"I sounded just like Michael Jackson because my voice was high! He brought me a song called One Day in Your Life and I did it because that was gonna be on an album of mine. I did that and within 6 months it was recorded by Michael, and he sounded exactly like me!"
In Conversation With... Charlene
From a Beatles fanatic to a recording artist, Charlene opens up about her troubled time in the music industry as well as her personal life, and how her new album is full of sadness from today's society...
Can you tell us a bit about your musical upbringing?
In my little mind I remember that I wanted to sing, and that I wanted to be an actress. My dad was a great opera singer - he had the most amazing voice - and my uncle was a very famous jazz singer, but that was it. I was a Beatles fanatic! I loved The Beatles so much. I was listening to them when I was about 13 or 14 years old. They were the best thing since sliced bread and a great influence on my life. Back in the 60s you had all those groups and the likes of Jimmy Hendrix and Janice Joplin (who I wasn’t nuts about because she was very raw and very gritty). I loved Jimmy, I loved Traffic!
How does one go from Beatles fanatic to recording artist?
I kind of grew up with that (those were my older teenage years), and then I met a man who was a musician. I got married at 16, had my first child at 17, and then I was doing the dishes one day and he goes You seem really good!, and I thought What, really? I was singing Paul McCartney, but my then husband went I’ve gotta friend who’s wrote a song and he’s got a little studio, I told him you sing and he wanted to know if you would come along and sing a demo for him? I decided I’ll give it a shot. It was called From Your Lips to God’s Ears. I don’t remember the song to save my life, but it was beautiful! I’m in the studio, first time doing anything like this, and I sing it, just to learn they shut the tape off! They’re just looking at me and I’m thinking Oh my gosh, what did I do? I’m in trouble.
I wasn’t sure where they were going with this but they were looking at me and signalling for me to come in. They tell me to sit down and I swear the speakers were the size of my house, but they start playing. I ask Who’s that? They reply Charlene, it’s you! I couldn’t believe it, it actually sounded really good! I had never had a singing lesson in my life! I finished the song and they loved it. I walked out of there and that was kind of it. Then we went to a party with a bunch of friends and a bunch of stoners, I was smoking pot sometimes - not all the time - and there was this blonde lady who comes up and goes, I’m dating Barry Gordy, and I’m the manager for Sammy Davis Jr. My husband at the time brought his guitar - he brought it everywhere - and he sat down and started singing. I thought If I sang in the studio, I can sing now! She told me that my singing was really good and we exchanged numbers kept in contact.
We also met another named Jack Keller. He wrote the theme song for Bewitched. He had his own studio in his house and goes Charlene, I heard you sing! I have a song I wrote with a friend of mine called Sweet Sad Clown. I’d love for you to come and listen to the song and see if you’d like to sing it. I’m starting to get my little thing going on! Sure! I’ll come and sing it! I went and I sang the song and it came out really good. Again, I can’t remember a note of that song; I don’t have any memory of it. We’re talking like over 40 years ago... yikes!
I did the song and it turned out really good, so, we went to another party and I met Nancy Leiviska and go Hey, Nancy, I wanna play you a song! Nancy listened to it and wanted to play it for her boyfriend, Berry Gordy. This is 1971-2. A few months later she calls: Berry Gordy wants to meet you!
Tell us about your first meeting with Berry Gordy.
Nancy Leiviska told me to come to the commissary at Warner Bros where Diana Ross is doing her movie, Lady Sings the Blues. I go there with my husband looking like a hillbilly because I used to dress in overalls. I was so scared that I was sitting there like a piece of wood. Diana’s there! Berry’s there! Then I’m sat there in my overalls. Berry told me that he liked my song and I said Thank you, Mr Gordy. I always called him Mr Gordy, never called him Berry, because I had so much respect for him. Anyway, he tells me that he likes Sweet Sad Clown and goes Can you stand up and sing it for me? In front of Diana Ross and all of these executive giants! Two months I was signed to Motown Records. Diana Ross even stole my daughter's name! She named her daughter Chudney. Awful name! Well, my first daughter is named Chadney.
Tell us about the change from singing odd songs to now working at the famous Motown?
I sign to Motown and start going into the company and doing all kinds of demos. I worked with Hal Davis who worked with The Temptations. He worked with everybody. He did these songs for me and I sounded just like Michael Jackson because my voice was high! He brought me a song called One Day in Your Life and I did it because that was gonna be on an album of mine. I did that and within 6 months it was recorded by Michael, and he sounded exactly like me!
I also had Smokey Robinson work with me and we did a song called Happy, followed by Bob Gaudio calling me to say he was really excited to work with me. He wrote all of those songs for The Four Seasons. I got a couple of songs that Bob did with me that eventually ended up on an album. I worked on about seven albums, doing so much. Neither me or my husband were very good at writing songs but I was starting to become the voice and he wasn’t liking that. He would host parties and I just burst out singing Joni Mitchell.
I loved Motown and everything that came out of it. I collaborated with so many people like Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield and Ron Miller. We wrote a song called Glass House for The Temptations. I liked what I was writing - it was fun and fantastic!
With the success you were finding with Motown, was your personal life taking a toll?
My husband, Larry, was abusive to me throughout this ordeal and he was just getting more abusive. They wanted me to come into the studio and he would just say What about me?, not realising that I am the one that they were focused on. Ron Miller approached me in 1974, I was on the label for about 3 years now doing demos. I meet him and I’m a broken woman. I’m being abused not just mentally but physically. Nancy came over one day and I couldn’t play the piano because my arm was just swollen to the point where I couldn’t even move it. Larry was beating me. Nancy told me that I was stupid for being with him and that he doesn’t love me, even though I was thinking that he did. She thought he was going to kill me. I realized that my daughter, Chadney, was at risk of being a victim of being abused by Larry. He had a short temper, shooting up heroin and doing speed, slapping me when I didn’t do something that he wanted – it was horrible. Ron Miller pulls me to the side at the Motown office and he goes I have a song I wanna play you. I sit down, he plays the song, I've Never Been to Me, and I start crying. He stops the tape recorder and is surprised. It was a song that he wrote about Robert Shaw in Jaws. I just said I don’t know who you are but do you want me to sing this? and he agrees. The song just reminded me of what I was going through.
Things did begin to change, starting with that recording.
Yeah, Nancy tells me I'm getting out of this house, basically kidnaps me to Berry Gordon’s mansion in Malibu. I was treated amazingly there; he was so kind. We lived there for 3 months and I started dating Ron. We did a demo and it was absolutely beautiful, we brought it to Berry and led us to the studio. There was a 30-piece orchestra and it was so beautiful. I can hear the violins and I feel like I'm in the Philharmonioc, and again, I’m crying. The music is done, Frank Sinatra’s arranger dealt with all the violins; it was beautiful. Now it is time for me to put the vocal on the song. I’ve been doing so many demos and I don’t even know how to sing it! I could hardly even sing it because I was just crying, I was trying not but my life was flashing before me. I was with this man for 10 years, and divorced in 1976. Ron is so fiery and passionate about music and worked with Diana Ross, Barbara Streisand, all of these people. He told me that my voice is as beautiful as any of those singers, but I need to be in it to do it. He took me to the back alley and told me that I’m not gonna fuck this song up. He took my purse and threw it across the alley, my makeup went everywhere. He says to me, If you fuck this song up, I’m gonna give it to Diana or Barbara, and you’re gonna be out! I’m just apologising and crying. Well, guess what? I went back in and did the song in one take. Motown does their normal releasing: throws it against the wall to see if sticks. It didn’t stick so they just left it. Gone. Over. Now, at this time I had been recording all of these songs and I had been through a lot. The Beatles got me through a lot of it. I thought of being put in a crate and mailing myself to England, that’s how bad I wanted to go there! I had ended up leaving Ron, leaving Motown and leaving music. I went to go live in England with my new partner, Jeff, who I got married to in 1981.
Life has a funny way of bringing us back to the past, though. How did you become reconnected with Motown?
In 1982 I got a phone call from my mom and she was telling me that someone from Motown was trying to find me. I had been gone for 4 years. It all floods back into my head. I went upstairs and I found the vinyl that Motown said didn’t stick. I put the song on and just started crying, thinking What happened? I was doing all these amazing things, meeting these amazing people. Now I’m working in a candy store in England. I thought that it was gonna happen for me, I was sure, but it didn’t and it broke my spirit. I told my mom to give them my number. The next day the phone rings again and I answer. I run downstairs and answer, Jay Lasker, the President of Motown Records, is on the phone. He tells me I’m on the billboard charts, number 31. Oh, my dear God,. He says Honey, you’ve gotta get back here, you’ve got a massive hit! They bring their crew to England and film the video of me in the wedding dress - that is my actual wedding dress! The place we filmed it is beautiful. I signed a contract and they said that they are flying me back to New York to do Good Morning, America with one of the Bee Gees. I get on a Concord airline, which took 3 hours to get to New York and I go and do the television promotion with Maurice. Then I’m going to TV show after TV show. My world stopped 3 years prior to this. I now have fans screaming my name, my song was on the radio and it was the biggest song of the time. My husband knew I did music but not to this caliber, neither did I! My husband’s family weren’t very happy about me singing because it was sinful. I say Shut up! I’m going to Germany, Holland, everywhere in Europe! Singing! Singing! Singing! I was a studio singer, that’s all I did, I never did personal performances. There’s about 1.9 million people watching me on all these tv shows. The song peaks at number 1 in so many countries. It was actually number 3 in America, and I tried to fight for it but they were not having it. They were gonna nominate me in the Grammys, but it wasn't a new song.
Everything was starting to go crazy: the contract I signed, Motown cross-collateralised me for leaving and signing back to them, I owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to them for these songs that I had just helped with. I found out that I made about $20,000 in total. I didn’t see any of that. My career was starting to go down just as it went up; and I was receiving slander about my song. However, people called me and told me that my song changed their life: I named my daughter Charlene! It was so much back and forth. I came back to England and Ron calls me, saying that he got me a duet with Stevie Wonder. Oh, my God! I did get a write-up in a magazine called the Magnificent Failure. Publicity is publicity, even bad publicity is publicity; but it hurt me, it hurt me so badly.
You did receive great publicity, too!
There was a station that said they wouldn’t play I've Never Been To Me song. So, before it was released, Jay Lasker was friends with Scott Shannon, the DJ. He called Jay and said he wanted to do a contest for Olivia Newton-John's Physical and my I’ve Never Been to Me and wanted people to vote. They did it, Olivia got 5 calls and I got thousands. They put a thousand records in Tampa, Florida, where Scott had his radio show and they sold in one day. He called Jay Lasker and demanded that he release this song. We went over a million copies and I never got my Gold record from Motown, they didn’t wanna admit that they had to give me money! The song was absolutely huge and Used to Be was released, which they didn’t wanna release for it being blasphemous for kids to have sex when they’re twelve. A lot of people had misconceptions about my lyrics that I had to take out to avoid people thinking falsely falsely. Anyway, I’m here, I’m writing, I’m teaching, I'm doing all this stuff and I love my job. I love teaching the kids and just promote life into their life. I want them to know that they can do anything they desire. Don’t let anyone steal your dream.
Why did you pass signing We Belong, recorded by Pat Benatar?
Don’t even tell me about that. I’m so mad! I was living at my mom and dad’s house and this guy calls me saying he has a song for me, but it was more uptempo and a different style. He comes over and we listen to it in my car, I love the song and I want to do it. It’s yours he says. I go to Ray Singleton who’s in charge of all the songs that are going to be put on the album and I show her the song. She tells me no. I’m basically begging because this guy told me that I could do it. I didn’t get the approval for it and I am still mad about it. Curtis McNolan was my producer and he would show me his new Mercedes saying, Look what your album bought me! Thanks a lot. I got paid for nothing and you got a brand-new car. 6 months go by and I hear it on the radio (I almost smashed it into a tree). You’ve gotta be kidding me! I could’ve nailed that song. He wanted songs that he was involved in so he could get the writers. So selfish! So cruel!
Let's focus on the future, can you tell us about your latest projects?
I wrote a historical fictional novel about World War II, called Orphan Train. I have an autobiography called I’ve Never Been to Me which is all about my life. This new album is a deep sadness in my heart. It’s my passion, it’s my heart. All of these people that live out on the street. They have so many mental issues which isn’t talked about a lot! No one talks about the mental frailty of these people, thinking that it’s all physical, and it’s not! The mind first and then the body follows. We’re sick because of our minds. They’ve lost homes, they lost loved ones, we don’t know about these people! It’s a broken society, it’s broken right now! That's what this album is about and we are gonna bring it together for you all soon.
Whilst we eagerly await to hear Charlene's true voice to finally shine through, you can pick up Orphan Train by clicking here, delve into her hit single and records by clicking here, and be sure to follow The Pirate Media for all updates. After hearing early demos, this is an album that will be a heartbreaking reflection of society, and you will want to hear it!