Tony Cummings plots the extraordinary twists and turns of '80s hitmaker CHARLENE
The publication last year of the autobiography I've Never Been To Me by Charlene Oliver brought back into the spotlight a singer whose four decades in showbiz have been, by her own admission, a real life soap opera of abusive relationships, life in the showbiz fast lane, failure and obscurity, a huge international hit, record company betrayal, poverty and hardship, a revival of fortunes through a film and stage musical, and now renewed media interest as a promising author. (Charlene is now writing a Ted Dekker style thriller.) Through most of the extraordinary roller coaster of Charlene's life, her strong Christian faith has protected and sustained her.
During an interview for Cross Rhythms radio last year, Jon Bellamy asked Charlene the question, "In your famous song you sing the lines, "I've been to paradise but I've never been to me." Do you think that in your relationship with God you're getting to know who you are?" Charlene responded, "I'm getting to know me more and it's with a lot of assistance through the tapes I listen to, I listen a lot to Joyce Meyer, I go to Hillsong Church, I'm just connecting. I'm trying to connect myself with the Gospel and trying to keep myself fed in the Lord because this world will just bombard us with bad stuff."
Charlene has had more than her share of bad stuff. Born Charlene D'Angelo in 1950 in Los Angeles, Charlene had loving parents yet still went off the rails. As she told Woman Alive magazine, "I couldn't fit in at school and regularly skipped class. I had no friends or ambition, except to get out. I was convinced I was ugly and stupid, feelings made worse by all the beautiful Hollywood girls I saw every day in school. Most had plastic surgery in their early teens and would never leave their mansions without the best designer clothes. I deliberately dressed down and went through a Goth stage. Everything was black, especially my moods. My parents and the school were so patient, but the more they reached out to me, the more I withdrew into myself. I had huge fights with my sister over the most trivial of things. I could see I was hurting everyone, but I was hurting so bad inside I couldn't stop."
Charlene continued, "I was living the rock 'n' roll life long before I got into the music business. When I was 16 I was desperate to be famous and date a Hollywood star. One night at a club, a handsome guy asked me to dance. He was a big star at the time and, at the end of the night, asked to meet me in the club the following week. All the girls were jealous. Somehow, I got the date wrong. People said he had been in the night before asking about me. I suppose you wonder what might have happened. Then I met a guitarist called Larry. Mum and dad hated him and forbade us to date, but that only spurred me on. We soon moved in together, living in squats or friends' houses. A year later, I was pregnant and Larry's drug problem was worse, but I ignored it all because I was madly in love. We lived in a junkyard and a friend's garage that didn't have any electricity or running water. I named my daughter Chadney and knew it was best to give her to Larry's parents to bring up. It broke my heart."
Charlene got an unexpected break in showbiz when she was asked to be part of Petula Clark's backing group. She remembered, "I'd been doing some singing while Larry earned rent money as a backing guitarist. People liked my voice. Suddenly, I was in Las Vegas earning $2,000 a week. It was incredible. Larry spent most of it on drugs and I suspected he was already cheating on me. He took me to swingers' parties, but I wouldn't join in. One time, I woke to find Larry making love to a girl right next to me. I ignored it because I believed I was ugly with no self-esteem. If Larry left me, who would have me?"
In 1974 Charlene was signed to Motown Records. Although Charlene wasn't correct in her claim to be the first while woman signed to Berry Gordy's legendary corporation (that was Chris Clark), Charlene's signing did signify Motown's desire to establish itself beyond the pop-R&B hits of the '60s and early '70s. Motown had started the Prodigy label and Charlene's first single, "It Ain't Easy Comin' Down", was released on the imprint. It scraped into the Hot 100 of 1977.
After hearing some of her demos, songwriter Ron Millar presented Charlene with a song he'd written with Ken Hirsch, "I've Never Been To Me". In the Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music, Mark Allen Powell wrote about the haunting, country-tinged ballad: "An ode to self-discovery and positive self-esteem, 'I've Never Been To Me' seemed the perfect anthem for what was subsequently dubbed 'The Me Decade', but both the song and Charlene's [self-titled] debut album failed to chart." Some Motown executives decided that the sales failure for "I've Never Been To Me" was because the spoken word bridge was too "feminist" for the times. So this was edited out and a new version of the single was released in '77, together with a reshuffled version of Charlene's album, now called 'Songs Of Love'. The move didn't work and the revised "I've Never Been To Me" stalled at 97 in the Top 100 chart.
With her abusive marriage to Larry finally at an end Charlene entered into a relationship with songwriter Ron Miller. But that too proved a bad move with Miller having acquired a major gambling habit. In 1979 Charlene found herself at another low ebb. She recalled, "After yet another row with Ron, I became ill with a very aggressive form of lupus. My doctor warned I'd be dead in six months if I didn't change my lifestyle. I got in my car and started driving around Hollywood, when I came across this big church. I sat outside for a while, then got this pull to go in. The pastor giving the sermon told the congregation how he hated religion, but loved Jesus. I started crying. I wanted to know more about Jesus. I was 30 and had spent my time chasing things that weren't real, whether men or my career or money. All of a sudden, these things didn't matter any more. I walked to the front and told the pastor that I wanted to accept Jesus into my life. He explained why Jesus had died for me and my sins. He gave me a Bible, which I started reading. I knew I had to accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. There was no other way. I let out a deep breath and something inside me told me my life had changed. I knew then, no matter what happened, everything was going to be okay."
In 1981 Charlene stepped away from showbiz and Motown Records. She enrolled at Valley College to study psychology. Then one Sunday at her church she met an Englishman, Jeff Oliver. They fell in love and after Jeff's visa to work in the USA suddenly expired, they married and Charlene relocated to England. There in Ilford, Charlene tried to settle into a new life and got a job working in a high street news agent. She enjoyed the work at first but soon found she hadn't lost her itch to perform music. A man called Mike Whiting told Charlene about Chapel Lane Records, the pioneering Christian recording studio based in Herefordshire run by Rob and Marion Andrews. Charlene began working on her debut gospel album for Chapel Lane and Rob also arranged for Charlene to sing at London's famed All Souls Church. But then a phone call from LA shook Charlene to the core.
A Florida deejay had discovered the original version of "I've Never Been To Me" (with "feminist" bridge intact) and began playing the record. By the time Motown phoned Charlene the single was already at number 30 in the US charts and rising fast. "I've Never Been To Me" became an international hit - number three in the US, number one in the UK and a hit in a staggering 26 countries around the world.
Charlene was offered a fresh recording contract with Motown Records and under the agreement, Charlene began work on a new mainstream album with Motown also agreeing to release in the US the gospel project she'd been recording with Chapel Lane. As it turned out, after the monumental success of "I've Never Been To Me" both her mainstream and gospel albums were somewhat of an anti-climax. The Christian project 'The Sky Is The Limit' sounded a little thin and received little attention while the 'Used To Be' album, promoted by a high-profile title track single duet with Stevie Wonder, ran into a controversy over the lyrics. "Used To Be" did indeed contain some highly memorable lyrics courtesy of Ron Miller. Beginning with the verse, "Superman was killed in Dallas/There's no love left in the palace/Someone took the Beatles' lead guitar/Have another Chivas Regal/You're 12 years old and sex is legal/Your parents don't know where - or who you are," it reached its climax with the couplets, "We fed 'em all our indecision/Raped their minds with television/But what the hell, they're too young to feel pain/I believe that love can save tomorrow/I believe the truth can make us free/ Someone tried to say it/And we nailed him to a cross/I guess it's still the way/ It used to be."
"Used To Be" stalled at number 46 in the US charts, many radio stations refusing to play it citing the "12 years old and sex is legal" line as unacceptable even though the song was transparently opposed to such excess while in Britain, the BBC cold-shouldered the song, Charlene believes, due to the line about no love left in the palace." Said the singer, "Ron meant the Whitehouse, he didn't mean Buckingham Palace."
If there was disappointment about the relative lack of success of the "Used To Be" single, there was worse to follow when the singer discovered that despite Motown initially pulling out all the stops with champagne parties and VIP hotel suites, the contract Charlene had signed with the company gave Motown the right to reclaim all the money they had spent on the singer during her unsuccessful years with the company. This meant that the royalties she received for "I've Never Been To Me" were a fraction of what they should have been.
The next two decades seemed to bring the singer a stream of further disappointments. She recorded the 'Hit And Run Lover' album but after arguments with Berry Gordy it didn't sell. In 1985 Jeff and Charlene moved back to Essex. A demand for US taxes for $68,000 arrived and the penniless singer tried to get a deal with UK CBS. But after that company's initial enthusiasm the deal fell through. Moving back to the USA, Charlene continued her struggles with the IRS and then in the early '90s became, with husband Jeff, part owners of a company dealing with investments and life insurance. But then the company went bust and the couple were plunged once more into poverty. Then in 1994 Ron Miller phoned her. As Charlene recounted, "I couldn't believe it when I answered the phone; he was the last person in the world I expected to hear from. We had a quick catch up and then he said to me, 'Charlene, you're never going to believe this but "I've Never Been To Me" is going to be featured in this movie called Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. It's about transvestites who travel through Australia on a bus called Priscilla and everyone thinks it's going to be a huge hit. It's coming out in America soon and you have to see it; it sounds incredible."
The unexpected re-emergence of "I've Never Been To Me" kick-started Charlene's career again. She started earning pretty good money playing gay clubs and bars. But then came another bout of severe poverty, this time in London with Charlene and daughter Beth crashing on people's floors and struggling to get back to LA. In 1996 Charlene was invited to go to Australia and sing at the opening of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert: The Musical.
In 2008 Charlene recorded a dance version of "I've Never Been To Me" with Britain's Download Music. But though it reached 10 on the UK dance charts it didn't crossover to the mainstream. As Charlene said, "Clubs played the song and it got great feedback, and the record company did a great job, but people just weren't buying it."
Now of course Charlene has bounced back yet again with her autobiography, written with Heat and Cosmopolitan journalist Jordan Paramor. Commented Charlene, "It's a hard book. The cover is pretty, pink and really cool - it's all about Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. But inside it's heavy, it's a hard book."
Charlene talks about her career in music as "my monster." She recounted, "It was like a monster that was on my back. It was like I could not give this up. Until this day I still fight and I still struggle and I still try to go, 'What is the meaning of life'. I got to tell you about one book that has really helped me so much in my faith, I know it's fiction but it helped me to really fall deeply in love with the Lord again. It's called The Shack, by William P Young. I read it three times, just getting this thing into me and going, 'Okay, Charlene, you got to just reboot your brain with your relationship with Christ.' Because when I first became a Christian I was totally on fire for the Lord. Through the years you start losing it and you start getting numb and you start getting complacent and the pain of everyday life and the pain of losing everyday in the struggles of wanting this monster, this career rises up again."
The veteran diva showed extraordinary candor as she continued, "I also believe that I got a little challenge going on with my brain and I think that I have something where I probably need medication. I probably needed medication a long time ago. I haven't really gone that road because I'm one of these health nuts. I'm really into nutrition, health and exercise. I always felt that I can do it alone and then again that is what hurt me in my relationship to Christ. I felt like, Lord I'm fine, I can do it alone. We forget that it's a relationship with Christ that we are supposed to have. He's supposed to help us. So when I've tried to do it alone I've suffered."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.