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The Original Weather Girl

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Martha Wash’s Grammy-nominated music stands the test of time
In the wide range of contemporary vocalists, there’s hardly a one that comes close to matching the powerhouse voice of Martha Wash, whose booming vocals have put an extravagant Midas touch on numerous popular hip-shaking dance tunes, including C + C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).”

Wash’s musical career began in the late ’70s as one half of the disco group Two Tons of Fun alongside Izora Rhodes, and she found herself backing up the celebrated entertainer Sylvester during their over-the-top shows. In the early ’80s, Two Tons morphed into The Weather Girls and released their chart-busting single “It’s Raining Men,” which remains one of the hottest dance tunes of modern times and is regarded as an anthem for everyone from the gay community to the female empowerment set, even after almost 30 years. In 2004, Wash started her own imprint, Purple Rose Records, and hasn’t looked back during her illustrious musical journey.

Recently, Wash brought the house down at the 2011 Tony Awards during her performance of “It’s Raining Men” with the Broadway cast of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, showering a spellbound audience with her precious gift. She’s also got an emotionally riveting new single, “I’ve Got You,” out now and she’s busy polishing things up in the studio for an exciting new CD that will follow soon. New Orleans Living chatted up the Original Weather Girl on an especially hot and humid day just before the kickoff of the 40th annual celebration of Southern Decadence and discovered why this sweetheart of a woman with the golden pipes has earned her crown as the “raining” queen of dance music.

Hello Martha! You’re doing well?

Yes, but it’s just so hot!

Talking weather with the Original Weather Girl! How cool!

Exactly! (Laughs). Exactly.

It seems like yesterday, but next year marks the 30th anniversary of The Weather Girls’ platinum hit “It’s Raining Men.”

I was just a baby!

Well, honey, we’re all 29 forever, right? Congratulations on this amazing milestone.

Thank you! Thank you.

You really rocked the house with your performance of “It’s Raining Men” with the cast of Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the recent Tony Awards. How much fun did you have that night?

Oh, that was so much fun! I still get scared before I go onstage, but I did have a lot of fun with the cast; they are great! I’ll always remember waiting backstage until almost the end of the show to go on. It was really nice to see a lot of different celebrities and people from television and theater, and it was nice having people come up to me after the show and tell me how much they enjoyed my performance, like Tamara Tunie, who plays the medical examiner on Law & Order: SVU. That was thrilling. I’m fans of theirs and come to find out, they enjoy what I do.

Very nice! The Weather Girls earned a Grammy nomination – and of course an indelible place in pop culture history – with “It’s Raining Men.”

A lot of people don’t know that we were nominated for a Grammy with that song. We didn’t win, but we were nominated. Chaka Kahn won for “I Feel for You.”

So how does it make you feel to know this song has truly stood the test of time?

It’s amazing, actually. When we were first asked to do the song, Paul Jabara, who had written the song with Paul Shaffer, asked us to his home in LA for lunch while we were down there doing shows. The main reason he wanted us there was because he wanted us to record that song. And we laughed and laughed – and laughed some more, and said, “You’ve got to be kidding!” And he said, “No, I really, really want you to do this song” and I said, “Paul you really don’t expect somebody to record this song, do you?” And he said, “Yes I do!” He said that Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Donna Summer and Cher had all turned it down, so I guess we were his last resort. (Laughs). Then again, thinking back on it, could you imagine them recording that song?

No one could have delivered it like ya’ll did!

I believe it was meant to be that we were supposed to record that song. We went into the studio a day or so later, not really thinking about it and recorded it in about 90 minutes, walked out of the studio and said, “OK Paul, see you later!” And that was it. He sent it out white label with nobody’s name on it or anything and begged people to play the song. And that’s really how it started. It really grew from the clubs and finally on to radio.

I’m not sure if you are aware of this, but according to Billboard Magazine, The Parade, known as the best gay dance bar of the day in the French Quarter, was the first club in the country to debut “It’s Raining Men.”

Really! I didn’t know that. I had no idea.

You know, there’s even a beautiful red nail polish from Deborah Lippmann called “It’s Raining Men.”  I’m wearing it now.

What! Are you serious? Really! Interesting, for sure. I definitely have to check that out. Oh my.

Yep, what a classic song. So you’re originally from San Francisco, and you got your start working in the ’70s as a background singer with one of the greatest dance artists ever, the legendary Sylvester. Tell us about how your connection with him helped launch your career.

Well, funny enough, I had actually seen Sylvester a few years before I actually met him. He was the opening act for Billy Preston, who I had always loved, over in Berkeley. Sylvester came on and I just stood there and looked at him and asked, “Who is this guy and where did he come from?” The band was tight and his vocals were … I’ve never heard anything like it. I mean, he was great. And then a few years later I get a call from a friend of mine, saying, go over to this place because they want to audition singers, so I go over and there were two thin blonde white girls, and I spoke to Sylvester briefly, told him I saw a couple of his shows with Billy Preston and he asked me to audition. I did, and he told the other girls that they could leave and he asked me, “Do you know of any other woman that’s as large as you are that can sing?” And I brought in Izora a few days later and after that, it’s history. We sang with him for over four years, and his producer thought we should record our own album, and that’s how Two Tons of Fun got started.

Neat story. So what’s it like to be known as “The Voice”?

Well, it is a compliment, but it’s something I don’t trip on. I’m flattered but because of all the controversy that went on years ago, they call me “The Voice.”

Right, yours is the powerful voice behind C + C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” And after C + C Music Factory’s label dubbed you as “unmarketable” and cast a skinny model for the song’s music video, you successfully sued to receive the proper credit and the appropriate royalties as a vocalist.

Right, exactly. I sued them because it was false advertising, and also to get proper credit for my vocal performance and to let people know that what you saw in the video wasn’t accurate. I did go on to record another CD with them, so it all worked out with C + C Music Factory. And basically the same thing happened with Black Box; the videos were put out with another person singing and I had to take legal action. I was awarded a record contract out of that one, so that’s how my first CD came about.

Your courtroom efforts spurred legislation history within the music industry by requiring vocal credits to be mandatory on CDs and music videos today.

That’s the way it should be. Do you really want somebody else taking credit for the work you’ve done? That was the business, and some of these businesses think they can get away with it.

Speaking of music videos, I absolutely love your video for your new single “I’ve Got You.” I mean, you are hands down the Queen of Clubland, period! But girl, you take us to church on that song! Your vocals are superb and truly inspiring. I got a little teary-eyed myself watching it.

Thank you, thank you! That’s what we want to happen! You want it to move people. That’s what we were counting on and that’s the response from many people. They say, “It left me in tears, it moved me so much,” and that’s a good thing. We want people to be able to take what they see from that video and to feel it for themselves.

Even six years after the fact, I discovered that a lot of folks here in town who were affected by the Katrina devastation have found inspiration in your lyrics quite simply by embracing the people in their lives that they are thankful for, like the song says.

Oh, that’s a beautiful thing. You know, everybody needs a helping hand, everybody is going through something; it may not be the same thing the next person is going through, but at times people feel like they are alone; they don’t know where to turn and sometimes when you talk to other people, you find out you’re not going through it alone. If we can just keep reaching out to our friends, neighbors, families and even total strangers and just say: I got ya. I understand. And I may not understand it all, but I can empathize with where you are.

We’re glad to hear that New Orleans is one of your favorite cities.  Tell me about some of the places you like to visit when in town.

I definitely like the Quarter. I just love the architecture. I’ve always thought those buildings were just cute and quaint, and I have to say, I do like the casinos! (Laughs). I think the Quarter has always been my favorite place. Always. I like a good jambalaya. That’s my favorite. Just don’t put any fish heads in there. Some people do, and if that’s what they like, fine, but just set something over to the side with no fish heads please!

(Laughs). No, you don’t want those things eyeing you up at the dinner table!

I don’t want anything staring at me! No! (Laughs).

New Orleans is gearing up for another wild Southern Decadence Weekend for Labor Day weekend; tell me about some of the past Decadence events that you’ve attended here.

The last one I did was about four years ago, and Lord, it was hot, humid and bodies were everywhere. (Laughs). It’s so hot, you want to be as naked as you possibly can be, legally! (Laughs). But it was a great time. Everybody had fun and usually a good friend of mine, Jeanie Tracy, does it often and she was down there when I was there, so we had a really good time with the music, eating and all that stuff.

You have an amazing gift through your talent. How does it make you feel when people respond to your music in a profound way?

It’s – I call it really a blessing that I’ve been able to help people through music. A lot of people have told me, “Your music has really touched me or really helped me” and some people have even told me, “Your music saved my life” – literally. I’ve had people come up and tell me they were thinking about taking their life and put some of my music on and it helped them see that it was not the way. We’re all human beings; we have our failures and our successes but sometimes you wonder if you’re on the right path, and when I get those kinds of responses from people, I guess I’m doing the right thing and trying to do something good in my way as a singer.

You started your own music label in 2004, Purple Rose Records, and you released the soulful and dance inspired tune “You Lift Me Up,” which shot to Top 5 on the Billboard Dance Chart. And you’re working on a new CD now that’ll be on your label, too.

Yes, I’m working on the CD now in the studio and I’m continuing to promote “I’ve Got You.” We’re trying for the end of the year or earlier next year to have the CD out; slowly but surely!

I can’t wait for it, because whenever I hear your music, it’s just impossible not to move! You gotta bust a move or do something with yourself. How do you feel when you hear your music at a party or in a movie or something, ’cause your music tends to pop up somewhere.

(Laughs). I just laugh! I just laugh and keep going. And I say to myself, “OK!” (Laughs). And honey, just wait, you haven’t heard anything yet!

-CHRISTINE FONTANA