Gwen Dickey, better known as the soulful voice of Rose Royce, will be carried on stage aboard a lavish red velvet chaise longue for her upcoming live show.
But her grand entrance isn’t only designed to attract attention. For, as the US-born Car Wash songstress now reveals, a terrible accident at her North London home has left her unable to walk.
After decades of performing her worldwide hits in Jimmy Choo stilettos, Gwen can no longer stand at a microphone to sing, owing to irreversible damage to her spinal cord. Having kept her paralysis a secret for eight years, Gwen is speaking out after eagle-eyed fans spotted something uncharacteristic during a recent TV performance: she was seated throughout.
‘I have hurt my back, not my voice,’ says 64-year-old Gwen. ‘I have faith in the idea that people come to listen to me, not to see me. It doesn’t matter that I’m in a wheelchair or on a stool or using a walker, it’s the music which counts.’
The spinal cord – nestled inside the spinal canal, within the spine – is the body’s centre for the transmission of nerve signals. Together with the brain, it forms the central nervous system. Even the smallest injury to the nerve fibres inside the cord can be disabling.
Gwen suffered her devastating injury when, ahead of a holiday to Barbados in 2010, she climbed a stepladder to reach swimwear in her loft. The ladder toppled over and she plummeted 8ft to the ground, crashing her back against the wooden frame of her bed.
‘I knew instantly something was wrong. I was in so much pain. I realised I was not able to move my legs, they were completely paralysed.’
She was taken to the Royal Free Hospital in London’s Hampstead, where a scan showed damage to her spine and spinal cord.
Spinal-cord injuries affect more than 40,000 people in the UK and can result in paralysis of all four limbs. The spinal cord consists of a bundle of nerves that send signals, instructing the body to move. Damage disrupts this communication, resulting in movement and sensory loss from the point below the injury.
Gwen spent two weeks in hospital. ‘I was staring at nurses walking around and thinking, a few days ago I could do that too – but I couldn’t even get out of bed. My consultant asked me what my life had been like before my injury. I said, “Well, you know the song Car Wash? That was me, that was who I was.” ’
Ten days after her accident, a small amount of feeling returned to her legs and she began a course of intense physiotherapy.
Today, she can climb a few stairs and take some steps with the aid of a walker, but is mostly dependent on a wheelchair.
‘If patients are going to regain sensation after a spinal-cord injury it will happen within the first two years,’ says Mr Almas Khan, an orthopaedic spinal consultant at Nuffield Health Hospital in Leeds. ‘The amount of sensation regained depends on the injury and your age – the older you are, the less likely you will recover.’
Gwen left Rose Royce in 1980 but still tours as a solo artist and has seen a host of big names including Madonna and Beyoncé pay homage to her voice with cover versions.
‘My life is totally changed,’ says Gwen, who lives alone. ‘It would be tough if it wasn’t for my audiences. They respect my voice and couldn’t care less about my legs. For that I’m very grateful.’
Sarah Oliver For The Mail On Sunday
Saturday 11th August Gwen performs for the 1st time in Watford (Hertfordshire), Soulbox Live @ Faborje Bar & Grill. For advance tickets and more info click here