without the express permission of the author.