I’ve Never Been To Me
Ian Wishart talks to Charlene
When Charlene Oliver first heard the song that would make her a household name worldwide, she burst into tears. “Those lyrics – ‘Hey lady, you lady, cursing at your life, you’re a discontented mother and a regimented wife’ – they hit me hard. I was a battered wife, I’d married at 16, had a child to my first husband, and Ron Miller’s song just spoke to me. I didn’t even know him but I just cried and cried. He actually stopped the tape to give me space to cry. It was such a beautiful song.”
Just 26 years old, Charlene felt she knew the story of the song innately, and she knew it would also speak to women worldwide. The young singer was part of the Motown stable, working with artists like Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder, and she really, really wanted to record ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’, penned by Miller and studio partner Ken Kirsch.
It was 1976, however, and Rick Dees’ ‘Disco Duck’ was doing big business in the charts. The little known Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’ was released as a single, but only reached 97 in the Billboard Top 100 before disappearing forever – or so she and her record company thought.
In fact, so spectacularly unsuccessful was her debut album and a follow-up that Charlene gave up music, became a Christian, worked with autistic children and eventually moved to England with her new husband. By 1982, she’d almost forgotten her former life. But little did she know what Providence had in store.
“In 1982 a DJ, Scott Shannon, started playing it on his Florida radio station and it just absolutely caught on and people were calling in asking for it all the time. Now I was living in England at the time, working in a candy store doing cleaning, selling sweets and cigarettes and everything, and I got a call from my mom saying that somebody at Motown was looking for me, and then I got a call at 2am from Jay Lasker at Motown telling me my song was on the charts! I thought at first it was a bad joke!”
They brought her back on a Concorde flight to New York as her song rocketed to number one around the world.
How did it change her life?
“My gosh, you can imagine earning a real simple wage in a sweet shop in London, and all of a sudden they want you signed back up with a label again. It changed my life. I had basically given up the music because I was so burned out. But it was funny because when I was in England I had a feeling that something was going to happen but I didn’t know what it was. I remember just crying and asking, why hasn’t ‘Never Been To Me’ made it, this song is so beautiful?
“And then bam! And I plan on doing the same thing again, I plan on it happening again, and I want to come to your country! I want to come to New Zealand so bad – it seems like an amazing place!”
Charlene may yet get the chance. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the writing of ‘Never Been To Me’, she’s about to release a dance-mix version.
“You should hear it,” she laughs down the line, sensing my skepticism that the song could translate to a dance beat. “It really, really works. We’re going to put it up on the website soon (charlenesmusic.com where, incidentally, you can also listen to the original version online for free) so people can listen to it, and then I’ve got a new album out, probably mid year.”
For a song that sold somewhere in the region of six million copies (and in today’s frenetic music industry 4,000 copies is enough to secure a number one record some weeks in Britain), and continues to be played on classic hits stations worldwide, I ask the inevitable question: did ‘Never Been To Me’ set Charlene up for life?
“That’s a whole new story. I don’t get anything. I’m one of those stories in the industry. It was me not taking precautions.”
Indeed, says Charlene, the come-from-behind slow-boiler took her so much by surprise she was in no position to cash in on the success.
“I was offered Vegas at $50,000 a week, but I had no band. I just wasn’t ready and wasn’t prepared, so I couldn’t do it.”
Motown, on the other hand, was ready. It dusted off Charlene’s songs from the seventies and repackaged them, and work began swiftly on a follow-up single, the duet ‘Used To Be’ with Stevie Wonder and a new album. Her gospel album The Sky Is The Limit followed soon after, along with a rock album, Hit & Run Lover.
Although she’s been largely out of the music biz since having children in the late 1980s, Charlene is looking forward to a comeback this year.
“Can lightning strike twice? Well, I’m certainly going to try. It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”