Tag Archives: disco

Black History Month 2013: Martha Wash

13 Feb

MWashToday we honor and celebrate an amazing singer whose perseverance has made the music industry a more just place while entertaining millions and advocating for social justice. Martha Wash was born in 1953 in San Francisco. By her early 20s she was already known as a powerhouse vocalist. She teamed with Izora Rhodes Armstead as regular vocalists with gay disco icon Sylvester. Celebrating their big voices and ample frames, the duo billed themselves as Two Tons O’ Fun.

Two Tons pursued their own career starting in 1980, recording two albums that were very successful on the dance charts. Their first brush with pop stardom came when songwriters Paul Jabara and Paul Shaffer offered them a song that had been rejected by Donna Summer, Barbra Streisand, and many others. They renamed themselves the Weather Girls and had a huge international smash with It’s Raining Men. The track also solidified Wash’s credentials as a diva of the gay scene, an honor she has embraced throughout her career. Izora moved to Europe in the late 90s and Wash began planning a solo career.

In the meantime, Wash did session work with a number of producers. In 1989 and 1990, her voice was everywhere as she sang on hits credited to Seduction and Black Box. She had been led to believe that she was creating guide vocals or demos, but the producers were so impressed with her voice that she ended up on the final products. Sadly, she was not given vocal credit, however, and Black Box used French model Katrin Quinol as the face of the songs. Infuriated with the lack of credit, low scale compensation, and clear discrimination against her size in the video realm, Wash sued Sony music. She received an undisclosed settlement that included credit and royalties. Occurring in the wake of the Milli Vanilli scandal, her actions also changed music industry law, requiring proper credit and royalties for anyone used as a lead vocalist.

Besides her amazing talent and business determination, Martha Wash has used her fame and fortune for social justice. She is active in charitable work for autism and is the official spokesperson for Quality Services for the Autism Community. She is also a staunch supporter of gay rights and an outspoken advocate for marriage equality.

Look, from my perspective, there have been more gay couples who’ve stayed together longer than straight couples. My feeling is, if you are a citizen of the United States, you should have all rights and liberties of everybody else. If you’re paying taxes like everybody else, why can’t you have the full commitment from the United States government, from marriage on down?

Recognizing her debt to her early gay fans, she is flattered by the many drag performers that cover her songs. She also enjoys telling stories of the many people who have told her they came out while one of her songs was playing.Wash was part of the opening ceremonies at the first OutGames in 2006 and performs many benefits.

Having come to fame during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, she is also a strong advocate for the HIV+ community. She has no patience for those who stigmatize the LGBT community for the disease or for those who marginalize those impacted by HIV. On World AIDS Day in 2012 she was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the AIDS Emergency Fund for her ceaseless advocacy and fundraising.

Martha Wash isn’t resting on her laurels, however. She started her own label, Purple Rose, and released her first full album in 20 years on January 10, 2013. Something Good proves she’s lost none of her vocal fire and is aptly named for her presence in the world.

Celebrating Donna Summer

20 May

I was truly saddened to learn that the Queen of Disco had died. Donna Summer, a staple of the music of my youth and definer of a generation, succumbed to lung cancer at the young age of 63 last week.

LaDonna Adrian Gaines was born in Boston in 1948. She began singing in church and joined a band, Crow, while in high school. Crow failed to land a record deal and broke up, so she went to New York, where she auditioned for Hair in 1967. Losing the part to Melba Moore, Gaines accepted an offer to join the cast of the musical in Munich. She became fluent in German and began a successful singing career in Germany and Austria. She had a brief marriage to Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer, which gave her her daughter, Mimi, and the last name that — with a vowel switch — became legendary.

She hooked up with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, who helped her craft her sound. She had the bare bones of a song which they helped finish. In 1975, it became her first international hit, Love to Love You Baby, taking her to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Over the next three years she ruled the U.S. Dance charts (with eight top tens, five of which spent a total of 21 weeks at #1) but only managed one more pop Top 10, I Feel Love. In 1978, as disco fever began to sweep America, her persistence paid off.

Quickly gaining her crown as the Queen of Disco, Summer continued her Dance chart dominance and became a force to be reckoned with on the Hot 100, R&B, and Album charts. Unlike many other disco stars (such as the Bee Gees), she continued to evolve her sound, maintaining a strong chart presence into the 21st Century. Among her many awards were five Grammys (with an additional 12 nominations). Her Billboard chart performance is also remarkable.

  • On the Hot 100, she was the #16 artist of the 70s (really only charting for three years of the decade), in the top 50 of the 80s, and comes in at #53 overall. She racked up four #1s, spending 13 weeks at the top, and another 10 Top 10 hits. She hit the top 40 every year from 1976 to 1984, a run beating the likes of Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney and only exceeded by Elton John for those decades.
  • On the R&B chart, she is the #76 performer overall, with two #1s and a dozen Top 10s.
  • On the Dance chart, she comes in at #3 overall, beaten only by Madonna and Janet Jackson, whose careers owe much to the Queen. She had 24 Top 10s, 12 of which went to #1, spending an incredible 48 weeks at the top.
  • On the Album chart she comes in at #137 with three #1s for eight weeks. She’s the #18 female solo artist on that chart and is the only performer to hit the top three times with double albums.

All the awards aside, she’s also an icon. As the pre-eminent singer of the era when the gay community was finding its voice and before the AIDS crisis, she became one of the biggest gay divas. This relationship became strained when it was rumored that she used her Christian faith to bash the “gay lifestyle” but she fervently denied the charges and apologized for the misconceptions. She also raised money for AIDS causes and allowed free use of her song She Works Hard for the Money by feminist organizations. She leaves behind her three daughters and her husband of 32 years, Bruce Sudano.

I had left  Donna Summer behind by the time I met my husband thirteen years ago. She was a major part of his formative years –he even performed along to  Last Dance in his room in his platform shoes — so he reintroduced me to her music. It was a joy to learn her music again and enjoy it together. She was a powerful singer and a unique talent. Farewell, gracious Queen, let’s dim all the lights.

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