In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Rose Royce – “Car Wash”
HIT #1: January 29, 1977
STAYED AT #1: 1 week
One of my favorite conventions from ’80s and ’90s movies, the ones I grew up with, is the rap song that plays over the end credits and explains the plot of the movie you just saw. It’s a deeply strange thing that they were doing for a while, and I love it. Will Smith, the undisputed king of this form, will eventually appear in this column with one of his end-credits rap songs, and he attempted to revive the practice earlier this summer in the Aladdin remake. (It didn’t work; the Will Smith/DJ Khaled version of “Friend Like Me” never charted.)
But my favorite example of the genre will always be Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks’ “City Of Crime,” from the 1987 version of the old cop show Dragnet. I may or may not have bought the Dragnet soundtrack on cassette entirely because of “City Of Crime,” and I may or may not have been upset that it didn’t feature more of Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks rapping. (“City Of Crime” didn’t chart, and neither Aykroyd nor Hanks has ever had a top-10 single. Aykroyd did, however, sing backup on a song that will eventually appear in this column.)
But in the ’70s, things were different. Rap did not yet exist as a recorded form of music, so there were no end-credits plot-summary rap songs. Instead, we got funk and disco songs that played during the opening credits and described the plot of the movie that you were about to watch. Isaac Hayes’ eternal “Theme From Shaft,” a #1 single in 1971, is the all-time champion of this form. But Rose Royce’s “Car Wash,” which made it to #1 a little more than five years later, is pretty good, too.
It helps, of course, that director Michael Schultz’s 1976 comedy Car Wash, doesn’t exactly have a plot. Car Wash — written by, of all possible people, Joel Schumacher — is essentially a workplace hangout comedy, like Clerks or the Barbershop movies. A bunch of guys work at a car wash, and they deal with the owner, and the owner’s pothead son who wants to be with common people, and the various crazy customers — a list of cameos that includes Richard Pryor, as a big-money preacher, and George Carlin, as a horny cabdriver.
Car Wash is a ’70s movie with a predominantly black cast, but it’s not really a blaxploitation movie. And while its theme song shares a few elements with blaxploitation funk, it’s not really a blaxploitation funk song. Instead, it’s a soulful disco track, the last major hit from a producer whose work helped make both blaxploitation funk and disco possible.
Norman Whitfield, the Motown songwriter and producer partially responsible for masterpieces like Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” split off from Motown in 1975 to form Whitfield Records, his own label. He poached the Undisputed Truth, his psychedelic soul pet project, from Motown. (The Undisputed Truth’s highest-charting single, 1971’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.) And Whitfield eventually put together a roster that included Willie Hutch, Junior Walker, and his new project Rose Royce.
Rose Royce had started out as an eight-piece band in Los Angeles in the early ’70s. They had a few different names, like Total Concept Unlimited and Magic Wand, and for a while, they worked as Edwin Starr’s backing band. Starr had hit #1 in 1970 “War,” an absolute banger that Whitfield had co-written and produced. Starr introduced his new band to Whitfield, who signed them up and started grooming them. One night on tour in Miami, the Undisputed Truth’s Joe Harris met a local singer named Gwen Dickey. Harris wanted to recruit Dickey for the Undisputed Truth, and he told Whitfield about her. Whitfield instead flew Dickey out to Los Angeles, renamed her Rose Norwalt, and put her at the front of the band that he’d renamed Rose Royce.
“Car Wash” was Rose Royce’s first single. The director Michael Schultz had come to Whitfield to compose music for his movie, so Whitfield and Rose Royce did the entire soundtrack. A lot of the soundtrack album is instrumental, but Dickey also gets plenty of chances to sing lead. (The Pointer Sisters, who also appear in the movie, show up on the soundtrack for one song. The Pointer Sisters never hit #1, but they’ve got two different singles that peaked at #2, 1978’s “Fire” and 1981’s “Slow Hand.” They’re both 7s.)
“Car Wash” is Norman Whitfield’s version of a disco song, but it doesn’t really sound that much more disco than “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.” Whitfield and the band keep the continuity between the thump of disco and the rippling, orchestral soul that preceded it. It’s not too difficult to imagine “Car Wash” coming out four years earlier than it did. Only the repetitive string riffs and the the insistent return of the chorus really mark it as a product of the disco era.
On “Car Wash,” Gwen Dickey has a pleasantly casual delivery that matches the pace and tone of the movie. The lyrics are pure sitcom-theme stuff — “Let me tell you, it’s always cool / And the boss don’t mind sometimes if you act a fool” — and now that I think of it, Car Wash could’ve worked just fine as a sitcom. But Dickey lays it all out conversationally, as if she works at the car wash, too, and she’s just off work the day the movie’s events go down.
The album version of “Car Wash” has an easy five-minute sprawl to it, and it ends with the band getting a chance to groove out for a while. But even as a three-minute single edit, “Car Wash” has one of the long, cinematic, stretched-out intros that Whitfield was so good at putting together. The track opens with a schoolyard handclap, layering on wah-wah guitar and rubbery bass and itchy cymbals and kick-drum thump before the full band kicks in.
While “Car Wash” is a lot simpler and more repetitive than plenty of Whitfield’s older work, it’s nowhere near as simple and repetitive as, say, what KC & The Sunshine Band were doing around the same time. That earworm hook — “workin’ at the car wash” — is what everyone remembers, and Whitfield definitely keeps bringing it back again and again. But there’s still a lot else going on on the song. It’s a springy, breezy, nicely orchestrated little track.
Unfortunately, Whitfield Records did not turn out to be a Motown-level hit factory. Rose Royce only made it into the top 10 once more, with the pillowy ballad “I Wanna Get Next To You,” another song from the Car Wash soundtrack. (“I Wanna Get Next To You” peaked at #10. It’s a 9.) Rose Royce kept making records, and they were making the R&B charts well into the ’80s, even though Gwen Dickey left the group in 1980.
Rose Royce have a rep as being a one-hit wonder, but their records have lived on. Listening to the Car Wash soundtrack is an exercise is deja vu, since it’s been sampled so many times. And then there are the covers. Madonna, who will eventually appear in this column, included a cover of Rose Royce’s 1978 song “Love Don’t Live Here” on her 1984 album Like A Virgin. And in 1994, Mary J. Blige, who will also eventually appear in this column, covered the absolute hell out of “I’m Going Down,” another song from the Car Wash soundtrack. Blige’s “I’m Goin’ Down” is one of her all-time great showstoppers, a total masterpiece. Meanwhile, Just Blaze sampled the original “I’m Going Down” on Cam’ron’s 2002 Juelz Santana collab “Oh Boy,” which peaked at #4. That one is a 10.
“Car Wash” and “I Wanna Get Next To You” would also be Norman Whitfield’s final top-10 hits. Whitfield Records went inactive in 1982, and Whitfield returned to Motown soon after, reuniting with the Temptations on their 1983 single “Sail Away” and working on the soundtrack to the 1985 movie The Last Dragon. Later on, Whitfield got into trouble for tax evasion and did a few months on house arrest. He died of complications from diabetes in 2008. He was one of the greatest pop music producers who has ever lived.
BONUS BEATS: Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliott covered “Car Wash” for the soundtrack of Shark Tale, the 2004 animated movie that starred the aforementioned Will Smith. (Presumably, the Shark Tale producers could’ve gotten Will Smith to rap their own movie’s plot over the end credits. Instead, they got Christina Aguilera to sing a different movie’s plot.) The Shark Tale version of “Car Wash” only made it to #63 in the US. But in the UK, where Rose Royce’s original “Car Wash” had peaked at #9, the cover got as high as #4. Here’s the Aguilera/Elliott version:
(Christina Aguilera will eventually appear in this column. Tragically, barring some kind of comeback smash, Missy Elliott will not. Elliott’s highest-charting single is 2002’s “Work It,” which peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)