You know the line. It opens up
one of the biggest-selling ballads of the 1980s.
You know the song. “I’ve Never
Been to Me” has become a pop standard in the nearly 35 years since
it was originally recorded – even though it did not become a hit
until years after it had flopped off the charts when it was
originally released as a single in the 70s. However, it was one of
the biggest hits of 1982 and still shows up in the oddest places,
including a recent dance version and the soundtrack the hit Broadway
musical Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.
But how well do you know the
Charlene – who goes by her married
name Charlene Oliver now – is the voice behind that killer hit that
lit up the FM dials in a world saturated by Olivia Newton-John,
Foreigner, Tom Petty and The Pointer Sisters.
By the time that the world caught
on to the song, the singer had pretty much given up on her music,
fallen in love, gotten remarried and moved from her native Southern
California to England, where she was working at a sweet shop.
It’s a fascinating story. One of
many suspenseful twists in the life of Charlene. Now she is telling
that story with her autobiography, titled – not surprisingly –
I’ve Never Been to Me.
The book gives a warts-and-all
portrait of a driven artist – and Charlene does let a lot of
personal skeletons out of the closet – who took a very unusual road
to a music career. Eventually Charlene released several albums
and she had a few other minor hits, but she never again quite
grabbed the brass ring like when she was on the
carnival ridethat surrounded her most-remembered
Also, due to a mix of naïveté and
lack of business savvy, she signed a dead-end contract
brightest moment – eventually pocketing approximately $13,000 for a
song which sold millions of copies. However, almost as an inverse
of her best known song, despite the fact that she is very happy as a
wife and mother, she has spent most of the years since trying to
regain at least some of the “sweet life” that got away.
was quite an adventure to put everything that has happened in her
life on paper, Charlene has to admit.
“I had like a little nervous
breakdown after,” Charlene said to me recently. “It really pulled a
lot of stuff from my past out. I’m going: ‘I did that? Oh my gosh,
I couldn’t…’ It was very, very tough. It was like a purging of the
spirit, of the soul. Kind of like – Oh, my gosh, I’m that much of a
fricking loser?” She laughed good-naturedly. “To put myself in
these positions. Like, my gosh, I didn’t learn! And I still didn’t
learn. And I didn’t learn again!” She laughs even harder at her
But it wasn’t all mistakes.
Charlene Oliver has seen some things – to paraphrase her signature
song – that a woman ain’t supposed to see. Her life has been a
rollercoaster ride of accomplishments and hard times. She’s lived
the sweet life and she wasn’t always bitter from the sweet.
Charlene somehow blossomed from an
insecure teen into only the
second white woman signed to the legendary
rhythm and blues label Motown. The label had a few white male acts
previously, including the rock band Rare Earth and songwriter R.
Dean Taylor. A bluesy female singer named
Chris Clark released a couple of acclaimed but somewhat obscure
albums in the 60s before switching over to the business side of the
company. Clark had been off the
artist roster for years in the early 70s when Charlene was brought
on board. The label also signed Rick James’s
white female protégée Teena Marie soon
afterwards. “Teena Marie, we were about the same time,” Charlene
recalls. “Very close. But I was first.”
It was like an invitation to one
of the coolest parties ever. Charlene started recording for the
label in the early 1970’s,
hanging out with such legendary artists as Stevie
Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson,
The Temptations, Lionel Richie and many others.
“[It was] unbelievable,” Charlene
recalls. “Not just the artists – the writers as well. Like Norman
Whitfield and Ashford and Simpson, who we just lost. [Nickolas
Ashford had died just days before the interview]. Rubbing elbows with
Smokey Robinson and knowing all these people and unbelievable
writers. So, it wasn’t just the music, the singers – I met them and
knew them as well – but the writing, the people behind the machine
of Motown. It was just unbelievable.”
Charlene also was not living the
life of a music star. Far from it, despite the fact that she was
recording albums for one of biggest record labels in the world (and
her first husband was also under contract as a songwriter and
musician) they were essentially homeless and squatting in a friend’s
“[My] own home?” she scoffs. “I
couldn’t even afford to live in a dog house. It was so bad. It was
really, really bad. This was right before I actually got signed to
the label, but yeah, I was living in a terrible, terrible situation
that I would not want anybody to live in.”
However, for a label which was
known for its deep soulful streak, a white woman who specialized in
softer, slightly more folk-based love songs was a tough sell.
“Like a round peg in a square
hole,” Charlene says, smiling. “That’s kind of like what it was.
People would say, ‘What?’ I used to go to the Berry Gordy parties
and go there and sing my Joni Mitchell songs, the lilting ballads.
He loved my voice for that, because I was so different, but they
didn’t know where to put me. They didn’t know what to do with me.”
it like crashing that soulful party?
“Yeah,” she acknowledges.
“Because, I could sound like a lot of people, but to actually give
me a song that would be mine – it wasn’t working. It just wasn’t
working. Until I met Mr. Ron Miller, who wrote ‘I’ve Never Been to
Me’ and then all that changed.”
However, even that soon-to-be
smash hit did not point Motown in the correct direction. She
recorded a few albums under her then-married name Charlene Duncan.
Motown released three singles, but with little promotion they all
sunk without a trace.
“I did ‘I’ve Never Been to Me,’”
she recalls. “Things were released like ‘Freddie’ and ‘It Ain’t
Easy Comin’ Down,’ which was beautiful, and a few other songs. When
we did ‘I’ve Never Been To Me,’ that song echoed the most beautiful,
different style of Motown. Everybody loved it. They were behind
it. They thought it was going to be the next big thing. They put
it out, but Motown never promoted it. Like you said, it went to 97
and then bombed off the charts.”
In the meantime, her
personal life was
bombing off the charts as well. Her first husband, Larry Duncan,
had been let go by Motown while his wife was still working there.
Duncan had become abusive and was having serious drug problems.
They were still living just a step above destitution. Luckily,
despite many temptations, both with the party world of her day job
and her husband’s bad habits, Charlene never became overly involved
“My body wouldn’t let me,”
Charlene explains. “I used to get sick. I would get a sore
throat. You know, I experimented, I tried stuff, but I never got
addicted to anything, thank God. He kind of went over that edge and
got really, really into it, but I couldn’t. I was getting sick and
my body just didn’t like it.”
Another thing her body didn’t like
was the fact that the song which she felt would be her breakthrough
hit had barely charted. Charlene was sure that she had found a
classic when she was played a song by Motown songwriter Ron Miller
(who had also written such legendary Motown hits as “For Once in My
Life” and “Touch Me in the Morning.”) He had actually written the
song from a man’s perspective originally, but after hearing
Charlene’s voice on some demos, he rewrote it specifically for her.
“I had been on the label for about
seven-eight years at that time. Recording with all the different
producers who did the Temptations, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson. I
even did the original demo of ‘One Day in Your Life.’ Michael took
my track and put his voice on it. He got it on the album and it
[was] pretty big for him. But, with me, I was just trying all these
voices. I sounded like Michael. I sounded like Diana. I sounded
like this. I sounded like that. Until we did ‘I’ve Never Been to
Me,’ then the real Charlene came out and that was my style.”
And when the public did not catch
on to that style, it was the final straw. Charlene left her
husband, took an indefinite sabbatical from Motown and tried to get
her life together. She found herself drawn to the church, where she
met Jeff Oliver, a British teacher living in LA. They quickly fell
in love and she decided to follow him to England when he had to
return home. Just a couple of years before, she had been going to
parties with Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross. Now
she was working selling candies in London.
“When we did that beautiful song,
released it, it wasn’t promoted, it flopped on the charts and went
down, I was like, ‘I’m done.’ If this song doesn’t make it then I
might as well just go do something else, because it’s not working.
That’s when I moved to England and married Jeff. And then, all
“All that” was the resurrection of
“I’ve Never Been to Me.” In 1981, a Fort Lauderdale-based DJ named
Scott Shannon fell in love with the song. He started playing it, to
a huge response. It started spreading out to additional cities and
stations. Suddenly, with no warning, her old single was becoming a
hit. Of course, Charlene was across the pond and had no clue. And
Motown was desperate to find their lost artist.
mom called me,” she recalled. “The phone would ring at
two in the
morning and I’d run down the stairs, because it was always America.
My mom said, ‘Charlene, somebody’s trying to find you from Motown.’
I was like, what?Wow. This had been like a year or
so after I’d left. It was pretty much settled, I was in love and I
was in England. In my mind, the furthest thing was thinking about
doing my music, even though it was something [that was] still a part
of me. The next day I went upstairs and I put on the record and I
really got emotional. I was thinking, ‘Why didn’t this song make
it?’ It was so beautiful. It was like: what happened? And
you know what, Jay, one thing I kind of think – maybe or maybe not,
I’m not sure – there was no talking part in the original release
back in the 70s. [She is referring to a
brief spoken word interlude before the final verse.] I thought maybe that was a part of it. Maybe
timing was a part of it.
“But without me knowing, nobody
knew, a DJ in Tampa, Florida named Scott Shannon put the record on
and Olivia [Newton-John]’s ‘Physical’ was huge at the time. He did
a contest with her and me – because he
loved ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’ and he was best friends with Jay Lasker, the President of Motown. He got tons of calls on my song.
Kids wanted to know where they could buy my record. In those days,
they had a contest – call in, vote for the favorite song – and it
was mine that won, hands down. So he contacted Jay Lasker and said,
‘You know what, just stock 1,000 [copies] in Tampa. I will announce
the record is on sale. Let’s see what happens.’ It sold in like a
day. So he called Jay Lasker back and said, ‘Find the girl. I
think you guys have got a hit, because our phones are lighting up
“They contacted me and the phone
rang again two weeks later and Jay Lasker was on the phone and said
‘Charlene, you’re on the charts. You’ve got a double bullet on
Billboard and Cashbox.’ I’m like: WHAT???!!! I
could not believe it. It was like, what in the world? Before I
knew it, I was on a Concorde flying back to New York
and doing Good
Charlene laughs at the memory.
“I went from nothing – it’s like
on a speedway going from zero to 100. That was my life.”
That life was soon out of control
– but in a good way that Charlene had always imagined. Suddenly she
was all over the radio, doing television appearances, performing
live, doing after-parties, hanging with the stars. Not too shabby
for a woman who had been selling penny candy just weeks before.
“It was insane. I was like in a
dream, going: Oh, okay. Wow!” Charlene laughs. “People
couldn’t believe how relaxed I was. I was not a maniac – because I
was so caught out of character. It was not who I was at that time.
I had resigned to the fact that I was going to live in England,
work, just have a regular life and get married and trip around
England. Now, all of the sudden, I’m in the throes of Concorde
airplanes and being treated like a superstar. It was crazy. It was
Unfortunately, the swirl of
activity did hurt Charlene in one specific, life-altering way. When
she was returned to the States by Motown, Ron
Miller, who had Charlene
had continued collaborating with and even had a short romantic
relationship, warned Charlene to have a lawyer go over her new
contract before she signed. However, like all too many aspiring
artists, Charlene trusted the company and ended up signing a
contract which made it nearly impossible to collect any profits from
By Charlene’s estimation, despite
the fact that she had recorded a huge international hit, she only
received $13,000 in royalties from it. Now, people assume that she
was set for life because of her hit.
Charlene scoffs, “That’s not true.
It would have been if my contract would have been right. But, I
made a mistake of trusting and being stupid. Not watching my back.
I got stuck. But, what can you do? What do you do, beat yourself
up forever? What do you do?”
Charlene just set herself to the
task of resurrecting her career, which now had juice due to the hit
song. Still, she was disappointed that she never got to thank Scott
Shannon in person for getting her back in the game.
“I had met him years
before, because he was friends with Jay Lasker,” Charlene says. “I
was never able to meet with him. I never got together with him. It
was horrible, I wanted to, but… well, what can I say? Motown did
not really afford much expense for me to do things, because I was
kind of looked at as a fluke – as a one-hit wonder. And that really
ticked me off. Everybody says, ‘Oh, you’re a one-hit wonder.’ Wait
a minute. I had four chart records, and I had a hit with Stevie
Wonder that was Top 40 – probably in the 40s in America. [It peaked
at #46 on the Billboard Hot 100.] I don’t see that as a
one-hit wonder, you know?”
That hit with Stevie Wonder was
“Used to Be,” a gorgeous but controversial song written for Charlene,
again by Ron Miller. It was the title track of her first post-hit
album. And she was singing with a guy who at the time was one of
the biggest stars on the planet. It was an opportunity that
“I had known Stevie for years,”
Charlene says. “I’d seen him at Motown. Every time we’d go to a
party and I would sing, his head would immediately go towards where
I was. He really loved my voice, because I was different. I wasn’t
that Motown kind of voice. I was kind of soulful in a way, but I
was that soft kind of sound. He really liked my voice. So, I had
known Stevie. It was awesome. It was fantastic doing that song
with him. Just brilliant.”
The lyrics to “Used to Be” were
rather edgy, though – a poignant but slightly downbeat look at
modern ills including assassinations, war, prejudice, drug abuse and
sexual predators. After the somewhat uplifting thrust behind her
previous single, radio was not sure how to react to lyrics like
“Have another Chevas Regal, you’re twelve years old and sex is
legal, your parents don’t know where or who you are” or “Mama took
her speed and daddy went away but you just can’t lose control.
Let’s cut a class, I’ve got some grass.” Cutting stuff, but it was
also realistic and ultimately uplifting. However, some people
couldn’t look past the most obvious and explosive stuff.
“I’d known Ron for writing very
controversial stuff,” Charlene says. “He likes really putting
things on the line with lyrics. He’s a brilliant writer. But,
little did I know, that would kind of be the death of my career. It
really was. You know, ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’ was controversial. I
got a lot of flack from women’s lib, saying, ‘How dare you say you
need a man?’ ‘How dare you say you need a child?’” She laughs. “I
was like: Oh, my God! Then when ‘Used to Be’ came out, it
was like: ‘Oh, my gosh, now she’s even digging it deeper.’ So,
people pigeon-holed me with that kind of a singer where you have
these controversial lyrics – and people just did not want to hear
it. Today, it would be perfect. But, the song never really
resurfaced. A lot of people say they love it. People say they’d
stop on the freeway. They had to pull off the freeway and listen to
the song – they couldn’t believe the lyrics. But it never really
found its way to be successful.”
One other person who really loved
it was Wonder. Charlene ran into him at a recent Motown reunion and
as soon as he heard her voice he greeted her warmly, asking when
they were going to do another duet.
“I wish I could have, but at the
time, I wasn’t with a label,” Charlene recalls. “I wasn’t really
doing anything. I was back in my normal mode of just trying to live
my life and get back on the tracks of the normal human being.
Because, when you are thrown with that kind of success and it’s gone
really fast, it leaves you in kind of a weird, cyberspace place in
your mind. It’s like you can’t compete with it. I didn’t have a
label and it really made me frustrated, but I thought: what can I
do? There’s nothing I can do. Whatever. I’m over twelve; I’m not
going to get signed.” She laughs. “That’s my inside joke.”
Another superstar she almost
worked with was Michael Jackson. Soon after she returned to Motown,
the opportunity to work with him arose – unfortunately it never came
“We did Motown 25
together,” Charlene says, “the TV show. I was very, very ill with
strep throat. They put me out, I sang my song, but I was hardly
singing. They had to cut me from the [TV]
show, but I was on the ending
with everybody on stage, all gathering together, singing ‘Kumbaya’
and doing all the songs together. At the very end of the show,
Michael was backstage and I went up to him and I said, ‘Michael, I’m
going to be doing another album…’ which I didn’t do… ‘I wanted to
know if you could write me some songs.’ He said, ‘I’d love to. I’d
love to write you some material.’ Then we just kind of parted
paths. I left Motown and just, oh, my gosh, Jay, a lot of
mistakes. But, what can you do?”
Strangely, though, Charlene was
quite picky about songwriters she would work with – to a perhaps
excessive point, she acknowledges with hindsight.
“I was very critical when it came
to songs. As the artist, I went to this big thing where all these
writers were pitching songs to me – and they must have hated my
guts, because I just didn’t like anything,” Charlene laughs.
“I was so picky! I just didn’t like a lot of songs. Ron spoiled me
a little bit, with ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’ and even with ‘Used to
Be.’ Even though it was a controversial lyric, it was still a very
strong, strong lyric. I was kind of spoiled from that.”
One song she did like though – one
she discovered, in fact – was a ballad called “We Belong,” which
in 1984 went on to be
early 80s superstar Pat Benatar’s
top ten hit.
“That song was mine. The writer
came to my house and played me the worst demo in the world. We sat
in my car and he goes, ‘Charlene, I’ve got a song for you. I know
you could sing this.’ This was before Michael and everything. We
sat in the car and I was doing an album called Hit and Run Lover.
It was a lot more dance things and I’d written a lot of songs. He
played me ‘We Belong’ and I said, ‘Oh, my Gosh, I love this song. I
love it. I love it.’ So, I brought it to the executive producer of
the album and she said, ‘Nah, that’s not a very strong song.’ I
said, ‘Please, I want to do it! I love the chorus! It’s so good!’
‘Oh, no, we don’t really believe in that one. That’s not that
good. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ I’m like, ‘No! But I want
it.’ They were in charge. I had no creative control. Then six
months go by or three months or whatever goes by, I’m in the car and
the song comes on. I almost crashed into the darn tree. I was
like: What!? That was mine!”
The writing was on the wall and
soon the Motown period was over for good, though she released a
couple more records for the label and even appeared in a bit part in
Berry Gordy’s movie The Last Dragon, a martial arts drama
which is now best remembered for briefly exploding the musical
career of the Motown family act DeBarge with the lead soundtrack
track “The Rhythm of the Night.”
However, if none of Charlene’s
other songs ever quite came to be hits, her signature song kept
taking on new lives – just like a cat. Charlene settled mostly into
family life – though she still longed for a musical career. She had
just about given up when “I’ve Never Been to Me” was resurrected yet
This time, it was due to a little
Australian film about drag queens. The Adventures of Priscilla:
Queen of the Desert became a surprise hit – and “I’ve Never Been
to Me” was the first song on the film’s disco-heavy soundtrack
album. As had happened years before, the return of the song was a
complete surprise to the singer.
“Ron called me in 1994, I’ll never
forget it,” Charlene says. “He said, ‘Charlene, you will never
believe what movie our song is in. You’ve got to go see it. It’s
called The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.’
I’m like, okay. I went and saw it, not having a clue what it was.
Oh, it was so fantastic. It was fantastic. I loved it.”
The film was not only a huge cult
hit, but it ended up spurring a theatrical musical, which also started in
Australia and eventually spread to become a hit in London and on
“I went to Australia about five
years ago and I opened the whole Australian cast doing it at Star
City – I did the party and sang it. It was really, really fun. I
got a chance to go to Australia.”
The renewed interest got Charlene
to dip her toe back into music – and then soon she just dove in,
moving with her younger daughter Bethany back to England, where
there was some interest in her recording and touring. Husband Jeff
and older daughter Jessica stayed in California.
Not surprisingly her signature hit
played a part – but performed in a different way. She recorded a
dance version of the song for which there were great hopes, but it
did not quite catch on.
“I got the idea of doing [the
dance version of] ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’ about seven years ago –
God, time is going by so quick – with FBI, a company in England.”
Charlene says. “At the time I was living over there. I got with a
producer. I said, ‘I want to do this as a dance.’ They took it and
they did their own rendition and it was really great. I loved it.
I was doing that in a lot of shows throughout England and going to
Spain and traveling around. A lot of the gay venues,
which was fantastic. It was so much fun. Then a manager that I was
using at the time, named Jenny Stanley-Clarke, got a hold of
Robert DeFresnes,a producer out of Germany. Germany is
really big for doing dance mixes. They did a new version of it.
It was fantastic. It was really fun. But it was not accepted.
People were like, ‘You can’t do that to this song.’ The whole vibe
of it was – no, you can’t do this. ‘I’ve Never Been to
Me’ is like a standard. It’s like taking ‘My Way’ and putting it to
dance. People aren’t going to like it. Whenever I did shows and I
did the dance version, they’d be kind of clicking their fingers,
they’d be dancing around, but the minute the ballad started, they
absolutely went crazy. That was it. I said to myself: You can’t
change it. You just can’t change the song.”
In fact, Charlene got some
evidence about tampering with a classic firsthand, while doing a
tour with Kiki Dee. Almost as an opposite of Charlene’s situation,
Dee had decided to change up her up-tempo hit Elton John duet
“Don’t Go Breaking My
Heart”to perform as a
ballad. “It was like, oh no! To me it didn’t work. I didn’t like
it. I wanted to hear the up tempo one.”
Of course, it was not enough for
her to live in the past. She has also done some new music.
Charlene loves the old songs, but also wants to look forward.
“I did an album in England. The
album is called Spirit of Woman and it is some beautiful
music. It’s really pretty music and it can be downloaded off of my
website, which is
www.charlenesongs.com. And I am now writing books, which I
With all these years of hindsight,
if Charlene saw that woman who she once sang her advice to, what
would she say to her?
“I would say, ‘Just listen. Pay
attention. And read the fine print. Just be careful, guard your
heart and know God. Know who God is.’”
On a little more personal level,
what would she say to herself as a young woman?
“Oh, I’d say, ‘Charlene…. You
fricking dummy!’” She laughs hard. “No, I’d say, ‘You didn’t read
the fine print…’ All of the things, the pointing the finger. Why
didn’t you do that? Why didn’t you stop, look and listen? Hold
hands. I don’t know if you ever read Chicken Soup for the Soul…
There is a little line in there that says ‘All the things you
should have learned being in first grade.’ ‘Hold hands, be careful,
don’t take somebody else’s cookies.’ It’s just really cute. But it
would be along those lines of: Just be careful.
“I don’t think kindness has been a
problem for me, because I love people and I like to treat people
kindly. But I think that opens you up for being a big giant
red circle with a dot in the middle. A target to get hurt. Just
pay attention to the fine print. Be careful.”
it all, just like that lady that she sang to so many years before,
it was the love of her husband and children that pulled her through
and kept Charlene Oliver sane. More than anything, she has found
her paradise through them. She knows that living with a singer has
not been easy for them, but she is positively thankful that they
were there for her.
“My husband, we’ve been through a
lot together,” Charlene says. “He got a wife with a lot of
baggage. When you come into a relationship with Samsonite luggage
hanging from each arm, and coming off your head, it’s hard to dump
all that stuff. But he has been absolutely wonderful – and still is
wonderful. And is getting better all the time. We’re getting
better all the time.
but my kids… Bethany, my youngest daughter, traveled with me all
through England. Which kind of turned out to be [a mistake]. We
shouldn’t have done that. She suffered educationally. But it is
okay, she’s in school now and doing really well. My eldest
daughter Chadney has just been diagnosed with
breast cancer. We’re fighting through that right now. But I think
she’s going to be okay. Oh, it’s unbelievable. My family is an
anchor for me.”
And hey lady, you know what that
is? That's truth. That's love.
CHARLENE'S CLASSIC VIDEO FOR "I'VE NEVER BEEN TO ME"