It’s Raining Men!

Richard Burnett
There are great voices and then there is the voice of legendary dance diva Martha Wash, whose soaring powerhouse vocals propelled such classic hits as Everybody Dance Now, Gonna Make You Sweat and It’s Raining Men to the top of the charts worldwide. But when the Queen of Clubland got her start in the 1970s, singing backup with her friend Izora Armstead for the great gay disco superstar Sylvester, Martha scandalized her religious family.

“I remember telling them I was going to sing in nightclubs and they were not happy!” Wash, now 59, told me in our most recent interview. “But as time passed they became supportive and even came to a few shows.”

Wash and Armstead shot to international fame as Two Tons of Fun singing on Sylvester’s disco classics You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and Dance (Disco Heat) which both peaked at number one for six consecutive weeks in 1978.

By 1982, Wash and Armstead renamed themselves The Weathergirls, went solo and recorded one of the most difficult-ever songs to sing, It’s Raining Men – and they did it in 90 minutes flat.

Then Paul Jabara, who co-wrote the song with Canadian Paul Shaffer of David Letterman fame, started pounding the pavement: “He took acetates to all the DJs at all the clubs where it became a big hit before radio picked it up.”

To mark the classic song's 30th anniversary, Wash performed It's Raining Men with Paul Shaffer on The Late Show with David Letterman in October.

But filming the song’s memorable video – it featured hunky bodybuilders falling from the sky – was difficult.

“God, that was a cheesy video!” Martha laughs. “We filmed it in an abandoned building [in NYC] in the dead of winter. There was no heat and everybody was wearing [winter] coats. That part in the video where we fall out of the sky, well, we landed on these mattresses and found out [the next day] they were infested with bugs. For days afterwards Izora and I were scratching [ourselves]! It was awful!”

Worse, in the years to come, showbiz suits deemed Wash’s image “unmarketable” and got models to lip-synch Martha’s vocals in her massive Black Box and C+C Music Factory hits. So our girl Martha sued for proper vocal credit and royalties. She not only won, but her victory led to U.S. legislation making vocal credits mandatory on records and videos.

Martha’s triumph over the mostly white and largely straight music establishment cemented her icon status in a gay community that worships big-voiced, larger-than-life divas. Wash knows it and loves her gay fans back unconditionally. “Gay audiences love me because I began singing with Sylvester. It started there.”

But there’s more to it than that. I’ve met and seen Martha perform live many times, at circuit parties, at Divers/Cité and countless AIDS benefits.

“I moved to New York in late 1984, and between 1985 and 1990 I was so mad because everybody said AIDS was a gay disease,” Martha says. “It put such a stigma on the gay community and that was wrong. I had to do something and it was very grassroots back then. I was doing benefits to raise money to open hospices. That’s how it started [for me].
“My worst period was in the mid-’90s when for a week I got a call every day about someone I knew who had passed [from AIDS],” Martha sighs. “It ravaged my circle of friends.”

Even her dear friend Sylvester would die of AIDS at the age of 41 in 1988.

“Today I’m happy to see the [drug] cocktails are making people live longer,” Martha adds, before asking me, “Do you think there will be a cure?”

“I really don’t know,” I reply. “But I do have hope. Without hope how do any of us get out of bed in the morning?”

All of this health talk reminds Martha and I about working out, something we both loathe.

When Martha headlined Montreal’s 2006 World Outgames, she had lost a whopping 80 pounds. Today she still works out to keep those pounds off. “I have a treadmill in front of my TV and I still don’t like getting on it!”

But Martha – whose just-released new solo album Something Good (Purple Rose Records) features a cover of the Aerosmith classic Dream On – still shakes her groove thing on stage. She loves to dance, especially when belting out It’s Raining Men.

“People used to say ‘disco sucks’ and ‘disco died’ but they still keep playing it,” Martha says happily. “Today they call it dance music, but it’s still the same. It’s happy music. And as long as people want to keep on dancing, I’ll keep on singing too!”

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