She had a difficult and circuitous route to stardom and it’s incorrect to label Charlene a one-hit wonder – she had three other songs on the Top 100 chart — but “I’ve Never Been To Me” was a monster multinational smash unlike anything else she recorded and it has continued to resonate with listeners decades after its run up the charts.
First Hit: “It Aint’ Easy Comin’ Down”
Biggest Hit: “I’ve Never Been To Me.”
Biggest Album: I’ve Never Been To Me
Career Highlight: When a Florida disc jockey plays the original version of “I’ve Never Been To Me” on his radio show and the listener response is overwhelming, Motown revives the song, returns Charlene to the music business and the song becomes an international hit.
Born Charlene D’Angelo in Los Angeles in 1950, she runs into problems as a teenager when, despite an attentive family, she rebels. As she later acknowledges, “I went off the rails.” Unable to fit in with the upwardly aspirational Hollywood crowd, she dresses down, adopting a goth lifestyle. In her mid-teens, she begins dating guitarist Larry Duncan, against her parents’ wishes. They move in together and eventually marry – although they can’t afford their own place so they drift from one temporary situation to another, including a garage with no heat, running water or electricity. Theirs is a troubled and tempestuous marriage but he hears her singing one evening while she is washing dishes and insists that she record a song he has written. Though she has no previous singing experience, her voice is impressive. Nothing comes of that song, but she does begin her singing career as a consequence.
Larry Duncan gets some work as a session guitarist and Charlene sings in various low-paying gigs when she suddenly gets hired by Petula Clark as a backing vocalist, going from earning nearly nothing to $2000 a week – although, she would allege, Larry squanders much of it for his own purposes.
In 1973, Charlene meets Nancy Leiviska, Berry Gordy’s romantic partner at the time. Nancy is aware Charlene has recorded some demos and she plays the demo of a song called “Sad Clown” for Berry, who is impressed. Nancy invites Charlene to meet Berry and she gets an impromptu audition with him at a film studio commissary.
Both Charlene and Larry are signed to Motown, she as a singer and he as a songwriter/producer/guitarist. She will record a number of demos for songs to be recorded by Motown acts, including Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, for whom she demos “One Day In Your Life,’ which finds its way to his 1975 Forever Michael album.
Her own first single, “All That Love Went To Waste,” a song from the film A Touch Of Class, is released on Motown in January 1974. She is billed as Charlene Duncan and the record is produced by her husband, arranged by James Carmichael with Berry Gordy as executive producer. Berry produces the B-side, “Give It One More Try,” on which the Duncans collaborate alongside veteran songwriter Marilyn Hooven. The record does not chart.
After minimal additional output (including writing credit on a Temptations album track/B-side “The Prophet,” and some studio work with Charlene) Motown and Larry Duncan part ways but Charlene remains. This exacerbates the long-standing problems in their marriage to the breaking point. Nancy Leiviska helps Charlene leave Larry and Berry offers to let both stay at his Malibu mansion so Charlene can remake her life.
Charlene continues working on demos and other projects at the Los Angeles Hitsville studio, befriending many of the Motown artists, including Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Then legendary Motown songwriter Ron Miller introduces himself to her. He tells her he has admired her voice from afar and believes he has a song that is perfectly suited for her. This ode to self-discovery is originally written with Ken Hirsch from a male perspective but after hearing her voice, Miller has reworked the lyrics for a woman. When Miller plays a demo of “I’ve Never Been To Me” for her, with its narrative of an unhappy marriage and unfulfilled existence, she later recalls, “I put my head down and started to cry. That song sounded like my life.”
Motown goes all in on “I’ve Never Been To Me” as Gordy hires Don Costa, who has arranged and conducted for Frank Sinatra, to arrange and co-produce this track along with Miller and Gordy. The track contains a spoken word passage toward the end and it is released on her November 1976 debut album Charlene on Motown’s Prodigal imprint. Miller produces most of the material for the album on which she is billed simply as Charlene.
Simultaneous with the LP release, Motown releases “It Aint’ Easy Comin’ Down” (another Miller-Hirsch composition) as the first single from Charlene’s LP. It reaches Number 97 on the Pop 100, faring better on the Adult Contemporary (AC) chart at Number 23.
A second single, “Freddie,”– a tribute to the late comedian Freddie Prinze – is released in March 1977 and performs about the same as her previous single: 96 on the Pop chart, 23 on the AC chart.
Before issuing “I’ve Never Been To Me” as a single, Motown decides to edit the recording and delete the spoken word passage. It also re-issues Charlene’s album, re-titled Songs Of Love, in May 1977 with new cover, a slightly altered tracklist and and the edited version of “I’ve Never Been To Me.”
The edited version of “I’ve Never Been To Me” is released as a single in July 1977. It stalls on the Pop chart at Number 97 and does not register on the AC chart.
Although Charlene has recorded enough material for another LP, the lackluster performance of her previous effort and its singles causes Motown to shelve the project. Charlene’s contract with Motown is not renewed. One single from those sessions will be released in 1980, “Hungry,” a song from the Miller/Hirsch score of the Broadway musical Daddy Goodness. It does not chart.
Distraught by these events, Charlene decides to make some changes. Having met and fallen in love with a British man, Jeff Oliver, they leave the States and resettle in Ilford, East London. She finds work at a sweet shop, and the couple happily plans to marry. Charlene fully expects that her days of professional entertainment are behind her.
In 1982, prodded by his girlfriend, Tampa, Florida disc jockey Scott Shannon begins playing the original version of “I’ve Never Been To Me” with the spoken word passage from the Charlene LP on his highly-rated radio program. The listener response is overwhelming and Shannon contacts Motown president Jay Lasker, informing him of the track’s potential.
Having no idea where she is, Motown has to locate Charlene through her mother to inform Charlene that the song has been revived and is rocketing up the charts. It peaks at Number 3 in the US and becomes an international smash, topping the charts in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Canada and going Top 10 in the Netherlands, Belgium, New Zealand and Norway. It will become one of the biggest songs of the year.
Charlene re-signs with Motown, films the video for the song at Blickling Hall, Norfolk, England wearing the wedding dress from her and Jeff’s recent marriage. She returns to the States and her quiet life in England becomes a thing of the past as the promotional whirlwind commences with constant radio, TV and live appearances. She also records new material and a new LP, I’ve Never Been To Me, is released on Motown featuring the hit and other material all written by Miller and Hirsch and produced by Miller. The album spends 20 weeks on the US album chart and peaks at Number 36. It reaches Number 43 in the UK.
The song’s popularity causes Motown to record Charlene singing a Spanish language version for the new (and short-lived) Motown Latino label and a Portuguese version for Brazil.
As a follow-up single, Charlene records a duet with her old friend, Stevie Wonder, a bitterly nostalgic, socially reflective Miller-Hirsch composition “Used To Be.” Miller’s lyrics push the envelope with lines like “You’re 12 years old and sex is legal” and, despite the pairing of two hot artists, the record has trouble getting airplay and it only reaches Number 46 on the Pop chart.
A Used To Be album is released and, late in 1982, it peaks at Number 162 on the Top 200 album chart.
Charlene’s next single, taken from the new album, is a dramatic update of Motown’s 1967 Chris Clark song “I Want To Go Back There Again,” co-written by Clark and Berry Gordy, which had later become a Northern Soul favorite in England. The song does not chart.
Despite suffering from a throat infection, Charlene performs “I’ve Never Been To Me” for the historic 1983 TV special Motown 25, but her substandard vocal causes the song to be cut from the final edit, although she does appear on stage during the finale.
In 1984, Motown takes Charlene’s sound in a new direction for the album Hit & Run Lover, featuring dance rhythms, programmed drums, synthesized keyboards and strings and slick production. She has a hand in composing and producing a few songs on the LP, including the title song which is released as the set’s second single. The first single is “We’re Both In Love With You.” The album’s executive producer is Gordy’s ex-wife Raynoma Singleton, who is now partners with Gordy in the Super 3 production company that oversees this album. Despite it being a solid collection that captures the popular dance sound of the moment, neither the album nor the singles have much success.
Attempting to advance her new musical direction, Gordy gives Charlene a cameo role and a song (“Fire”) in his 1985 film Enter The Dragon. The song is included on the film’s soundtrack LP along with tracks from other Motown artists, but “Fire” doesn’t catch fire, and Charlene’s second tenure at Motown comes to an end.
Charlene returns to a more quiet life but in 1994, her recording of “I’ve Never Been To Me” is featured in the opening scene of the Australian film The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, in which a male actor in drag lip-syncs the song. The film becomes a surprise hit, being nominated for numerous screen awards and winning a number of them, in part because of its positive portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community. This revives Charlene’s career, leading her to again perform around the world.
In the early 2000s, Charlene releases a dance remix of “I’ve Never Been To Me.”
In addition to recording and performing in the 21st century, Charlene Oliver also undertakes a career as an author, with several books to her credit, including an autobiography, I’ve Never Been To Me, in which she chronicles her ups and downs in her life and in the music business.