How we made: Car Wash by Rose Royce

‘This will never be a hit, we told each other – we are literally singing about a car wash!’

Gwen Dickey, singer

I was singing in a band called the Jewels and was spotted and recommended to Norman Whitfield. I had no idea he was a legendary Motown songwriter and producer. I went to meet him at his mansion in Beverly Hills and said: “Sir, why do you have all these gold and platinum records on your walls?” He dropped to the floor and laughed for 20 minutes. Later everyone went: “The Norman Whitfield? The Temptations? Marvin Gaye?” But I was this little girl from Biloxi in Mississippi. I never read the names on the back of albums.

Norman had left Motown and was working with a band called Total Concept Unlimited. He told them they needed a “good-looking young lady who could sing”, so put us together as Rose Royce. I was renamed Rose Norwalt – a blend of Norman and Walter, his sound engineer. “The next time you go home,” Norman said, “you’ll be so famous they’ll be running down the street after you.” I thought he was crazy.

We were recording our first album when he said: “I’ve got a deal for a comedy film called Car Wash – about people working in a car wash – and you’re going to do the music.” One day after a band rehearsal, Norman ordered buckets of chicken and the others went off to play basketball. He started singing then got a pencil and wrote the lyrics to Car Wash right there on the greasy chicken box. He taught me the song while I sat next to him, giggling. “You won’t be laughing when this is a big hit!” he said.

Three days later, we were in the studio recording it. Not many songs start with handclaps but Norman didn’t bother about conventions. He was meticulous about every pronunciation. He made me sing the line “a movie star or an Indian chief” for two hours because he said it sounded like I was singing “Indian sheep”.

The song opens the film, and at the premiere the whole audience were up on their feet as it played. The producer was really upset, going: “Sit down! Sit down and watch the film!” The song was a huge hit and the film became iconic of the disco era. Shortly afterwards, in Miami, people were running after the band coach, calling my name, like Norman had predicted.

Watch a trailer for the film Car Wash

Henry Garner Jr, drums

We formed Total Concept Unlimited after leaving junior high school in Los Angeles, shortening the name to TCU because it was such a mouthful. We became Edwin Starr’s backing band and toured with him in Britain. Everyone still got the name wrong. “Ladies and gentlemen, all the way from the USA … TUC!” When we hooked up with Norman, he said we had to change the name. We became Magic Wand for a while, then Rose Royce. Norman explained that Rose represented Gwen – classy – and Royce represented us guys – a top-of-the-line car.

I remember asking Norman what the plot of the film was and he said: “It’s what happens at an everyday car wash. That’s the story.” I understood it after that. We got to visit the film set and were excited to meet people like the Pointer Sisters and Richard Pryor. The Pointer Sisters also came in to the studio to do a song for the soundtrack. They thought they’d nail it in one take – they didn’t know Norman. They came into the studio one morning and didn’t leave until the following day.

‘I want a sound like a machine’ … Norman Whitfield.
‘I want a sound like a machine’ … Norman Whitfield. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Norman drilled us until every note was perfect, turning us from untrained horses into thoroughbreds. We rehearsed in his mansion at Beverly Hills. For Car Wash, he told me: “I want a sound like a machine.” When I came up with the “tch-tch” disco hi-hat sound, he went: “That’s it! Keep that going through the whole song.” Luckily, the single came out just as disco was exploding.

We recently learned that the movie was put on hold at first because Universal were unsure how to market a black film, but the song sold the film. Among ourselves, we would say: “This will never be a hit. We’re literally singing about a car wash!” We never said anything to Norman. Thank God we didn’t.

• Rose Royce featuring Gwen Dickey play Soultasia, a Lifetime Celebration of Soul & Disco at Maldon, Essex, on 24 July. Tickets here. Rose Royce (original members) will shortly announce US dates at www.instagram.com/roseroycehits.

Contributor

Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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