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Interview: 70s soul legend Gwen Dickey, former lead singer of Rose Royce

We caught up with Gwen Dickey, the voice behind the smash hit Car Wash, ahead of her Camden Jazz Café gig…

Gwen Dickey shot to stardom in the 70s as the lead singer of Rose Royce. The group had massive hits with Car Wash and the much covered song Wishing on a Star, and since leaving the band Gwen has established a solo career. We caught up with her before her Jazz Café gig on Friday 27th June to find out about life as a star of the 70s.

What was it like back when you first started with Rose Royce, hearing your songs on the radio all the time and things like that?

Well the first time I heard Car Wash on the radio I was jumping around like I had bees in my pants. I was so excited, because first of all I’d never heard my voice on the radio before, and then to actually hear myself singing on the radio, it was very exciting.

Was it strange at all, hearing yourself?

No it wasn’t strange. I was like a kid that woke up christmas morning and got everything that I wanted under the tree. I was just very excited.

So what were some of the craziest things that happened to you back then?

Oh god. There were so many. Being locked out of the dressing room, and not being able to get in, and we were onstage in like ten minutes time, and the girl that travelled with me and looked after me, we went outside, and I don’t remember what we went outside for, but we went out the side door, thinking the door was open so we could get back in, but you couldn’t. And we had to walk like all the way round this huge building to get back in, and we were literally going to be called onstage in ten minutes, so we were freaking out. So that was one of the strange things I can remember just off the top of my head.

Did you have any weird encounters with fans or anything?

Well I had a stalker! You know at the time stalking wasn’t really as major as it is now, but I did have a stalker. But I didn’t really think of it at the time, because every show we did, she would come. The first time I met her, she got brought into the dressing room with a couple of other people, and when those people left it was almost like we had to get security to put her out. She didn’t want to leave. And then we went to the next place and they said: “Oh there are a couple of fans that want to come in,” and security came in with the fans and there she was! And we went to the next place and we looked out at the audience and she was sitting on the front row, and it was like: “Oh my god!” And she was blowing me kisses and, you know, she sent me a diamond bracelet. And the manager or someone said: “You need to send that back, because if you accept that bracelet then this person is thinking: ‘Oh, right, I’m in there.’” So that was strange. That was something I’d never experienced before.

What happened in the end? How did you stop it?

Well because this person kept appearing show after show after show, and sending me all these expensive presents. So then the tour manager stepped in and it all got resolved, and after that I didn’t really hear from that person anymore. But I kept getting gifts, and we kept sending them back.
And one time, something else strange that happened, I think he was a sheikh or a prince or something from the Middle East, and we were doing this show in London, and he had taken up a whole floor because he wanted he and I to be on the same floor together. And then he sent his bodyguards to take me shopping with a briefcase full of money. That was really weird!
And for my birthday, how he knew when my birthday was was really strange, he sent me an arabian stallion. We were in the studio recording and we came back and they said: “Oh, there’s some people here with a present for Gwen,” and I was like: “A present for me? What are you talking about?” So I talked to my producer and we all went out and there was this guy with this horse box and he brought this horse out. And oh, I don’t remember the guy’s name, but he said: “Oh, he sent this for her birthday.” And I looked at my manager and he was like: “Oh you have to take that back, she can’t keep that.” And I was really shocked, because this guy sent me an arabian stallion! It was weird!

Wow, that’s amazing!

Can you imagine somebody sending their bodyguards with a briefcase of money to send me shopping? [laughs] And my tour manager said: “Well get me a dress to put on and a wig and they can take me!”

So what were some of the high points of your career?

I think the high point was being able to travel the world. I mean, we didn’t really get to see a lot. You’d get off the plane and then you’d go to the hotel, and then you’d be taken to the place you were playing and then it was back to the hotel. But just being able to say that I’ve travelled the world. And being able to sell out places like Madison Square Garden in less than half an hour for two days running. You know, those are really special moments that come to the front of my mind at the moment.

When you toured the world what was your favourite place to visit?

Oh that’s a tough one, there are so many! It’s really difficult to pick somewhere to say that’s my favourite place I went. But at the moment, now, today, I would have to say Dubai is my favourite place to perform. But when I was young, back then with the band, there were just so many places where you enjoy performing. It’s difficult to just choose one.

On the other side of things, what were some of the low points of your career?

The mental and emotional strain that I was put under. I mean, I was with the band for five years as the lead singer, and I guess I’d say the last two years, were very difficult for me, because there was so much pressure on me emotionally. There was a lot of jealousy within the group because I was always the focal point, the press only wanted to talk to me. You know, you’d get off the plane and there’d be a Rolls Royce for me, and just a normal limousine for the guys. And all those things put a lot of pressure on you.
And they didn’t like the fact that people looked at me as Rose Royce, and not them, so just the jealousy that caused a lot of strain and stress on me emotionally. And you know, in the end I just said that’s it and I left the band.

Since leaving the band you’ve had a solo career. How different is it working on your own to working with a band?

Well, at first it was a bit difficult because obviously I was used to having these eight guys on stage with me, but after- I’d say it took me a good year to get used to- because it’s very difficult. You have to be very talented, it’s not an egotistical thing to say, but you have to be able to carry a show when you’re the only person on the stage. And it’s not an easy thing to do, as I learned, you know, the hard way. But I had to train myself to be able to carry a show on my own, and it took time but after a while it just became second nature to me. I didn’t even remember having the guys on stage with me.

So obviously you’ve had a long and successful career. Do you have any tips for anyone who’s just starting out in the business?

Well one tip that I would give younger artists is that that word, business, is very important. You know, don’t rely on the managers, and the accountants to be totally in charge of your business while you’re just standing there smiling and letting people from Hello and Heat take your photograph. You need to be on top of your business. You need to understand every word that a contact has written in it. You have to have a solicitor that you go to, not your manager. You need to be on top of your business, and learn your craft. That would be the thing I would say to young artists. Take care of your business. Be on top of it. Don’t leave it in the hands of other people and just think, oh well they’re handling it. Because I can assure you, one day you’re going to wake up and regret it.

Your voice is perhaps even more amazing now than it was when you started out, and I know that a lot of people suffer from fatigue and things. So what is the secret behind how well you maintain your voice?

Well for me, if I had a performance tomorrow, I’d just rest. I don’t do anything, I don’t go anywhere, I just stay home and I rest. I’ve always spent a little time warming up my voice, but mainly I just rest. I mean some people, they run around and they go out the night before. Not me. I just rest. Because it’s important to have that so your voice can be as clear as it possibly can.

How do you think the music industry has changed since you started out?

Well it’s changed a lot as an industry. Everybody wants to sound like everybody else, everybody wants to look like everybody else. I mean during our day we didn’t try to look like each other; we didn’t try to sound like each other. We all had our own style, our own sound. And I think today a lot of record companies they see you as a pound sign. If you can sing like Rihanna and you look good then they’ll sign you! If you can sound like Justin Timberlake and you can dance they’re going to sign you. And I just don’t think there’s a lot of individualism out there with artists today, and I think record companies see them as just a quick pound really.

Do you wish the music industry could go back to more of that individual style?

I think so. Because I mean, when you look at how they are today, they all have different coloured eyes, but they all look the same! All of their music, it sounds the same. And it’s like where’s your music? Why do you sound like this person? And I’m not sure am I listening to this person or am I listening to that person because they all sound just sound the same.
But I can understand the record company’s point. Why bother building someone’s career when you could just jump on the band wagon and have them sounding like One Direction, or sounding like somebody else and make money, because that’s what the younger kids are listening to, and that’s what they’re into. So you know, I can kind of understand where they’re coming from, but everybody wants to be on X Factor, and they think: ”I’m going to be on X Factor and I’m going to be a star.”
It’s like a machine just popping out the same old stuff, just with different colour eyes.

If you could go back and talk to yourself from the past, when you were just starting out your career or before then, what advice would you give to yourself?

Oh there are so many things I would tell myself. Don’t do this. Don’t be with this group. Don’t be so open hearted and think that everybody is a friend. Just be more conscious of people.

Lots of people have covered Rose Royce’s songs, for example Car Wash has been covered a lot recently. How does that feel?

I’m always really happy, because these are very classy, iconic songs, even today. I mean people still embrace them. They love them, which I’m really happy about. So when I hear people like Madonna, and Beyoncé I’m like: “Wow. They have excellent taste!” And it really makes me smile. I’m always really happy that they’ve chosen those songs. I mean, out of every song they could choose, these are the songs they’re going for.

You’re performing at the Jazz Café in Camden on Friday 27 June. How does it feel to be performing a lot of your old hits again?

Well you know, I tour all the time with my band, so we get to perform the songs quite often. And you know, we did a show last week where once again the show was sold out. And the people were going mental. Every song I was doing they were like: “Oh my god!” And they were screaming and they were singing, and it always makes me feel really good to know that people still love and embrace the songs from back in the day. And they still turn out at the concerts, and we want everybody to come out next Friday. I’ll be doing all the hits, and they can come and hear that. And I’ll be singing Car Wash, Wishing on a Star, Love Don’t Live Here Anymore. I’ll do all the hits.

Do you just perform the old favourites now, or will fans get to hear some new things as well?

Well I’ve tried to incorporate new songs that I’ve done, but people are just like: “No no no!” They only want to hear the hits. So I said, well if that’s what you want to hear then that’s fine with me. It doesn’t bother me, I’m fine with it.

We know you were injured a little while ago, and back in February at a concert you promised that next time people see you you’ll be wearing stilettos...

Oh, well unfortunately I’m not in my stilettos. I’m still hobbling in my heels. But it doesn’t affect the voice at all. The voice is absolutely right on. The only thing is, I can’t dance, I have to sit down and sing. But you know, the voice is good.

So the fans won’t be seeing any fabulous footwear next Friday?

Oh well, I can bring them and sit them on the stage! [laughs] I won’t be walking on stage in them but I can sit them on the stage for people to have a look at. But as I said, it’s very hurtful to me that I won’t be able to come on stage wearing my lovely stilettos yet, and I did promise that next time people saw me I’d be in them, but unfortunately my spine has a mind of its own. And you know, at the end of the day people come out to hear me sing, and that’s the most important thing for the show.
I’ve never been a dancer. I’m not one of these Justin Timberlakes, or Beyoncé or Rihanna, I’ve always been a vocalist, you know? And that’s what people want to hear: good music and the vocals, and that’s what I’ll be giving them next Friday!

Absolutely. So what are you up to next? You’ve mentioned that you’re touring and you have a couple of gigs coming up…?

Well as I said, I’m just touring with my band and trying to rest as much as I can. And I’ve got a big thing coming up in November, a mini tour that I’m going to be doing with the SOS Band and Loose Ends, and we’re going to be doing the Indigo2, and Middlesbrough and Manchester, so you know I’m kind of excited and looking forward to that. And a couple of other shows of course that I’m booked to do. And then I’m going to take about six weeks off and go home to the States and spend some time with family and friends!

Well that all sounds great. Is there anything you’d like to say to your fans at all, whether they’re coming to your concert next week or not?

Oh well, I’ll be looking forward to seeing everybody come out next Friday. I’ll be sending you love from the stage, and I’m sure they’ll be sending me love from the audience. And I just thank them for the support that they’ve given me throughout my whole career ever since I was 16-years-old going on 17 when I recorded Car Wash and it came out. I’ve been receiving that love from my fans and long may it continue. And I love all of my fans!

You can see Gwen perform all her greatest hits at the Jazz Café in Camden on Friday 27 June. click here for more information or to buy tickets.

Words Philippa Peall

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