Thursday, 30 July 2015 12:01 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

Article Index
All Pages

Gwen_Dickey"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...


Gwen_liveYou'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?

Yes, overnight.

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.

Norman_1(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.




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.

Gwen_singleYou 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.



Last Updated on Thursday, 30 July 2015 16:56