“If thin is in, then fat’s where it’s at.” This popular cliche has found a permanent home in Izora Rhodes Armstead and Martha Wash — better known as the Two Tons O’ Fun.
The Tons have been around for quite some time, but they first became visible a few years back as the backup singers for Sylvester, whose overtly gay presence raised eyebrows throughout the 50 states.
Certainly Sylvester’s act was unusual. But what happens when you put two large women with such an act? Nothing short of mayhem. The young, stocky kid who used to run around San Francisco’s Castro Street with a tambourine, begging to sing for anybody who would listen, coupled with two rousing gospelists, gave character and personality to the rather one-dimensional medium called disco. But the public had seen but the tip of an emotional and rousing iceberg that could sink any old Titanic that happened to steam along. There was a lot more personality, feeling and motion waiting for the moment to break loose. It broke loose, finally, this year when a little tune called You Are My Friend began to blast from portable radios throughout the streets of America. For the record, the song was attributed to Sylvester, but the people who were making it happen, as was obvious to the most rudimentary musical ear, were Martha and Izora. It was Izora, who virtually stopped the music to grow to the high heavens that she’d been around. And it was Martha whose lyric soprano beckoned you to her side, with the angelic flirt that she knew you had been there all the time.
The Two Tons had arrived. No. They had been there all the time. We had arrived,
The Tons took New York by storm last month when they appeared with Sylvester in front of SRO audiences at the Felt Forum, They scored not only with the Sylvester hit, but began to make waves of their own with two singles from their debut album — Just Us, and I Got The Feeling.
The night before their premier, Martha, Izora and I were sitting in a hotel room talking about the loves, likes and frustrations of being Two Tons O’ Fun. Much to my amazement, it blossomed into quite a heavy rap session.
It turns out that Martha and Izora, who both weigh in at over 200 pounds, used to be slim, trim, little ladies. “Before I got married,” announces Izora, “I could not get over 100 pounds. I couldn’t give a damn what I ate. You should see some of my old pictures.” But somewhere between her first and seventh child, she put on all those extra pounds. “I have been up to 370 pounds and I have come down to 225 pounds and then shot back up,” she continues. “When I’m on the road, I can control my weight. But when I’m at home, I’m with a husband who’s no help.” Izora Rhodes recently married Frank Armstead and changed her name. “When I’m home,” she admits, “he’s constantly cooking and I’m constantly eating. And I can’t refuse the food, It’s just so good!”
Izora, however, is quite happy with her size, “I play football, basketball, baseball, everything with my six boys. I move and everything and I feel good about myself.” Part of Izora’s professional philosophy is the desire to project a positive image for all large women to follow. “But I’m tired of sewing two colored sheets together to make an outfit. If they’d only make two sheets that would look cute!”
Martha says she jumped from 117 to over 200 pounds and never knew why. She feels she can’t afford to remain a ton for too much longer. “I have to lose weight. First of all, I’m too tall for short and too short for tall. I have tiny feet. I have problems with my leg. The doctors have told me to lose weight. I need to lose 75 pounds or so.”
Her weight problem has added a rather peculiar twist to their stage act. “I take off my shoes in the show. I can only wear high heels for so long. Then the circulation gets bad in my legs. So I just take off my shoes. That’s become my trademark. Sylvester sometimes begs, please don’t take off your shoes, but I tell him, honey, when my feet start hurting, I’m gonna take those girls off!”
Izora cracks up at the remark and says, “Child, I have seen people get up and say, all right, honey. Take off your shoes. They gonna get down now!”
I can’t help but ask a rather dumb question amidst all the hysteria that has broken out in the room. Do people take the Two Tons as a joke or are you for real?
“You mean like the fat lady in the circus?” Izora asks me, still giggling. “No. Because once we start singing and carrying on, the people know we are serious. We aren’t jiving. It’s two big women singing.” But why then the big thing about being big? I love the pun on the weight,” Izora continues, “because it grabs people’s attention. If we were out there just as Izora and Martha, we’d be out there like Sylvester or any other singer with just a name. With the Tonnage as a title of the act, the people will say, ‘let’s go down and check this out. Are they really big? Are they really huge? What in hell can those two big women do?’”
It was Sylvester who coined the phrase, “These Women Can Sing.”
Martha, the soaring soprano of the bouncy duo, once studied opera, which enables her to glide past three octaves with ease. “I studied arias with a private teacher for almost a year,” she informs me. Martha says she took music in high school but flunked harmony and changed over to business. “I kept going to choir classes. I had piano lessons as a child, but I would always play by ear. I took lessons with two different teachers and they both told me to quit wasting my money.”
Izora, on the other hand, had scholarships to various music schools in the Bay Area, majoring in piano, a craft which she still shows off onstage. Unlike Izora’s husky pipes, Martha’s voice is very delicate. “When my teacher heard that I sing gospel, she didn’t want me to do it because it’s a hard, driving type of music, Hard and heavy. In opera, you sing from the diaphragm.” However, as a Walkuere of pop music, Martha has to belt from the throat.”I’m trying to sing strong over my strained vocal chords. So that’s not good for my voice. I can sing anything from a hard song to a very light soprano tune. It wreaks havoc on my throat sometimes, but I’ve done it.” Martha even growls sometimes. But the real growler is Izora, whose bravura voice will knock visitors in the last row out of their seats. When she lets loose, crowds go berserk — “as in church,” izora blurts out.
“Growling never hurts me. I guess because I do it so naturally. You can always growl when you can’t do anything else. Even when you are hoarse. I think it’s a natural way of expressing the way you feel.” Izora says she doesn’t growl all the time. Only on special occasions, “When I get intensely into a song, and there’s a certain feeling. Like when I’m trying to get a point across.”
There are, in fact, times when Izora is not in the mood to growl. The Tons and Sylvester are under immense pressures of all kinds, including the most uncomfortable of hearing rumors that Sylvester is treating the Tons like Diana Ross allegedly treated her Supremes.
“To me,” Izora says straightforwardly, “that’s just a type of envy. We are a unit. There could be truth in it and then there couldn’t. But I don’t look at it that way. I’m looking at what’s making me happy. If I enjoy singing in a unit with Sylvester, then it’s because I want to. I’m the one who has to be happy when I go out on that stage. What’s the use of singing how happy I am when I’m about ready to explode. If I keep constant turmoil around me, I can’t relate that on stage. People are paying their hard earned money to see a good show and not to look at my turmoils.”
I can’t help but get the feeling that Izora is answering my question with a question. Martha sits on the bed and says nothing at all.
The Tons were thrust into the limelight by Harvey Fuqua, the musical dynamo who produced Sylvester after having groomed the countless Motown acts that had risen to fame since 1960. Harvey, along with Marvin Gaye, was originally a member of the Moonglows.
Fuqua realized the great potential of Izora and Martha and signed them to exclusive contracts with Fantasy Records, the Berkeley-based record company that markets a truckload of jazz artists and tried unsuccessfully to resurrect Martha Reeves of Vandellas fame.
Both Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes-Armstead sing hymns of praise for Fuqua. “I like his personality,” Izora declares. “I like the way he treats people. We are not machines and he treats us like human beings.” True to his reputation in the music business, Fuqua has carefully honed his latest discovery, working endlessly to perfect voice and technique. But he does it in a way that you don’t resent it or hate him.
“Yes, “Martha admits, “Fuqua pushes them. He’ll make me do a song over and over again, until he feels he has two or three different composites. And out of those three he’ll pick the best one. And each time, I’ll do it a little bit better.”
Izora kids a lot about him. “I’m lazy and he knows it. He knows that there are certain ranges that I can sing. But I’ll say, I can’t sing them. I can’t sing high. I want to sing low. I don’t feel like exerting that little inch of strength and energy to get that one note.” But Harvey manages to coax it out of her anyway, witness her spine-tingling vocals on I Got The Feeling. Since the Tons come out of a solid gospel tradition, I can’t help but pop the obvious question. What do your God-fearing, fundamentalist brethren think of you singing with a gay person?
The answer, at first, is quite surprising.
“We don’t get that much flak because we are associated with him. We get hassled because we are singing secular music,” Izora explains, “You sing in church all your life, serve God, and then all of a sudden, here you are praising the devil.”
Martha adds, “My mother has always been on my case because she wishes that I’d continue singing gospel. And I have told her on many occasions that I have not stopped. I am just doing other tunes now.”
But the ladies are sometimes confronted with the gay question. “The three of us were on television once,” Izora recollects. “And this person said, ‘I looked and there were three ladies up there.’ And I asked which one was Sylvester. He’s pretty. It tickled us.”
“He’s happy, not us,” Izora lays it on the line. “That’s his life, I cannot live his life. If he’s happy about his life, then I’m ecstatic about it.”
Martha, however gets a bit more philosophical, “People should be happy for us. I like what I’m doing. They [those who criticize her singing with Sylvester] are not taking care of me. They are not going to stand in judgment of what I have done. The Lord said, ‘go into the vineyard and work. And whatever you reap, the Lord will pay you.’ Not you. Not Izora. Not anybody else down here. So, what I’m waiting for is to get paid.”
Getting heavier into the topic, Izora volunteers, “I came up around gay people, They called them happy. I don’t like using the word gay, homosexual or lesbian. I came up around people, period. So Sylvester’s lifestyle doesn’t even bother me.”
Says Martha: “There are a lot of different lifestyles that I am not fond of, but that’s none of my business. You can be what you want, and I don’t have to be involved. The business doesn’t care anyway,” she insists. “You can swing from a chandelier and sing if it’ll make money.”
Both ladies agree, however, that their tours across the country have helped to undo some of the harm done by the bigotry of the Anita Bryants.
Sylvester’s personal manager enters the room and insists that the question of Sylvester’s homosexuality never comes up unless the press brings it up in interviews. The Tons disagree ever so politely. “We do encounter that. It happened to us in Alabama,” Izora corrects. “The kids laughed because they had been programmed a certain way,” Martha wholeheartedly agrees. “The kids don’t know. They hear it from other people.”
Izora, with a gleam on her face adds, “We have heard these things and we have been confronted with that. But once people have seen and heard us sing, they come away with a better attitude — including those down-home church folks.”
“We were in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Martha announces, “Oral Roberts Country.” I tell her she’s talking about my home town.
“You can have your home town!” Martha snaps sarcastically. “They weren’t ready for us. We were with War and the Commodores.” The incident rekindles in Izora’s memory also. “They looked at us real strange. When we first started singing, there was a very slight response. We are so used to the large responses when we get on the stage. So Sylvester and Martha and I were whispering to each other, O-o-0-o-h, this is str-a-a-a-nge. We said, well, let’s forget it. We’ll get off on our own energy. Then, after they looked us over and deciphered that one is long, short, brown, and green, they joined in with us. We won them over. But we knew we were in the Bible Belt. All we wanted to do was get out!”
Three hours have passed since I first met Izora and Martha. We have laughed, giggled and at times almost cried our way through a maze of jokes, anecdotes and personal thoughts. But the question of their future with or without Sylvester still hangs in the air. “We can’t predict the future,” Izora says. “We might be with Sylvester and we might not be. We have to see where the record’s going — the way the public accepts us.”
What if you were offered a lot of money to part company with Sylvester, I ask. “Well,” Izora says, “it depends on what they are offering. I want other things besides just straight out money. I want some peace of mind. I don’t mind singing and I don’t mind working. I’m doing all these things now and I’m not getting paid.”
I look around the hotel room and ask whose it is and does the other Ton sleep next door. After all, these are really big ladies and the room’s kinda small. No, I am told. This is it. A room at the Holiday Inn on 10th Avenue. Sylvester and his entourage, meanwhile, are staying at the classy St, Moritz along fashionable Central Park South. Is this any way to treat a lady, I wonder? The Tons don’t complain. They just shrug.
The next night, I’m at the Felt Forum to watch the Two Tons O’ Fun world solo debut. After two songs it was all over. That was not the only disappointment. It was hard to spot them — Sylvester dominated center stage.
Not too long ago, Sylvester, Izora and Martha all shared the spotlight center stage — One Ton on each side of Sylvester. They looked like a unit. Now, at the Forum, Martha and Izora were pushed off to the far left side of the stage and none of the numbers worked right. Not even You Are My Friend. Someone had changed the chemistry. The act looked disjointed. The family had fallen apart. It was a visual letdown. Have the Tons been pushed into the background? Have massive egos ruined what was once a unique musical and visual feast? Whatever the problem, one thing is certain — like Mt. St. Helens in Washington, nothing can stop Izora and Martha, They are bustin’ loose — And it’s only the beginning.