As we continue our celebration of Women’s History Month, NMAAM is setting our sights on the dance floor, where Black women have long been the unsung sheroes of the scene. With disco’s flashing lights fading to black, a new wave of artists and DJs surfaced to salvage the shards of the shattered mirror ball left in its wake to create the sounds that would become dance, house, and electronic music. From underground clubs in Chicago (house music’s motherland) and New York in the late 1970s, the genres that evolved following disco’s demise continued to be the domain of Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities. Spurred by emerging technology that revolutionized the art of deejaying, mixing, sampling, and production, early pioneers like Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, and DJ Ron Hardy laid the foundation for the sonic boom that would overtake clubs across the globe.
Just as the MC became the focal point of hip hop, it was the powerhouse vocalists who would arrive as an integral element of dance, house, and electronic music. And more often than not, those singers whose voices permeated the bass and moved the crowd into a frenzy came from Black women. Far too frequently, those iconic voices were uncredited and, in some cases, all but erased from the music to which they’d contributed so much.
That’s why this week’s Women In Harmony series is dedicated to the Black women who shaped and continue to influence dance, house, and electronic music.
Take, for example, Loleatta Holloway, who got her start singing with her mother as part of the Holloway Community Singers in Chicago and later, Albertina Walker’s group, The Caravans. With a rich, warm tone and phrasing informed by gospel music, Holloway made the transition into R&B and soul and eventually scored a top 10 R&B hit with “Cry to Me” in 1975. But it was the Dan Hartman-penned “Love Sensation” that took Holloway over the edge, giving her a #1 dance hit in 1980 that would be sampled in more than 30 songs, including Black Box’s “Ride on Time” and Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations.” With the former, after the group failed to credit Holloway’s vocals she sued and ultimately triumphed, winning an undisclosed settlement. Thankfully, her collaboration with Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch not only resulted in live promotional performances with the group but, more importantly, proper credit and compensation.
Loleatta Holloway, “Love Sensation”
The legendary Jocelyn Brown cut her musical teeth singing with everyone from Gloria Gaynor to Phyllis Hyman and Roberta Flack, among many others. The North Carolina native’s roots began in the church, and her thunderous vocals are the heat behind more than 20 chart-topping dance and R&B hits in the U.S. and the U.K. Her 1984 classic “Somebody Else’s Guy” peaked at #2 on the R&B charts and went silver in the U.K., and in 1985, she scored her first #1 dance hit with “Love’s Gonna Get You.”
Jocelyn Brown, “Love’s Gonna Get You”
Just a few years later, “Love’s Gonna Get You” turned up in Snap!’s 1990 smash, “The Power,” and Boogie Down Productions’ “Love’s Gonna Get’cha (Material Love).” Having toured and performed with Bette Midler, Culture Club, and a who’s who of pop, dance, soul, and R&B artists, Brown remains one of the most important and influential voices in music today. She’s still singing her heart out onstage and in the studio, both as a solo artist and as a featured vocalist.
Martha Wash, “I’ve Got You”
From singing background vocals for disco icon Sylvester to worldwide renown as part of The Weather Girls with “It’s Raining Men,” Martha Wash is a staple and legend in her own right within the world of dance music. Crowned the “Queen of Clubland” thanks to her astonishing success on Billboard’s dance charts, Wash’s distinct vocals feature prominently on songs like Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love” and more than a dozen #1 dance tracks. Yet, despite her otherworldly vocal prowess and inimitable style, she was all but erased from the scene as she went uncredited for songs containing her voice.
Beginning in the late ‘80s, Martha Wash encountered a series of blows that led Rolling Stone to dub her “The Most Famous Unknown Singer of the ‘90s.” A string of hits using pieces of demos she’d recorded (“[You’re My One and Only] True Love,” for producer David Cole, who gave the song to the trio Seduction; “I Don’t Know Anybody Else” and the infectious “Everybody Everybody” by Italian house music group Black Box; and C+C Music Factory’s ubiquitous debut single “Gonna Make You Sweat [Everybody Dance Now])” dominated clubs and airwaves across the globe, but she didn’t receive credit or compensation for the recordings. And in the case of the videos for “Everybody Everybody” and “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” Wash was replaced with models who lip-synced her parts. In the end, Martha Wash claimed the victory. Her lawsuits against the producers and labels that capitalized off of her voice helped advance legislation that required vocal credits to be included on albums, cassettes, and CDs, as well as music videos.
The 1990s proved to be a fortuitous time for dance and house music, and no artist is more synonymous with the era than CeCe Peniston. Like the women who came before her, the Dayton, OH-born, Phoenix-raised singer/songwriter found her voice in the church choir and perfected her craft as a performer in local theatrical productions. While earning her degree at the University of Phoenix, she began sharpening her skills as a songwriter and lyricist.
CeCe Peniston, “Keep On Walkin'”
Peniston got her first taste of life as a recording artist in the early ‘90s, when she stepped into the studio at the behest of Felipe “DJ Wax Dawg” Delgado to lay down backing vocals for a hip hop artist he was producing. It wouldn’t be long before she secured her own bag with a solo record deal, and in 1991 her debut album, Finally, and infectious lead single of the same name, solidified Peniston as the new diva of dance. “Finally” made it all the way to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
“We Got a Love Thang” and “Keep On Walkin’” followed her debut single’s success, and by the end of 1992 Peniston had earned a string of prestigious awards including the Billboard Music Award for Best New Artist, Dance, and ASCAP’s Song of the Year, Most Performed Song of the Year, and Pop Songwriter of the Year awards. Peniston remains a mighty musical force, and has parlayed her early successes into acting, philanthropy, and advocacy.
Ultra Naté, “Free”
By the time Ultra Naté’s platinum-selling hit “Free” dropped in 1997, the Maryland native was several years in to a prolific career, having released her first three Warner Bros. albums–Blue Notes in the Basement, produced by the Basement Boys (1991), Altitude with System 7 (1992), and One Woman’s Insanity (1993) in rapid succession. It was her departure from the label that may have afforded her the opportunity to truly spread her wings and, subsequently, achieve critical acclaim and success on the dance and house music-oriented label Strictly Rhythm. “Free” ruled radio and dance floors throughout 1997 and 1998, and the album from which it came, Situation: Critical, reached #17 on the UK charts.
Riding the wave of “Free” and follow-up singles “Found a Cure” and “New Kind of Medicine,” Ultra Naté built a massive international fanbase and released two more albums for Strictly Rhythm before taking the reigns of her own imprint, Blufire, created in partnership with Tommy Boy Records. With 9 studio albums and dozens of singles and guest features to her name, Ultra Naté landed at #12 on Billboard’s Greatest of All Time Top Dance Artists, is a beloved LGBTQ ally, and has become one of the most in-demand DJs the world over. She’s collaborated with some of music’s biggest legends, including Nile Rodgers, Nona Hendryx, Lenny Kravitz, and Pharrell Williams, and continues to give the people what they want with her sets at clubs and festivals in the U.S. and abroad.
The National Museum of African American Music proudly salutes Black women who shape music and culture during Women’s History Month and all year long. Be sure to catch our weekly Women In Harmony video series each Thursday throughout the month of March on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.