1990 was the best of times and the worst of times for Martha Wash. Sure, she was getting work thanks to her phenomenal voice, which first came to prominence as a background vocalist for disco diva Sylvester in the late ’70s then later as a member of the duo Two Tons O’ Fun aka The Weather Girls with Izora Armstead in the early ’80s. After Wash and Armstead parted ways, Martha went on to record a slew of hits that turned the group C+C Music Factory into an overnight sensation in 1990 and made the group Black Box a force to be reckoned with in house music that same year. The major issue was that in both cases it was Wash’s voice that you were hearing, but it wasn’t Wash who you were seeing in music videos and “live” performances. Instead, the overweight stunner was replaced by thinner women who lip-synced her vocals Milli Vanilli style. In the case of C+C Music Factory, they only used her talents on one song–their massive hit “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” But for the debut of Italian outfit Black Box, she sang all but three of the songs on Dreamland. Truth be told, this could have been considered Martha Wash’s debut album.
But Black Box wasn’t having that. The face of Black Box was a “model” named Katrin (real name Catherine Quinol) who fronted the group comprised of Italian studio musicians, Daniele Davoli, Mirko Limoni and Valerio Semplici. I remember when the video for “Everybody Everybody” came out, I scratched my head trying to figure out how a woman who looked like a man trying to look like a woman was a better choice than Wash whose only strike was that she wasn’t bite size. But Katrin had the look they wanted on lock and although she played the role of singer rather unconvincingly, that wasn’t even the worst of it. As if having some talentless twig lip-sync your music wasn’t bad enough, Martha Wash wasn’t even credited for her work on Dreamland. Coupled with the C+C controversy, Wash took both groups to court alongside RCA Records for not receiving proper credit and won the case.
Not only did Black Box do Martha Wash dirty, they also tried to get over on another soul powerhouse, Loleatta Holloway, and songwriter/producer Dan “I Can Dream About You” Hartman by jacking their 1980 club hit “Love Sensation” for the monstrous single “Ride On Time” without permission. That became another legal battle and Black Box had to surrender the majority of the song’s royalties to Hartman in the judgment.
Hoodwinking and bamboozling aside, Dreamland is actually one of my favorite albums from 1990. Black Box might have been shady as hell, but they knew how to make a funky acid house groove. Aside from the aforementioned tracks, other notable jams include the party starter “Strike It Up,” “I Don’t Know Anybody Else,” “Open Your Eyes” and the surprisingly delightful remake of Earth Wind & Fire‘s “Fantasy.” By the time they released their second album in 1995, it was pretty much a wrap for Black Box–as it should have been without the vocal talents of Wash and Holloway to carry the group. Lord knows that the only thing Katrin could carry was a purse.
The sad thing is that 20 years after this debacle, Martha Wash, whose legitimate debut album was released in 1993 and still performs here and there, probably still couldn’t get a major label deal because of her weight and now people who can’t sing at all are superstars thanks to the aid of machines and computer programs. It’s enough to make you want to holler and throw up both your hands.