Some of the songs are timeless. When you first heard ‘Wishing On A Star’ did you think that it was going to be a massive hit?
I never thought of them as hits. You have to understand that I came from a small town called Biloxi, Mississippi, and I wasn’t really familiar with ‘oh, this is going to be a hit.’ Those are words that I heard from Norman Whitfield because I never heard words like that. I didn’t, even in Miami. I never thought about stuff like that: oh, this is a hit record or that’s a hit record. First of all, ‘Wishing On A Star’ wasn’t written for Rose Royce. It was written for Barbra Streisand. At that time she was recording an album and she had chosen the song to go on it and then for whatever reason she decided she had enough songs and wasn’t going to have ‘Wishing On A Star’ on her album. So she said to the writer, the late Billie Rae Calvin (who was a member of The Undisputed Truth), I’m not going to use this song now on my album, I’ve got enough songs. So Billie came over to Norman’s studio, in tears of course, saying Barbra Streisand wasn’t going to record her song and Norman said, “I don’t know why you’re crying: Gwen can sing it better than Barbra Streisand anyway.” I said what? Are you kidding me? And of course, the rest is history.
Another classic song that is associated with you and your time in Rose Royce is ‘Love Don’t Live Here Any More.’ Is there a story behind it and how it came to be recorded?
Yes, but it’s not my story, it concerns the late Miles Gregory, who was one of the writers that Norman had on his staff at Whitfield Records. As I said, we used to go in the studio and Norman would keep us there for three or four days at a time without us even going home. You had to come to the studio with an overnight bag because you didn’t know when you were going to get to leave. In the studio there was a phone and if it rang would ring there was a light that would flash but if people were involved in recording or if they were writing, they didn’t pay any attention to the light and once the session players were gone people weren’t really answering the phone. So Miles Gregory went home one day after being in the studio twenty-four hours with Norman Whitfield and he and his wife had had an massive argument. She was saying “you haven’t been in the studio all this time, you haven’t called me one time, I’ve been worried, where have you been?” He said “I’ve been in the studio with Norman” and he even took her to the studio and Norman said “yes, we’ve been here all the time. Do you want to hear the song?” She said “I don’t want to hear the song” so she told him: “the next time you go to the studio and you stay in there for twenty-four hours and you don’t come home I won’t be here when you come back because I’ve had enough of this.” Not everybody could handle being the partner of somebody who was in the music business. He said okay and so I guess a couple of weeks later he forgot what she told him and again, he was in the studio with Norman. He called her a couple times and he was in the studio with Norman for twenty-four hours. When he went home, he opened the front door and all the furniture had gone. He thought they’d been robbed. He went through the house and everything had gone. But when he went in the bedroom and on the mirror in the bedroom his wife had written ‘Love Don’t Live Here Any More.’ The only things in the bedroom were his clothes still hanging in the wardrobe and his guitar was in the corner and he said he sat down and he wrote ‘Love Don’t Live Here Any More’ in tears. When he told me the story I felt sorry for him. And of course, at that time I was getting so much pressure from the guys in Rose Royce because all the press only wanted to talk to me and the band weren’t happy that I was being called Rose and it was just a lot of stress and a lot of pressure. ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ was one of the last songs that I recorded with the group so I knew after that album and that tour I knew that I was going to be gone. I hadn’t said it to anyone but that’s why I was kind of upset when I sang it in the studio.
How did you break the news to the band?
I didn’t tell them. I finished the album, barely made it through the last tour and when the tour was finished, I called them all to a meeting. They didn’t turn up so I packed my bags and I disappeared. And Norman put up a ten thousand dollar reward for whoever could find me and bring me to him and for a month they didn’t know where I was.
So what were you doing during that period when you laid low?
I was just a mess because I had spent five years with these guys and they had made me enemy number one because they weren’t happy but they wouldn’t tell Norman things. They didn’t like the fact that I was singing all the songs. They would come and tell me but they wouldn’t say anything to Norman. So I was having to deal with all this madness and I was just stressed out so I was hanging out in an apartment that I had rented and eating and crying. I was very young so it took me a long time to shed all of that and get over it and get myself together and start my life anew.
Did you feel that you were an outsider when you first join the band, because they had already been playing together for some time?
No, at the beginning we were like brothers and sisters, we were fine. We did everything together. We were together every day, so we were very close but it wasn’t until ‘Car Wash’ that there was a little bit of tension. By the second album you could definitely tell that there was a difference and by the third album it just felt like all hell had broken loose within the group. It was just falling apart because they weren’t happy. They felt that everybody that could sing should be featured on the songs but Norman said didn’t want that and that I was a star of the group and if they didn’t like it they could leave: he could put eight chickens in tuxedos behind me and they could go and do what they wanted to do. (Laughs).
So how long did it take you to get yourself together to the point where you thought that you could start becoming a solo artist?
I didn’t really want to have anything to do with the music business for a couple of years. I eventually came out of hiding and I went and sat down and talked to Norman. He was begging me to come back and even said that I could do a solo album. But I told him no, I’m done with the music business, I’m done with all of this. I just want to leave LA and I don’t want to be here anymore. I’m done. I’ve had it. I can’t do this anymore. So he said “go away and think about it” and I said okay. The next day I put my house up for sale – he didn’t know – and a month later I packed my bags and moved back to Miami. Then a friend of mine who was running a radio station, he used to promote shows as well, he told me: “you’re too talented, you’ve got all these hits behind you, and you’re not doing anything with your life and I can’t sit back and watch you just sit around and let all of this just go away and fall by the wayside.” Then he said, “I what you to do some solo stuff.” I said I’m done, I’m not singing no more. So he said, “I tell you what, if you can kiss my you-know-what you’re never going to have to sing again but if you can’t do that I’m putting a band together and I’m booking some shows and you can do what you do best.” I said, I’m telling you I’m not doing it. He said: “I gave you an ultimatum now you choose which one you think you can do the best.” I said well, I think singing will be better, and he said “that’s what I thought.” So he pushed me back out there slowly, slowly, slowly and I built myself back up from there.
You made quite a few singles in the ’80s and ’90s, such as ‘Don’t Stop.’ Would you like to have made more albums?
Probably one more. It’s not something that I want to keep continuing to do.
Did you grow up with an interest in music?
Only gospel because my late father was a minister. So I grew up in the church and it was only gospel music in the choir at school. Other than that, I wasn’t really into music.
Did you come from a musical family?
My father and all of his brothers and sisters were great singers. My father had a gospel group but other than that, like I said, I was never interested in music.
That’s ironic, really, given your success with Rose Royce.
Exactly. I had no interest whatsoever. I wanted to travel. That’s all I wanted to do.
So when you at high school, then, what was your ambition?
My ambition was get away from my mother and be grown (laughs). I wanted to travel because I used to travel a lot in the United States with my parents, because as I said, my late father was a minister and he would go to different places. They had a thing in America called a revival, where a minister would come and for three or four nights they would have a church service. So I was used to travelling around the States with my father so I knew that I liked travelling.
Were there any singers that you admired and liked?
Yeah, I did listen to music but it wasn’t something that I was interested in (career-wise). I’d listen to people like Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. I knew the songs and I could sing them but it just wasn’t anything that was for me.
But you ended up seeing in this group called the Jewels, is that right?
Yes, but that was just a bit of fun. That was how I discovered because we were a local band, The Jewells. We were the house band at this club so that’s where I was and how I got discovered.
What’s been the highlight of your career to date?
There’s so many. Just meeting so many different people – not just famous people – from around the world and to experience in a small way, different cultures. That is something that a lot of people don’t really get to experience; to get to see the world. Not just watching it on film, to get to do it in person with your own eyes. It’s just a great experience.
You say you like travelling: do you have any favourite places that you like to go to?
I really like Dubai and I like Japan.
What about unfulfilled ambitions. Have you got any more projects on the horizon?
I have a couple of things in mind but they’re not anything that I want to talk about right now.
In terms of music and recording, is there anything else in the pipeline?
Perhaps next year. I have a couple of songs that have been sent to me so I’m thinking about going in the studio but I won’t do that until next year.
What do you remember about recording a version of ‘Wishing On A Star’ with rapper Jay-Z in 1999?
At the time he wasn’t the Jay-Z that he is now. He was just starting to boil a little bit; he was just sizzling a little. He was a nice guy, and it was fun to work with him.
You also took part in the musical/stage show, ‘What a Feeling.’
Yes, I did that with Limahl from Kajagoogoo. It’s an experience that I don’t want to repeat. I have so much respect for the people who work in the theatre because it’s hard work. Fridays and Saturdays you do two shows a day. You’re doing Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday both shows and you have to be on point every time you hit the stage – both vocally and with the acting – so I have a lot of respect the people who work in the theatre. It’s not something that I would do for as long as I did but I enjoyed it and it was a good experience.
Do you remember when you first heard your own voice on the radio singing?
Oh my lord, I was so excited I was jumping up and down like a little kid that got everything they wanted for Christmas (laughs). It was the ‘Car Wash’ single. We were at Norman’s. He called us to his house and said they were going to be playing the song on the radio. We got to his house and he had every radio on. We were there for maybe about ten minutes and then one of his sons said “it’s on the radio, it’s on the radio!” So every radio was turned up really loud and we were so excited. Oh my God, that’s me! (Laughs).
How did your parents feel when the record was a success?
They were happy and excited but when they went to see the film – and bless them, they were saying to people that’s our daughter up there, and people were going yeah, right. So they were a bit hurt that people didn’t believe them but I said Ma, don’t worry about it: you know that I’m your daughter and that’s all that matters.
GWEN DICKEY WILL BE PERFORMING AT THE GREAT VOICES OF SOUL CONCERT AT WEMBLEY’S SSE ARENA ON NOVEMBER 15TH 2015