On his live recording of “You Are My Friend”, iconic disco diva Sylvester doesn’t hesitate to heap praise on Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes Armstead – the duo best known to the world variously as The Weather Girls and Two Tons O’ Fun: “Honey, your ear has to be in your foot to not hear that these women can sing. They don’t need these dresses, they don’t need them jewelries, they don’t need that hair. These women can sing, y’all.”
Before their debut, the women met at an audition in mid-70’s San Francisco. Sylvester needed backup singers, and he was immediately hooked on Martha’s bright soprano and Izora’s resonant alto. Recognizing the duo’s preternatural talent, he wasted no time, hustling the two women from the audition to his touring van: En route to a gig, the backseat became the site of their first practice. Sylvester’s disco star soared as they brought their undeniable vocal chops to hits like You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and “Dance (Disco Heat)”. The women sang on three of his studio albums and one concert recording, both joined him onstage until 1979, and Martha appeared on his albums throughout the 1980s.
After achieving success with Sylvester, the two released their less-recognized but still incredibly joyful album Two Tons O’ Fun in 1979. Then as now, fat women were rare in pop music, and it took chutzpah to choose this self-referential moniker. The same unwavering self-confidence and good humor permeates the album, alongside the hip-shaking beats and lush instrumentation you’d expect from any great disco record. The group’s genre pedigree runs deep, and the names of musical greats litter Two Ton’s liner notes. Sylvester arranged songs, sang backing vocals, and played piano. Harvey Fuqua, Marvin Gaye’s bandmate and Motown executive, produced much of the album. The women even thank “Reverend C. Bean” – none other than the gay disco pioneer and Unity Fellowship of Christ Church founder, Carl Bean – for his spiritual guidance. More so than the notable roster of contributors and fans, however, the album’s message of unabashed positivity solidifies its status as a cult classic.
In just eight songs – many with a BPM verging on Hi-NRG – the album digs deep into themes of commitment and self-worth. Two Tons celebrate the highs of love – found in relationships, in community, or in yourself – but never fall far into the lows. On the album’s best tracks, the lyrics are short and simple, repeated over and over to whip the listener into ecstasy. On “Earth Can Be Just Like Heaven,” the pair’s vocal runs and breathless adlibs of “earth can be…” are almost orgasmic, growing more passionate and syllabic over the final two minutes. They use this same technique to entrance the listener on “Just Us” and “I Got the Feeling,” drawing us into “the sweetest [love] I remember” with soaring strings and swooping synths.
Both women began singing in church, and their voices bring a divine quality to every note. Dance music can be a spiritual experience of finding love within yourself and embodying joy through sound. God is love, and Two Tons bring God to the dance floor. But not everything on the album is an idealized reflection of the joys of love and disco. On “Earth Can Be,” they talk about life as “a see-saw up and down,” and the album’s closing tracks are considerably more contemplative than the faster dance tracks.
“Taking Away Your Space” is the closest the group gets to a breakup song, with Martha describing a lover’s rejection, backed by a slower, floating horn section. But even here, she never begs for this person to come back; she merely expresses shock that anyone would find fault with her affections. This is a powerful message of self-confidence, one that’s especially vital for millennial women accustomed to a dating game that feels rigged – where lovers can vanish on a moment’s notice, vulnerability is read as weakness, and hook-up culture allows for an absence of emotional accountability. Two Tons even get ghosted on “One Sided Love Affair,” but demand accountability and recognition. They never despair; rather, the pair tells women to throw this kind of lover away and find somebody who’ll appreciate every aspect of you. They know their worth and push you to know your own. Even after the group broke up, this strength and sense of self would carry Martha through the professional trials of her solo career.
Sylvester wasn’t the only artist who recognized the magic that the women of Two Tons could bring to a track. In the late ‘80’s, C&C Music Factory and Black Box – among many other producers – tapped Martha to record vocals. Her voice catapulted their respective jock jams “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” and “Everybody Everybody” onto the charts, but she was left in the dust. Both acts refused to feature her in music videos, saying she was too fat to be marketable. After C&C producers Robert Clivillés and David Cole denied Martha her royalties from “Gonna Make You Sweat,”, she fought back in court. Largely because of her outspoken self-advocacy, federal regulations were passed to standardize royalty payments and make vocal credits mandatory.
As part of Martha’s legal settlement, she also received something that she’d been preparing for for her entire career: a solo record deal. The resulting 1993 self-titled album mixed rave-ready house tracks with heartrending love ballads. “Carry On,” the main single, is a toe-tapping spiritual successor to Two Ton’s take-charge attitude. In one lyric that could be read as a summation of her former group – and her entire ethos – Martha promises, “Nobody’s gonna take my pride / I won’t stop / I will not be denied.”
Anyone who loves to get down has heard Two Tons O’ Fun countless times, even if they didn’t recognize it. Decade’s worth of disco and house hits hinge on their vocals, and everyone in the world knows their lyrics. From the 1970’s on, Martha Wash and Izora Armstead were icons ahead of their time – outspoken self-advocates and good-humored divas – who came into their own in the back of a van in San Francisco.
Grace McCreight is an indoor child turned outdoor adult who has a lot of feelings about dance music, Drake, and the WOW CD series. If she had a time machine, she’d go back to see Paradise Garage, the Hacienda, and Queen’s 1986 set at Wembley. She’s on Twitter at @urine_blonde.