Flashback City: Martha Wash’s San Francisco

When Martha Wash last appeared here four years ago, she had an unexpected reunion.

“I hadn’t seen this girl for over 40 years!” she says of the grammar school classmate who had followed Wash’s rise to fame long after their days at McKinley Elementary here.

Wash, a native San Franciscan who also attended Polytechnic High, only gets back to the Bay Area from her home on Long Island every few years, and says that the city’s evolution since she moved east in the 1980s has made her hometown largely unfamiliar.

“I usually don’t have much free time when I’m here,” says Wash. “But when I do, I’ll sometimes drive around, just to see what’s still here and what’s gone. Larkin Street, Hayes Valley, those areas have changed so much. There’s always Ocean Beach though, that’s a place I always like to visit.”

Among Wash’s long gone haunts is The Elephant Walk, a gay bar frequented by Harvey Milk in the space that now houses a business named in his honor, Harvey’s restaurant at 500 Castro Street.

It was at the Elephant Walk that Wash began to make her mark in the music business as a backup singer for rising local star Sylvester, who she first saw perform as an opening act for Billy Preston while still in her teens.

“Sylvester’s band was cool and he was clearly enjoying himself. I grew up in the church, but even in elementary school there were boys who I think were gay, and in high school, there were gay guys in my classes. So that was no big thing for me. I was used to it.”

“Two years later,” she remembers, “I auditioned for Sylvester. I did a gospel song, and he hired me on the spot.”

Wash—and fellow back-up singer Izora Rhodes—became an essential part of Sylvester’s success as their booming voices added inimitable distinction to his biggest hits, including “Mighty Real” and “Dance (Disco Heat).”

Expect to hear those gems, along with “It’s Raining Men,” “Everybody, Everybody,” “Right On Time,” “Gonna Make You Sweat,” and “Strike It Up” at Wash’s two Feinstein’s shows this weekend.

Ask to sit up front if you went to nursery school with her!