During her nearly 50-year-long career, Martha Wash has witnessed the remarkable evolution of both gay culture and disco music.
In fact, her foray into the music industry involved both, as she was a backup singer for gay disco icon Sylvester.
Wash, 69, recalled not even knowing who she was auditioning for when she booked the gig in her 20s. “I thought I was going to audition for some people that wanted background singers or session singers — you know, studio singers,” she said. “I didn’t know I was going to audition for Sylvester.”
Sylvester, or Sylvester James Jr., was a prolific singer who produced disco, blues, soul, and rhythm hits in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a rarity in the industry at the time because he was open about his sexuality. Wash fondly remembers Sylvester, who died in 1988, and the shows they often played at gay clubs together.
Although being gay wasn’t as widely accepted in popular culture back then, Wash — also now considered a gay icon by many — says that reality was always part of her life, and she has long been an LGBTQ+ advocate. “Even before singing for Sylvester, there were kids in my school who were gay, and some of them were my friends, and it’s just always kind of been that way,” Wash says.
Looking back on her career
After working with Sylvester, Wash and fellow backup singer Izora Armstead formed a new group. Together, the two women dubbed themselves Two Tons O’ Fun and later went by the name The Weather Girls. Their best-selling song, “It’s Raining Men,” was written by Paul Jabara and Paul Shaffer and released in 1982.
“Jabara asked us to record the song, and I initially told him I didn’t think anyone would buy the song actually,” Wash recalled. “He pleaded with us to record the song. He had offered it to Diana Ross and Cher and Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer — they all turned it down. The song was basically finished, except for the lead vocal, so we recorded the song a couple of days later in Los Angeles. We walked out of the studio and said, ‘Okay, see you later!’ and went back to doing what we were doing.”
Today, “It’s Raining Men” is an icon of its own, and a go-to tune played at special events from weddings to bar mitzvahs and birthday parties. “It’s just become one of those songs everybody will get on the dance floor and dance to — from the grandparents down to the grandkids. Everybody has fun with that song,” Wash said.
Reflecting on the music industry
Despite her success, being a professional singer wasn’t always easy. Wash noted that during the height of her career, audiences and labels alike seemed to prefer a particular appearance — namely slim performers — and that overall, optics seemed to matter more than talent. “Even though large Black women were noted for their talent, it was the visuals that the business people took into consideration,” she explained.
Wash took a stand against the industry then, and today, she is an independent artist and enjoys experimenting with different genres — a privilege she doesn’t take for granted. Forgoing a record deal is something she encourages younger artists to take a chance on if they can, though she acknowledges that only a small fraction of indie artists get noticed.
These days, Wash also continues to record and perform, most recently on a tour with the First Ladies of Disco. She also remains an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community as well as for people of color. She added that, as far as representation in the industry goes, it’s gotten better — but it has a long way to go.
“I think we’ve all seen down through the years and down through the decades that a lot of people think that people of color and LGBTQ+ people should not be recognized as citizens, as human beings, as part of this country, and as part of this world. It’s wrong,” Wash said. “Nobody lives in this world by themselves. Not everybody is the same, and everybody will never be the same. We can get past the differences of what your skin color is, or the gender that you refer to yourself as, but treat them as a human being — just another person who will possibly one day save your life. If that happened, I think this world would be a whole lot better.”