The hidden history of SF disco anthem ‘It’s Raining Men’

On Sept. 10, 1982, the forecast called for rain — of a masculine variety. That date served as the release for the unforgettable disco track “It’s Raining Men,” recorded by San Francisco disco divas Martha Wash and Izora Armstead of the Weather Girls.


Forty years later, the song has been immortalized in pop culture and Wash will return to her old stomping grounds for a headlining performance at San Francisco Pride. Although the song has become ubiquitous today, it was anything but a sure hit in the early ’80s. If it weren’t for some creative marketing moves, it may have never even been released.

The song’s origins date back to 1979. Penned by songwriters Paul Jabara (Donna Summer’s “Last Dance”) and Paul Shaffer (who would go on to late night fame alongside David Letterman), “It’s Raining Men” was originally intended for Donna Summer.

“Lyrically she hated it, because she had become a born-again Christian,” Shaffer told Vanity Fair in a 2009 interview. “She thought it was blasphemous. She called Paul and said, ‘I hate the song. Oh, we’ve lost you.’ And then she sent him a Bible the next day.”

The Weather Girls performing on

The Weather Girls performing on “Hitparade” in Germany in 1990.

KPA/United Archives via Getty Images

Jabara shopped the song to a few other disco stars of the era, including Diana Ross, Cher and Barbra Streisand, but none were interested. Then Jabara played a demo for entertainment lawyer Steven Ames Brown, who had just represented Wash and Armstead in a suit against their previous label, and Jabara asked if Brown thought the duo might be interested. He thought the lyrics were “completely stupid,” but that with the right performance, it could become iconic.

Wash wasn’t so sure.

“I didn’t think anyone would necessarily buy it,” Wash told SFGATE about the song. “I just thought it was a campy song and I didn’t think that the masses would receive it. But hey, people have been wrong before.”

“They had trepidations about it, as well they should,” Brown said. “Because it would’ve been very easy for them to be caricatured instead of beloved. You never know when you’re going to be loved or a joke.”

Sylvester performs in the United Kingdom with backing singers Martha Wash and Isora Armstead, who were called Two Tons O' Fun before becoming the Weather Girls.

Sylvester performs in the United Kingdom with backing singers Martha Wash and Isora Armstead, who were called Two Tons O’ Fun before becoming the Weather Girls.

Max Redfern/Redferns

San Francisco disco roots

Long before “It’s Raining Men” became a worldwide hit, Wash spent her childhood in San Francisco. She attended a now-shuttered high school across from Golden Gate Park’s Kezar Stadium and sang in her high school choir, traveling to Europe to perform. She later joined a gospel group, then shifted to pop music, becoming a backup singer for disco icon Sylvester in 1976, alongside Izora Armstead. The duo of Wash and Armstead, then known as the Two Tons O’ Fun, appeared on iconic tracks like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Over and Over.” Those songs were recorded at Fantasy Records in Berkeley and remain staples in DJ sets to this day.

“Beyond Sylvester’s obvious, the Two Tons were equally talented part of the magic,” said Lester Temple, a DJ who performed in San Francisco during the ’80s and now produces music under the moniker LTBeam. “Because of that, people were familiar with who they were, and embraced them because of the almost church-like energy.”

Two Tons O’ Fun released their debut self-titled album in 1980, which featured a pair of hit dance singles, “Earth Can Be Just Like Heaven” and “I Got the Feeling.” They shortened their name to the Two Tons after a lawsuit, then Jabara suggested they change their name again to shed the reputation of just being Sylvester’s background singers.

Once Wash was convinced to record “It’s Raining Men,” she traveled with Armstead to Los Angeles for a quick recording session, without any of the pomp and circumstance you’d expect from such a life-changing hit.

“We recorded it in about 90 minutes, then walked out of the studio and said ‘OK, Paul, see you later.’ And we went about our business,” Wash said.

The Weather Girls at the Vic Theater in Chicago, March 22, 1986.

The Weather Girls at the Vic Theater in Chicago, March 22, 1986.

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

From the underground to the Top 40

Once the track was completed, it was an uphill battle to get it released. The production company that funded the recording had a contract with Columbia Records, but according to Brown, Columbia wasn’t interested in “It’s Raining Men.”

“They didn’t want the Weather Girls, they didn’t want large Black women, they wanted nothing to do with it,” Brown said. “Columbia didn’t want to release it until we blackmailed them into it.”

Without label support, Brown and Jabara launched an underground marketing campaign to build demand for the song and force Columbia’s hand. At the time, the disco Billboard charts weren’t based on sales, but rather on the number of plays that DJs reported. To build demand for the song, Brown and Jabara pressed 50 vinyl acetate copies and distributed them to club DJs.

“It pretty much took off immediately, especially in San Francisco,” says Temple, who at the time was playing at clubs like the Trocadero Transfer, I-Beam and The EndUp. “Word was out about what the Two Tons O’ Fun had morphed into.”

The promotional “blackmail” plan worked just as Brown and Jabara had intended.

“Columbia had a hit record that it had no rights to and had not intended to release,” Brown said.

With newfound negotiating power, the Weather Girls signed to Columbia and released their debut album “Success,” with “It’s Raining Men” as the first single. The song became a hit, charting at No. 1 on the Billboard US Dance Club charts and No. 1 2 on the UK Singles charts.

Next came a music video, which was filmed during the winter in New York City in a warehouse without heat or running water. The low-budget video featured Wash and Armstead as meteorologists surrounded by men dancing in their underwear, but due to the freezing temperatures, the dancers added trench coats for warmth. In one of the most memorable moments, Wash and Armstead themselves fall from the sky in front of a very rudimentary green screen — a moment that Wash remembers for an uncomfortable reason.

“The part where we’re supposed to be falling out of the sky, we just jumped off a ladder and fell on a mattress,” she said. “And we came to find out the mattress itself had flas on it or something. I started itching the next day.”

The video would premiere at Oasis, the club owned by Brown originally located on Folsom Street, where 500 people crowded onto a makeshift floor that covered up an in-ground swimming pool.

“There was nowhere to move, it was just jammed,” Brown said, describing the atmosphere at the event. “It was wonderful, and they were wonderful.”

The Weather Girls and the band Klubbb3 during the TV show

The Weather Girls and the band Klubbb3 during the TV show “Hit Champions” at the Velodrom in Berlin, Germany, on Jan. 7, 2017.

Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Covers, lawsuits and legacy

In 1998, Wash released a new version with RuPaul. Former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell released her own version in 2001, which charted at No. 1 in the UK, as well as several other European countries. Rihanna sampled the song alongside Nicki Minaj in the 2010 track “Raining Men.”

However, over the years, the legacy of “It’s Raining Men” has been marked by controversy. According to Brown, the original financial accounting was completely fraudulent, leading to two lawsuits, followed by a third in early 2022, based on the 35-year copyright termination provision in the original contract. Each of the lawsuits were settled, leading to increases in royalty payments for Wash.

After the success of “It’s Raining Men,” Wash went on to become one of the biggest voices in the early days of house music’s crossover into the mainstream during the late ’80s and early ’90s. She sang on hits by Black Box (“I Don’t Know Anybody Else,” “Everybody Everybody”) as well as “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” by C+C Music Factory, which led to another lawsuit when Wash’s vocals went uncredited and were lip-synched by Zelma Davis in the music video.

Izora Armstead, Wash’s former Weather Girls partner, died in 2004but Wash continues to release music to this day, most recently with the album “Love & Conflict” in 2020. However, “It’s Raining Men” is still her greatest legacy.

“It’s just become a classic now,” Wash said. “One of those songs that everybody can get into it. It’s played at weddings and all kinds of parties. From the grandparents to the parents to the grandkids, everybody just likes that song.”

Martha Wash performs on the main stage at San Francisco Pride on June 26 at 5 pm

Martha Wash of the Weather Girls will perform at San Francisco Pride 2022.

Martha Wash of the Weather Girls will perform at San Francisco Pride 2022.

Mike Ruiz

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