Izora Rhodes Armstead
Born: 7-6-1942 Died: 9-16-2004
(
Heart Failure)
    Success was a long time in coming for bay-area natives Martha Wash and Izora Armstead. Their story begins in 1976 when fellow choir members Martha and Izora begin gaining notoriety in the San Francisco gospel group
N.O.W. (
News Of The World). The angelic ladies were about to meet the devilish Sylvester in what would be a career changing event for all involved. Sylvester was already a semi-legend in Frisco's gay underworld as a
member of the comic drag revue
"The Cockettes." He had begun realizing his dream of becoming a singer by recording two albums with a quasi-rock group. The albums were released on the California-based Blue Thumb
Records. The two albums by Sylvester and The Hot Band were only locally successful. So Sylvester was ready to leave behind the glitter-rock and tailor his act for the emerging disco boom. Martha read about an audition
for a female singer and decided to give it a go.
"The whole audition lasted about five minutes" recalled Wash. "Sylvester said 'You're just the person I've been looking for. Do you know anyone else as big as you are that
can sing?' I said yeah and called Izora that night."
Later Sylvester recalled "I was just not into those skinny black chicks that would 'ooh' and 'aaah,' I wanted some big bitches who could wail."
    The Two Tons O' Fun, as Rhodes had coined the duo, were no ordinary background group. Naturally Sylvester in his sequined gowns and feathered boas led the spectacle, but Martha and Izora were as much an integral
part of the singers hit records and sell-out performances. Two extra-large gospel singers and a flaming drag queen might seem an unusual match but it was clear that they had a chemistry that went beyond the footlights.
Wash sang soprano, Rhodes had a growling contralto and Sylvester, his creamy baritone was as strong as his highly recognized falsetto, tapped into raw sexuality and soulful spirituality.
    Beginning with 1977's
"Sylvester" the Tons recorded four albums with Sylvester. 1978's "Step 2" with the powerhouse hits "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real" and "Dance (Disco Heat)," 1979's "Stars" with the title hit
and
"I Who Have Nothing," and ending with 1979's "Living Proof."
    
By 1979 Martha and Izora wanted to go solo. Sylvester's producer, Harvey Fuqua, who had worked at Motown in it's heyday and sang with Marvin Gaye in the Moonglows agreed to handle their production duties for his
Honey Records. The 1980 release
"Two Tons O' Fun" was an instant success. The two 12" singles "I Got The Feeling" backed with "Just Us" and "Earth Can Be Just Like Heaven" were bona fide #-1 club smashes. "Feeling"
had fellow San Franciscan Patrick Cowley on synthesizers and
"Earth" was remixed by New York legend Robbie Leslie. Both were promotional-only releases and are still highly sought-after collectors items. The album also
had the radio ballad hit
"Trying To Take Away Your Space." 1981's "Backatcha" unfortunately wasn't as successful. No 12" singles were issued but the album still had two minor club hits with "I Depend On You" and "It's
True, I Do."
As musical tastes were changing and disco was dying the label folded and the ladies seemed destined for the has-been heap.
    In late 1980, between their two albums, I had the opportunity to work with Martha and Izora. Their 45 minute set was so powerful that they literally had the mirrors in the club steamed up and the crowd went wild.
The only things I remember about meeting them was that they were both really sweet and very funny. And that their contract rider called for a case of Dr. Pepper to be in their dressing room. I also remember Izora talking
about her weight and making the comment
"Honey when I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror..... it's just there!" It's obvious they didn't need choreography or super model bodies or anything else that would
be required of dance music singers in the eighties or nineties to be successful. They could be big, beautiful, righteous and just open their mouths and let loose.
    By 1982 label-less and hit-less the divas were asked by disco songwriting legend Paul Jabara to be a part of his latest project. They recorded three tracks for him
"Hope" a gospel-tinged dance cut. The Diana Ross co-
penned
"Ladies Hotline" and a campy number entitled "It's Raining Men." Needless to say with the release of "Men" on a 12" single the rest is history. The tune hit #-1 on the club charts and crossed over to pop radio
introducing them to a new mainstream audience as the newly christened
Weathergirls, while reconfirming their gay cult status. It was so popular that they recut it as the holiday camper "Dear Santa Bring Me A Man This
Christmas,"
which was their second 12" single for their new label Columbia. Subsequent 12" singles varied in strength and popularity. From "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" and "No One Can Love You
More
Than Me" on the strong side to the mediocre "Love You Like A Train" to the absolutely retched "Well-A-Wiggy." Perhaps because their first pop hit for Columbia Records was a novelty camp tune they never
seemed to get the respect they deserved. Or for that matter the material, producers or promotion either. After three declining albums the label dropped them.
    As the eighties neared the end so too did the Weathergirls. After their breakup in 1988 Izora returned to married family life while Martha slipped behind the scenes. Wash sang background and lead vocals for some of
the industry's heavy-hitters. Around the mid 1990's, a scandal broke. By letting greed cloud good judgement, the producers of Black Box, C+C Music Factory and Seduction used tracks intended as background harmonization
as lead vocals without crediting or compensating the diva. It is alleged that the producers (Cole & Clivilles) committed this heinous act to cover the fact that their own modelesque front girls couldn't sing; they feared
including Wash, a full-figured woman, in promotional materials would damage the groups' image within the club community. Lawsuits were filed and, after a long and hard battle, Martha prevailed. During an interview
with Arsenio Hall, the talk show host asked Wash how she could have possibly proven that her's was the voice we heard on the songs in question. Without so much as batting an eyelash, Wash opened her mouth and let
loose,
"Everybody dance now!" there were no further questions on that subject! Settlements with Black Box included a solo recording contract with the record label (RCA), Black Box has since suffered relative obscurity,
releasing only one new single since loosing their golden goose. Clivilles and Cole, regretting their transgression, invited Martha to accompany the factory's front girl, Zelma Davis, on their album
"Anything Goes." Details of
any settlement reached between Martha and Seduction have gone undisclosed.
    The year was 1993 when Martha took control of her voice with her first solo CD release,
"Martha Wash," which produced three #1 dance singles. "Carry On," "Give It To You," and "Runaround" all sky rocketed to the
top of the charts. There was no longer any doubt that it wasn't the
“more marketable image” that made earlier groups so successful, but rather Martha's incredible sound. DJ Todd "The God" Terry knew from day one that
the way to have a #-1 single was to have a good melody, good lyrics, and a great voice. He immediately called upon Martha and teamed her up with another disco diva, Jocelyn Brown to have their immense talents on his
"Keep On Jumpin" and "Something's Goin' On" 12" singles. Seeing both songs hit #-1 with her own name attached was something that Martha was now beginning to grow accustomed to and it wasn't going to stop there.
Triumph continued to follow Martha with her second solo CD in 1997.
“The Collection” featured highlights from her twenty year long career as well as the new singles, "Come," "Catch The Light," and "It's Raining Men...
The Sequel"
which featured Martha singing alongside RuPaul. Martha then collaborated in 2000 with Small Voices Calling on their “Sounds Of A Better World” compilation CD. A project that would benefit a variety of
charities which find innovative ways of supporting children in their environment.
"Listen To The People" saw Martha riding high on the charts once again and captured audiences worldwide with its' positive message of
hope and inspiration. In the new millennium Martha continues to tour the world performing for delighted audiences everywhere. I'm sure we'll be hearing more from Martha for many years to come.
    As for Izora she moved to Germany in 1989 and returned to the music scene in 1991 with her only known solo 12" single "Don't Let Love Slip Away." After the song tanked she recruited her daughter, Dynell Rhodes, and
reformed the Weathergirls. They recorded two successful 12" singles,
"Can U Feel It" in 1993 and "We Shall All Be Free" in 1994. Mother and daughter also recorded several albums for WEA/Germany and toured the club
circuit globally.
     Izora returned to the Bay Area in the fall of 2004 for treatment of heart problems. Heart problems that were no doubt brought on by years of being overweight and hectic touring schedules. Services were held
Thursday Sept. 23-2004 at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church in San Francisco. She is survived by seven children and several grandchildren. She has left the world a wonderful legacy of sparkling upbeat tunes and will be
missed by her loyal fans. God bless!