Three months after the Milli Vanilli pop scandal, lip-syncing remains a live issue in the record business.
Anyone short on evidence need look no further than the hottest dance-pop hit of the season: C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat."
The million-selling song has topped the pop, dance and R&B charts in recent weeks, thanks in part to veteran R&B singer Martha Wash's dynamic "Everybody dance now" vocal hook.
But you'd have to be a detective to figure out from the liner notes, where Wash is just one of six female background vocalists cited, that she delivers the chorus' key line.
Most people would probably assume from the album packaging that the singer on "Gonna Make You Sweat" is Zelma Davis, who, after all, is the only woman on the album cover.
Davis is also featured in the video of the hit song mouthing the "Everybody dance now" line. But, in fact, the lean model is lip-syncing to Wash's vocal.
"That's me singing all right," Wash said. "But not only am I not getting paid any royalties for it, the producers hired Zelma Davis as a prop to lip-sync my vocal part in the music video. Why shouldn't I be upset?"
Wash--an R&B vocalist best known for her early '80s work in Two Tons of Fun and the Weather Girls--filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against C+C Music Factory's Robert Clivilles and David Cole, charging the producers and their record company, Sony Music Entertainment, with fraud, deceptive packaging and commercial appropriation.
In the Dec. 11 action, the singer claimed she was paid less than $1,000 for her work on "Gonna Make You Sweat" and that the hit contains an edited compilation of vocal parts she recorded last June for an unrelated demonstration tape.
The defendants deny any wrongdoing.
"We've been made to look like we're villains in this case," said David Cole, who has produced hit songs for Natalie Cole, Grace Jones and the Cover Girls. "But in actuality we're the victims here."
Gail Edwin, vice president and litigation counsel for Sony Music Entertainment, also disputed Wash's claims and said the company intends to fight the case in court.
"It is my understanding that in a rap song the lead vocalist is the person who does the rap," Edwin said in a phone interview from her New York office. "Based on information from the producers of the album, we believe she was paid properly and that the album reflects her credit as a background vocalist." (Freedom Williams does the rapping in the song and is credited on both the album and the single).
This is not the first time Wash has filed suit against Clivilles and Cole for alleged misuse of her voice.
Last July, the San Francisco native sued the producers and A&M Records for unauthorized use of her voice on Seduction's Top 20 pop hit "You're My One and Only True Love"--a recording and video that credited model/singer April Harris as the lead vocalist.
Wash also sued RCA Records for commercial appropriation last year after the company released an album by the European dance band Black Box that featured unauthorized tracks of her singing.
The RCA album--not produced by Clivilles and Cole--spawned two Top 30 hit singles, "Everybody Everybody" and "I Don't Know Anybody Else," plus two popular videos that employed an exotic model named Katrin Quinol who lip-synced to Wash's voice.
RCA settled the case out-of-court in December, agreeing to pay Wash a "substantial" financial fee. The company also signed her to an eight-album solo artist contract and is currently financing her national tour.
"In the Black Box case, our company in England was dealing with another company in Italy, so it was like three times removed from what we were told in New York," RCA Records president Joseph Galante said. "Once we were made aware that Martha was the real singer, we did the right thing."
A&M has been negotiating with Wash's attorney since December and is prepared to settle the Seduction case.
Al Cafaro, president of A&M Records, said that due to pending litigation he could not specifically talk about the Seduction lawsuit, but suggested that the industry, as a whole, needs to begin paying closer attention to lip-sync productions.
"It's true that producers are part of the hit magic in a record and agreements with producers can bring exciting new talent to a label," Cafaro said. "Record companies, however, must be involved in every step of the process. Smart money should invest in real talent, not just images."
Last November, Milli Vanilli front men Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan were stripped of their Grammy after the photogenic duo admitted they never sang a note on their 7 million-selling album "Girl, You Know It's True."
Considering the negative publicity generated by the Milli caper as well as the Seduction and Black Box lawsuits, Wash said she was "astonished" that Sony "had the nerve" to release the C+C Music Factory song and video.