Although many know its remarkable title track, fewer may recall that Car Wash was actually the soundtrack to a 1976 comedy film that introduced comedian Richard Pryor into the mainstream. It became a word-of-mouth success, costing $2 million and turning in a gross profit of $20 million.
It also made a name of Rose Royce. Originally put together by Motown producer Norman Whitfield to back The Temptations on tour, they wrote the music for the film on the set, resulting in a double album – on which they played every note – that captured their remarkable creativity.
Car Wash positively brims with life, featuring some of the tightest funk this side of James Brown and Parliament: just listen to the groove of Daddy Rich and the steamy grease of Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. Kenny Copeland’s keening vocal on I Wanna Get Next to You showed that this was superior soul; you could just imagine The Temptations themselves singing it.
However, it was the vocals of Gwen Dickey and the seven introductory handclaps of the title track that the mass market rightly lapped up. Zestful, special and difficult to tire of, the track Car Wash still transcends, no matter how many times it is compiled and terribly cheap acrylic wigs are worn to accompany it.
I’m Going Down, later covered memorably by Mary J Blige, was another standout. The Pointer Sisters, still light years away from Jump (For My Love), add a low down and dirty contribution on You Gotta Believe.
But it is not all about the obvious: Sunrise, all 11 minutes of it, was a true tour-de-force, with its muted horns and incessant synthesiser riff. It owes not just a very obvious debt to Isaac Hayes, but also to the highlife rhythms of Afrobeat. With its spare bass and looped horns, it’s arguably Whitfield’s last long-form masterpiece.
This is a superlative collection that touches on funk, gospel and disco. It set Rose Royce on a steady commercial course for the next half-decade and underlines Whitfield’s gravitas as a producer/arranger.