“I never wanted to be a singer or be in the music business – I wanted to be a flight attendant so I could travel the world for free.” So says GWEN DICKEY and it’s a surprising admission given that the super-talented and magnetic Mississippi-born singer – who fronted soul-funk aggregation Rose Royce between 1976 and 1980 – was the voice that shined brightly on the group’s memorable Norman Whitfield-produced international hits ‘Car Wash,’ ‘Wishing On A Star,’ ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ (the latter song was also covered by Madonna, Faith Evans and Beyonce) and ‘Is It Love You’re After.’ Touring with Rose Royce, Gwen fulfilled her wish to travel and see the world but the pressures of stardom caused her to quit the group after the band’s fourth album, 1979’s ‘Rose Royce IV: Rainbow Connection.’ Initially reluctant to return to the music business, in the ’80s Gwen slowly began rebuilding her career as a singer with a series of soulful, dance-oriented singles.
Today, in 2015, Gwen is still in demand as a performer, particularly in the UK, where she’s been a popular live attraction for many years. On Sunday 15th November, Gwen appears on the bill of the keenly anticipated ‘Great Voices Of Soul’ concert at Wembley’s SSE Arena and ahead of the gig, she talked to SJF’s Charles Waring about her music, career, and, of course, her time as a member of the influential Rose Royce…
You’re due to perform at the Great Voices of Soul concerts coming up in November at Wembley. What can your fans expect to hear from you?
You will hear all the hits and all the classics that the people want to hear: ‘Car Wash,’ ‘Wishing On A Star,’ etcetera.
In terms of the other people on the bill, have you performed with any of them before in concert?
No, I haven’t and that will be very exciting for me to be able to perform with people like The Whispers and Patti LaBelle. I’ve done shows with the SOS Band, Soul II Soul and Loose Ends (all of who also appear at Wembley) before but never with Patti LaBelle and The Whispers. It’s very exciting.
You’ve had a long association with the British people and you’re very popular over here so how do British audiences compare with ones in the USA?
In a way they are more loyal. Each time I come out and perform anywhere in the UK the love that they send my way sometimes when I’m singing makes me cry (laughs). I think oh my God, what a lovely audience. I just find they’re a lot more loyal and dedicated to the artist. When they’re into you, they’re into you and the music and songs like ‘Car Wash’ and ‘Wishing On A Star,’ I never would expect that people would be so enthusiastic about these songs even today when they recorded back in the late seventies. But I’m very happy. In the states, people, of course, love to hear the songs but I’d say that they’re not as enthusiastic as the audiences over here (in the UK). But still, they give you love.
Those songs you mentioned there, ‘Car Wash,’ and ‘Wishing On A Star’ – do you ever get tired of singing them?
No, I don’t.
What is it, then, that makes those songs so special?
Because they’re classics and they’re timeless. Look how long ago the songs were recorded and each time I sing them it’s like it’s a new release.
Going right back to the beginning, what circumstances led you to become a part of Rose Royce?
Fate, really, because I was living in Miami and I was singing in a local club in a house band and I got discovered. The next thing I know, I was flown to LA and I met the late Norman Whitfield who produced and also wrote for The Temptations. The rest of it is history.
Who actually discovered you?
It was Joe Harris, the leader of the group The Undisputed Truth. They had a girl in the group at that time who had recently gotten married and they had been touring a lot and she and her husband wanted to start a family. It was going to be her last tour and they tried to find a female to replace her. They had performed in Miami and came to this club where we were performing and when Joe saw me he said “that’s the girl I want to replace… ” I can’t remember her name. He said “that’s her right there.” But when I went out to LA, Norman Whitfield had other plans. He already had Rose Royce but they were called Total Concept Unlimited and they used to travel with the late Edwin Starr as his band and Norman Whitfield would also use them when he would go into the studio to record albums on the Temptations. So he was about to form them as a band and he was looking for a girl to front them and he changed the name to Rose Royce once I became the lead singer.
You went under the name Rose Norwalt for a time, didn’t you?
Yeah. Norman sat us down one day and said I’m going to change the name of this group: from now on this group is called Rose Royce. We said: you’re going to name us after a car? He said: “Don’t be silly, you’re not going to be named after a car. It’s rose, as in the flower, meaning elegance and class.” Then he looked at me and said “from now on your going to be known as Rose.” I said my mother is going to be so upset and he said “your mother is not going to be upset when you’re rich and famous.” I said she’s not going to care about that, she named me Gwen not Rose. He said “from now on the world will know you as Rose” and I guess the world knows me as Rose (laughs).
Did people assume that you were the Rose part of Rose Royce?
People actually thought my name was Rose Royce. Once I started introducing myself as Rose and the press knew that I was called Rose. Even today when some people see me they go “hey, Miss Rose Royce,” and I go hi. Then I had to come up with a surname. Norman said “people want to know what your surname is as you keep telling them that you’re not Rose Royce.” His partner was called Walter so from Norman and Walter I came up with the name Rose Norwalt.
How did the band feel when people started thinking that you were actually Rose Royce?
I think I can feel the fire coming from them as we speak (laughs).
There’s no chance of a reunion then?
I don’t think so. Unless they’re on one stage and I’m on another (laughs).
The album that really launched Rose Royce was the ‘Car Wash’ soundtrack. What do you remember about recording that album and attending the movie premiere?
First of all when MCA came to Norman Whitfield and wanted him to do the music for the film they wanted him to use the Temptations or a group of that calibre and we had already recorded the second album that we released, ‘In Full Bloom.’ It was finished and Norman was about to release the first single from that album but when he got offered the film he said “we’re going to put this on the backburner and you guys are going to do the new movie music.” Of course, there was a big hoo-hah about that because MCA didn’t want an unknown group to do the music for a big budget film (directed by a young Joel Schumacher) that was ‘Car Wash’ so Norman said if you want me to do it I’m going to use this band, if not the you need to call Quincy Jones or somebody but because they really wanted Norman in the end they agreed for him to do it with us. We used to go on the set every day because Norman had to go and see what was happening and then go home and write the music. But when we did ‘Car Wash’ and we were at the premiere… once it was playing on the radio and we were at the premiere, when they started the film and the music started playing everybody in the theatre was on their feet dancing. Nobody was watching the film and the producers and the director were going crazy and trying to get people to sit down. People were dancing and we were looking at each other and Norman said I told you that you were going to be rich and famous (laughs). But you never think about stuff like that, you know, because I never wanted to be a singer. I never wanted to be in the music business – I wanted to be a flight attendant so I travel the world for free. That was what I wanted to do.
That film probably changed your life instantly, didn’t it?
What was the experience of being an instant star like?
I found it quite stressful really because I wasn’t used to the fact that every time you walk out of your house there are people hanging outside waiting to take your picture for a magazine or a newspaper and you had to be careful who you were talking to because you could be talking to someone like yourself and you didn’t know what you said could be printed. Even when you were going out with a friend to have a burger or something you could end up with a picture of yourself on the front page with your mouth open trying to eat a burger. For me, because I was so young and reserved, it was very stressful. I don’t think I handled it very well (laughs). So those people that are hiding from the press, I know exactly how they feel.
(pictured: Norman Whitfield)
Going back to the music, the late Norman Whitfield was a genius in the studio – what was he like to work with?
He was a perfectionist – a tyrant. You had to give him exactly what he was feeling in his head and somehow he would always manage to get it out of you, strange as that sounds. If he heard something musically in his head in a certain way, if he meant keeping you in the studio for five days without you leaving, you would not leave that room until you played or sang what he wanted to hear in his head. I guess it worked because the proof is in the pudding; all these songs that he produced and wrote we’re still talking about today and I’m still going out and performing them.
How did he present the songs to you?
At that time he would give you a tape and say I want you to go home and learn this song, we’re going to record it in a couple of days. So I would go home and I would study it. Occasionally, he would say to me, you’re not pronouncing the word properly or singing the line right but usually he would just let me go and I’d go in and what you hear today is what came out.