It’s one of those songs; you recognise it instantly, but you’re hazy on the details . If you’ve seen Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, you’ll know it from that iconic opening scene. It has featured in countless other TV and film scenes and even karaoke video games over the years. It’s the ultimate pub quiz question: who sang the 1980s hit I’ve Never Been to Me?
Charlene Oliver – aka the mononymous Charlene – reckons she has performed the song, with its memorable refrain "I've been to paradise, but I've never been to me", thousands of times over the years.
"But I've always loved it as a song," she maintains. "It's not like that Judy Garland story of how she hated to sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow; I never felt that. That one song was such an incredible feat.We did it, I loved it, it was wonderful... and then..." Her voice trails off. "Well, Motown just kinda said, 'okay, we won't do anything with this.'"
The now 70-year-old, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas and works a day job as a music tutor, is bubbly, chatty and charmingly eccentric as she recounts her stint in the spotlight. Or more accurately, her two stints in the spotlight. She may be best known for I’ve Never Been to Me, but the Hollywood-born singer’s life story is worthy of a Hollywood biopic. Even the story of the song itself – which flopped when it was first released in 1975 – is intriguing. When it was randomly picked up by a radio DJ in Florida seven years later, it quickly gained traction and became a global hit. The only problem? By that point, Charlene had given up on music and had moved to London with her English fiance.
"I was working in a sweet shop in England, and I was just ready to get married – and basically, my music career was gone," she recalls. "I'd been with Motown, I knew Stevie Wonder, I knew Michael Jackson, I knew all the people. I'd done everything that I could do at a record company; I recorded so many songs. So when it didn't happen, I got discouraged. I was done. I met Jeff [Oliver] in California and we moved back to London and we got married and I was happy. I thought, okay, this is gonna be my new journey, and I was fine with it. And then bam – all of a sudden, I get a phone call saying: 'You're on the charts.'"
Showjumping to Motown
Growing up in California, Charlene – born Charlene D'Angelo – initially aspired to be an actress. Later, she kept horses and participated in showjumping events. When her first husband, musician Larry Duncan realised that she could sing, he encouraged her to lend her voice to a demo that had been written by a friend of his. In turn, that led to her being invited to sing a song by renowned songwriter Jack Keller called Sweet Sad Clown. Even so, her brief flirtation as a singer seemed destined to remain just that, before fate took another twist when she was overheard singing at a party in Laurel Canyon.
"Larry pulls out his guitar and starts playing and I'm singing, and this lady walks up and goes, 'Hi, I'm Nancy Leiviska. I work with Sammy Davis Jr – I'm his publicist – and I'm also dating Berry Gordy. Who are you? I love your voice. You know Motown?' I went 'Ummm... no?' And she said, 'You know Diana Ross?' and I said, 'Oh my god I love Diana Ross! ' and I freaked out," she recalls, laughing. "She asked for a tape of something she could listen to, and Larry gave her Sweet Sad Clown. I wasn't thinking anything about music; I was too much into my horses, too much into just living my life."
A month or so later, she was offered an audition with Motown boss Gordy. “Nancy called and said, ‘He’s working on Lady Sings the Blues in Warner Brothers – can you come down?’”, says Charlene.
“I said ‘Will Diana Ross be there?’”
She turned up to the meeting, she says, in her "overalls and boots, a country girl who rides horses" but impressed Gordy sufficiently to be offered a deal with Motown, becoming only the second white female artist to sign to the iconic label. While there, she rubbed shoulders with big names, from Smokey Robinson to The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder, even recording the first demo of Michael Jackson's One Day in Your Life. A turning point for her at Motown came when she crossed paths with songwriter Ron Miller, who had written multiple songs for Stevie Wonder by that point, including For Once in My Life and Heaven Help Us All, as well as some for Diana Ross.
“Ron had said to me, ‘I’ve heard the songs that you’re doing, and I really don’t think they’ve pulled the best out of your voice’,” she explains. “The first song I ever did was a ballad, and that was my true voice. But Motown were putting me into songs where I sounded just like Michael Jackson. Ron said, ‘I want to play you a song’. At that time, I was going through a really bad time with my first husband; I was very depressed. So he put the song on in his office, and [opening line] ‘Hey lady, you lady...’ played, and I just lost it. I started crying, and I said, ‘This song is amazing. It’s my life!’ He said ‘You know what? I think you can nail this. I’m gonna call Berry Gordy and see if we can get into the studio and cut a demo.’”
Gordy immediately liked the demo and the pair returned to the studio with its co-writer Kenny Hirsch, this time adding a lush string arrangement courtesy of Don Costa, who had worked extensively with Frank Sinatra. (Charlene's stories, in case you hadn't already guessed, are peppered with names from the golden era of songwriting). "I sang it, we thought, 'It's gonna be a hit' and we released it, and..." Her voice falters. "It was goodbye."
A duet with Stevie Wonder
The song failed to perform and a deflated Charlene subsequently dabbled in bits and pieces – including a stint as Petula Clark’s backing vocalist during a residency at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas – but eventually decided that she was not cut out for the music business. Soon after, she emigrated to England and was getting on with life until seven years after its original release, I’ve Never Been to Me began to climb back up the charts. Charlene recalls stories like being flown from London to New York on Concorde to appear on Good Morning America, but things went sour – again – when her follow-up single proved controversial. Used to Be, a duet with Stevie Wonder also written by Ron Miller, was shunned by and even banned from some radio stations for its contentious lyrics. They included the lines “Have another Chivas Regal / You’re 12 years old and sex is legal.”
“Little did I know that Ron Miller hated the world and he wanted to use me as his voice to say so,” she recalls with a bittersweet laugh. “The song was great, but I did not put the dots together. I should have had something fun and easy. Instead, I was given a song that had to knock the world on its head, that said: ‘Listen to how bad everything is!’ And so... that was kind of the end. The clincher was when I opened up a magazine and it had me and Ron Miller sitting at the piano, and the caption was ‘Charlene: The Magnificent Failure’. My heart sank.”
While Wonder’s career continued to flourish, Charlene’s bit the dust for a second time. She agrees that she was something of a sacrificial lamb in that situation. “I released a rock‘n’roll album after that, but Motown weren’t interested,” she says. “They said, ‘Nope, goodbye – you’re nothing to us, and you owe us nine billion dollars’. So it was awful. I literally had a nervous breakdown.”
It seems that many of Charlene’s career-related issues have stemmed from bad management, bad decisions or bad advice. She reportedly originally only made $13,000 from I’ve Never Been to Me and later become embroiled in financial stresses thanks to a dodgy contract hastily signed when the song was re-released in 1982. “The first time I made anything was like, 2013, I think,” she sighs. “I’m getting royalties now, but a lot of them are very small. But y’know, I can’t worry about that stuff; that’s what brought me to almost having a nervous breakdown. I’m having fun with it now. I’m not beating myself up about it anymore.”
In the intervening years, she has turned her hand to writing both fiction and non-fiction; her autobiography was published in 2009 and acts both as a fascinating insight into the music industry and as a cautionary tale. Most importantly, she has continued to make music over the years. The song’s appearance in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert made her an inadvertent LGBT icon and she spent a period touring gay clubs, while her more recent fare has taken a clubby, dance music slant, including “comeback” single Destiny, which was released in May. “I needed to break away from the dark songs,” she notes with a chuckle. “It’s a fun song and I thought it’s time that I kind of lift things up a little bit. I’ve got a whole album of material – I’ve just gotta put it all together. And they’re all kind of different.”
The million dollar question, however, is why Charlene’s audience would still be willing participant after all these years? She sighs again before answering with a wholehearted enthusiasm; the eternal optimist despite the many disappointments throughout her career. “I’m hoping people will want to hear me and not go, ‘Oh god, it’s that woman who sang that horrible song, I’ve Never Been to Me’,” she chuckles. “I still have a lot to say. I’ve got an ocean of things inside my soul and I hope that the new songs that I write can still do something.”
Destiny is out now on streaming services