Everybody Everybody (But One) Dance Now: The Diva Erasure Of Martha Wash Revisited

Everybody Everybody (But One) Dance Now: The Diva Erasure Of Martha Wash Revisited

Beneath the platinum largesse, the ’90s were an ethical turning point for the pop music business. This was the decade where capital-A Authenticity became one of pop’s biggest artistic crises, a long-simmering culmination of the arguments around the distorting tropes of MTV, the legal and artistic arguments around sampling, and the underground scenes battling over the price of selling out. And while the story of Martha Wash and the lawsuits she filed 20 years ago don’t neatly overlap every one of these categories, they do help point out just how complicated the subjects of attribution and creative input can be when so many people have a vested interest in keeping it all under wraps. It’s not an unfamiliar story, but it’s a revealing one.

Dance music’s recovery from the disco backlash was never really close to 100% by the time the ’80s played out the clock, but when it came to notching pop crossover hits, 1990 wasn’t too far away from 1977. Madonna and Janet Jackson were as big in clubland as they were on the Top 40, Latin freestyle had significantly shaped the contemporary sound of pop, and the dance charts that year were an embarrassment of riches: Lisa Stansfield’s “All Around The World,” Snap’s “The Power,” Beats International’s “Dub Be Good To Me,” Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart,” C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” and Black Box’s “Everybody Everybody” all hit #1 that year.

Martha Wash’s voice appears on those latter two songs — and there’s a reason I’m using the phrase “Wash’s voice appears on” instead of “Wash had a guest spot on.” Detractors like to refer to the (usually Black women) divas who sing dance record hooks as “anonymous,” but for Wash, that’s what actually happened to her — at least on paper. It’s hard to consider anyone who’d been singing on hits for as long as she did to be anonymous in a vocal sense: a backup singer for Sylvester as one half of Two Tons O’ Fun alongside Izora Armstead, she notched her first Dance/Disco #1 with him for “Dance (Disco Heat),” then another in ’82 when TTOF rebranded as the Weather Girls and had a smash dance hit with the camp-done-sincerely “It’s Raining Men.” While the Weather Girls’ success was comparatively sporadic after that, Wash’s presence as a session singer graced Aretha Franklin’s ’85 #3 pop hit “Freeway Of Love,” Bob Seger’s 1986 future truck-commercial mainstay “Like A Rock,” and Grace Jones’ #1 Billboard Hot Club Dance Play hit “Love On Top Of Love,” the second-to-last #1 on that chart for the ’80s. She was pretty hard not to hear.

So Wash had connections, at least if you dug deep enough. But when there’s artists to be jerked around, the record industry will happily oblige. And Wash’s popularity as a vocalist in the late ’80s and early ’90s came with a price: Those two #1 dance hits, and an earlier Top 40 single — Seduction’s “(You’re My One And Only) True Love” — were built from her vocal work in ways that were integral to the songs, but were otherwise largely treated like uncleared samples. The Seduction song came from a 1989 session where she recorded it as a demo — one that was produced by David Cole, who co-founded C+C Music Factory with Robert Clivillés that same year. When Cole and Clivillés gave the song to Seduction, still something of a work-in-progress studio project, they kept Wash’s vocals at the forefront, albeit pitch-tweaked in an attempt to obscure their true origins, and kept the ostensible headliners as backup singers.

This was dicey enough — but it was a pattern. That same summer, a house music group from Italy called Black Box pulled the same stunt: get Wash to cut a demo, but keep her vocals and leave her uncredited, scoring a two-fer under this method with “Everybody Everybody” and earlier hit “I Don’t Know Anybody Else.” Black Box gave it all a particularly noticeable twist, though: Concurrent with the rise and eventual fall of Milli Vanilli, the group hired a ringer, a French model named Katrin Quinol, to lip-sync Wash’s vocals in both videos and live performances. The implication was clear: Whether it was due to her size, her age, or some other factor, Wash wasn’t considered a good public face for her own voice.

And then, even as Wash had started the proceedings for a lawsuit against Black Box in the fall of 1990 for failure to credit her on their songs, C+C Music Factory put out their debut single “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” and did it again: the same production braintrust as Seduction, the same video lip-sync shtick as Black Box (this time, with Zelma Davis as the ringer, though she could actually sing in her own right). Again, it lifted pieces of Wash’s demo-song vocals for its lead vocal, and while just out-and-out stating that Wash was the featured singer doesn’t seem like it would have stifled the single’s clear hit potential — given her chops, it might’ve boosted it — C+C cut her out of the credits entirely.

Once is a mistake, twice is a coincidence, three times is a potential industry standard — what else could Wash do but agitate to get her own? When your voice appears on a bunch of big hits but nothing else about you does, that’s not a good way to get paid, much less recognized — even when there’s something distinct about the gospel-hewn virtuoso fervor Wash brought to her performances. And in fighting for her share, Wash broke the firmament between the old showbiz of anonymous session players and the contemporary state of guest-artist attributions.

For one thing, Wash was paid a flat rate to cut her demos, ones that were intended to be used as examples or guide tracks for other singers. Instead, Wash’s vocals being used as leads or major components meant they were able to pay a cut-rate price for a top-notch singer — less than $1,000 for “Gonna Make You Sweat,” for instance. And there was a precedent that it was no big deal to get caught: When Black Box tried using an uncleared sample of Loleatta Holloway’s “Love Sensation” for their ’89 single “Ride On Time” and incurred a big dispute with Holloway’s label Salsoul, they simply re-recorded Holloway’s vocals with another singer, future M People lead Heather Small. The idea was that eventually something would get worked out between Salsoul, Holloway, and Black Box’s label BMG. It didn’t, and Holloway earned jack shit from a #1 single that, for at least a brief moment, featured her voice.

Then there’s the whole insult-to-(royalties)-injury factor. Having her very appearance concealed and her voice transposed into someone younger, skinnier, and more MTV-friendly cut deep to Wash, who’d spent most of her career deeply aware of how rare it was for women who looked like her to be pop stars in an image-conscious industry. It was one thing to put a bikini-clad model in the video to Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker” pantomiming the sax that was actually sampled from Lafayette Afro Rock Band’s “Darkest Light,” but this was something more drastic. While C+C rapper Freedom Williams insinuated as much — “I’d rather look at Zelma onstage,” he told A Current Affair — Wash never fully confirmed that her appearance was a significant reason her contributions were downplayed.

A 1992 Greg Kot piece for the Chicago Tribune — which euphemistically calls her “robust” — gives David Cole’s side of the story: Wash suing over Cole’s other project with Seduction, and not some supposed lack of photogenic appeal, was what led him to decide that her image and name couldn’t be associated with C+C. Clivillés also later told Rolling Stone that he invited Wash to become a full member of the group, but she declined because she was “pursuing her R&B career and wanted to be taken seriously in the R&B market at that time,” which is why they brought Zelma Davis in to take her place. To Davis’ credit, when she did the video for “Gonna Make You Sweat,” she was initially skeptical over what she was doing pantomiming lyrics that weren’t sung by her — at which point the higher-ups told her to keep her mouth shut. Tellingly, Wash was never thanked when C+C won a 1991 MTV Video Music Award for the video that would be legally forced to add her name to the credits in 1994. (Davis was, cryptically, re-credited for “visualization.”)

The problem, at least for Seduction and Black Box and C+C, was that more than enough people in the industry recognized Wash’s voice when they heard it that word got around anyways. People started asking questions, and soon enough Wash realized that those demo tracks she’d recorded for other singers weren’t actually using those other singers. The ensuing lawsuits covered the aforementioned songs by Seduction, Black Box, and C+C Music Factory, as well as a number of other Black Box singles that pulled the same stunt, with the most prominent case being Wash’s $500,000 fraud suit against Cole, Clivillés, and CBS/Sony that was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount. That’s also how she settled her suits with Seduction’s label A&M and Black Box’s label RCA — the latter of whom didn’t even know it was Wash providing the vocals on the album in the first place.

But more than the settlements, Wash made it clear that not only was the Milli Vanilli charade not an isolated incident, it was the kind of regular practice that could screw over artists — and if someone as experienced as Wash had to deal with it, who knows how younger, more aspiring singers could’ve been screwed over. In the end, it was another case where the wronged artist saw more wrongdoing on the part of the labels than her erstwhile musical collaborators, since it was the record companies who had the bottom-line tunnel vision necessary to overlook these kinds of affronts to artist autonomy. Maybe that’s why the money is the less salient result of the lawsuits: What really matters is her getting the proper credit for … getting the proper credit.

Of course, one other direct result was that RCA’s parent company BMG Records not only settled the suit, but signed Wash to an eight-year, eight-album contract. The first album she released with them, a self-titled ’93 release, notched two more #1 Billboard Dance Chart hits and her first as a solo artist (“Carry On” and “Give It To You”). The following year, C+C Music Factory finally brought Wash into the fold for second album Anything Goes!, touring with her and giving her a couple feature spots, including a co-billed turn with Zelma Davis and Latin freestyle group Trilogy on #1 Dance hit “Do You Wanna Get Funky.” Not that there would be mistaking her voice for any other’s at this point, but at least Martha Wash’s status as one of the biggest hitmakers in dance music was official.

From there on out it was, at least for Wash, water under the bridge: She made her peace with the producers who went behind her back, and might have been a long-running part of C+C Music Factory’s history along with her own solo career if David Cole hadn’t passed away from AIDS-related spinal meningitis less than six months after the release of Anything Goes! The RCA/BMG deal didn’t actually extend the whole eight albums, but she did keep notching solo hits and guest spots — including an “It’s Raining Men” redux with RuPaul — and formed her own indie label, Purple Rose Records, which released her album Love & Conflict earlier this year.

And C+C Music Factory? They’re embroiled in their own internal conflict, with Freedom Williams attempting to claim an ownership over the group’s identity and Clivillés battling him all the way. (That this happened at the same time Williams, suffering from a non-starter solo career, scored a coup by appearing on the album version of Chris Rock’s Puff Daddy spoof “Champagne” might be questionably relevant, but I bring it up because, weirdly enough, he was replaced in the video version by Kool Rock-Ski from the Fat Boys.) So who knows who’s getting all that Pringles commercial money now.

Stereogum’s launch week is presented with limited advertising thanks to support from POLLEN, Spotify’s genre-less playlist that aims to expose curious listeners to all types of great new music. Check out Pollen here and look for brand new playlists from Stereogum’s editorial team throughout this week here.

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