with Eric Robinson, Sylvester, Greg Levias, Tip Wirrick, Greg Crockett, Ralph Wash, Bob Kingson, Kelvin Dixon, Woody Cunningham, David Frazier, Tony Flores, Jeanie Tracy, Harvey Fuqua, Maurice Long, and othersMORE
ABOUT TWO TONS
Anyone familiar with Sylvester’s electrifying live or recorded performances already knows that a great deal of the wattage is supplied by his amazing backup singers, the Two Tons o’ Fun. The Tons—Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes Armstead—are now center stage on their brand-new Fantasy/Honey release entitled Two Tons o’ Fun.
Producer Harvey Fuqua has fashioned a perfect showcase for Martha’s glorious soprano and Izora’s powerful, growling alto. (Former Moonglow Fuqua also contributes some background vocals on the LP’s lead track, “Do You Wanna Boogie.”)
Among the album’s many highlights: “Just Us” and “Earth Can Be Just Like Heaven,” both co-written by Eric Robinson (composer of “Dance Disco Heat”). Izora steps out on the up-tempo “I Got the Feeling,” and “Taking Away Your Space,” written by Harvey Fuqua and Sylvester, is a ballad spotlight for Martha.
“We think we’ve got something in there for everybody to enjoy,” says Izora, “from straight-ahead dance music to the ballad that puts you in the mood for love.”
It doesn’t take a lot of musical expertise to figure out that Martha and Izora have strong gospel roots. “Our parents are church people,” Izora explains, “so that’s all we’ve known in our lives.” Both Tons, however, have also had training in opera and the classics.
Martha Wash was born and raised in San Francisco, the youngest of nine children (her older brother, guitarist Ralph Wash, has worked with artists like Paul Butterfield and the Pointer Sisters). She began singing at the tender age of two. “I got a lot of support from everyone,” Martha recalls. “Church people are good about that. If they think you just hum good, they’ll put you up on chairs and tables and encourage you."
Martha, who studied some piano as a child, was an active member of her high school choir, a 125-voice ensemble headed by John Land. The group recorded several albums for a local label, and once did a two-week European tour that included stops in Germany, France, Belgium, and Holland. After graduation, she worked with Gideon and Power and a number of Bay Area gospel artists before hooking up with Sylvester.
Izora Armstead, originally from Galveston, Texas, has lived in San Francisco since she was a small child. Like Martha, she began singing almost before she could talk, and started piano lessons at age four, later studying at the San Francisco Conservatory. “I used to teach piano and voice,” says Izora. “I’ve always loved working with children, always had them around me when I was growing up. Then I had my own family, which was too many children!” Izora has six sons and one daughter, all in their teens, and she recently remarried (Sylvester and Eric Robinson sang at her wedding).
"The girls,” as Sylvester fondly refers to them, have known each other for years. In fact, Izora remembers when Martha was “a snotty-nosed brat running around church singing her behind off.” In the mid-Seventies, they were working together in a gospel group called NOW (News of the World) when Martha got a call to audition for Sylvester, who was putting together a new band.
“The whole audition lasted about five minutes,” Martha laughs. “Sylvester said, ‘You’re just the person I’ve been looking for. Do you know anyone else who’s as big as you are and can sing?’ I said yes, and called Izora that night.”
Needless to say, Izora filled the bill. The girls had their first rehearsal with Sylvester in a Volkswagen, driving across the Golden Gate Bridge on their way to a gig.
Around this time, Martha contacted Harvey Fuqua and Nancy Pitts of Honey Productions in Oakland, who were doing some gospel recording. Martha was looking for work as a background singer, and invited Fuqua and Pitts to come see her perform one night with Sylvester at the Palms, a San Francisco nightspot.
“We saw the show,” says Pitts, “and that was it.” She and Fuqua brought Sylvester to Fantasy in 1976, and the Two Tons have been prominently featured on all four of Syl’s LPs for the label. Martha and Izora have since become widely known and loved in their own right for their showmanship and magnificent voices.
In Sylvester’s words: “These women can sing, y’all!”
Izora Armstead died September 16, 2004.