Well, here’s an unlikely coupling if ever there was, not because of the artists but rather in the way they met and how they recorded a single together. And it’s with this twosome that I spent time recently to find out how their musical adventure began. We had a lot of laughter and cross-conversation, with a little portion of gossip and a side offering of impromptu singing. But, first some background notes to introduce Charlene and Paul Stuart Davies who met on Facebook and recorded “Fairytale Life” due for release this month. The lady is first…
Originally released in 1977, Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been To Me” single was re-issued to top the British charts in May 1982; Motown’s first under its new deal with BMG- but with its singer retired from the music business. I suspect panic spread through the marketing and promotion departments, don’t you? A hit single and no singer to promote. Eeek!
Anyway, let’s backtrack here. Prior to this hit, Hollywood-born Charlene Marilynn D’Angelo was signed to Motown when she was twenty-three years old to record a pair of singles under her married name Charlene Duncan: the first “Relove” in September 1973 appears to have been canned, while the second “All That Love Went To Waste” was released to coincide with a romantic comedy. But more about that later on. From singing, she turned her hand to writing her own material, working on demo tracks for others including a version of “One Day In Your Life” for a young Michael Jackson, before hooking up with the extremely talented Ron Miller.
However, she returned to recording to release her debut album on the Prodigal label, opened in 1974 by Barney Ales and Gordon Prince to cater for an eclectic roster of artists, covering different musical genres. The label had been running for a year when Berry Gordy approached Barney Ales to return to Motown, bringing the label with him. Several artists, therefore, became Motown artists by default when Prodigal was dissolved during 1979; Charlene would be one of them. However, before this happened, she issued her eponymous album late-1976 from which the elegantly styled “It Ain’t Easy Comin’ Down” was lifted, followed by the first outing of “I’ve Never Been To Me”. I know I’ve got this album in my collection but damned if I can find it now! I’ll finish this blog then have another look.
The “Charlene” album was subsequently re-packaged under the title “Songs Of Love” in 1977. It included the song “Freddie”, said to be a tribute to actor/comedian Freddie Prinze, who had died earlier that year. The track replaced “Shake A Hand”, and was issued as a single to hit the mainstream top one hundred. The third single from that album was of course “I’ve Never Been To Me” which, I’ve found out, Ron Miller originally wrote from a male perspective, but later amended it for Charlene. First recorded with a narration to highlight the song’s powerful sentiment, it was for some reason omitted from the version on “Songs Of Love” and subsequently from the single’s first release. In 1982 though, the track with the spoken bridge from the “Charlene” album was released as a single. Not the easiest of things to explain but hopefully we’re on the same page now.
So, we’ve caught up. With the totally unexpected success of “I’ve Never Be To Me,” Charlene was, of course, quickly re-signed to Motown. She was actually living in Britain at this time, having become disillusioned with the business, and had settled in Ilford where she was working in a sweet shop and caring for handicapped people in her spare time. However, she was persuaded to return to California to re-start her career with Motown. During my chinwag with Charlene and Paul Stuart Davies, she told me that “I’ve Never Been To Me” was 64th in the top one hundred in the history of Motown Records. “Now, how many songs have been out there, say, with Holland, Dozier and Holland? There’s Michael, Diana and all the big artists on the label with all the hits they’ve had, and while I know it sounds like a high number…it’s like oh my God, it’s amazing.” I interrupted with “It’s particularly amazing for a white girl on a black label”. “I know – and with a ballad!” she shot back.
As an aside here, in a 1977 interview she explained why the single suddenly became an in-demand item. “There was a DJ, Scott Shannon, in Tampa, Florida, and he began playing the song on his show. The station was swamped with calls enquiring about it. Jay Lasker became aware of its potential, tracked me down and re-signed me to the company.” When the single was first released, Charlene explained she was mid-way through divorce proceedings. “I got married at sixteen and had a baby daughter soon afterwards. Not surprisingly the marriage flopped because we were much too young. So I was left with a baby and a broken heart. On top of that I got involved with drugs and that messed me up even further. The guy I was married to got me into singing and eventually some of my songs were played to Berry Gordy and I was signed to Motown. The record business can be very cruel, especially when you’re not prepared for it, and I wasn’t. It’s a business full of broken promises and I was often fooled by them. I fought for ten long years to make it as a singing star and then finally gave up.”
“It Ain’t Easy Comin’ Down” was released as the chart topper’s follow-up in June 1982; July in Britain. When I told her I just loved this song – there was something about the way the song’s emotive lyrics and rising musical crescendo washed over the sadness in her voice – she confirmed it was a personal favourite too: “It’s a beautiful, beautiful song”. What about “All That Love Went To Waste”? It’s another gloriously sentimental ballad which I first heard in A Touch Of Class starring Glenda Jackson and George Segal; a film of love found and lost amidst a sea of tears, mostly mine! In actual fact, I’m playing the song now: oh, my, just brilliant. The 1973 romantic comedy is definitely on my list of go-to films. She said, “I did that on the Golden Globe Awards because it was in the movie. Dionne Warwick came up to me and said she loved my voice. That was pretty amazing. She was smoking and I was like – how can you smoke (and sing)?”
(David Nathan note: Dionne Warwick’s younger sister, Dee Dee recorded ‘All That Love Went To Waste’ when she re-signed with Mercury Records in 1973 and it was released as a single with the credits, ‘From The Motion Picture, ‘A TOUCH OF CLASS’)
I was beginning to feel a smidge guilty excluding Paul from the conversation up until now, although he did make comments now and again, so I promised to round off my chat with Charlene by asking about “Used To Be,” the single she cut with Stevie Wonder. “You’ve heard that single, right?” Sure have, dear: in fact, Karen Sherlock, who, at the time, worked for Motown’s International Division in California, first played it to me over the phone one evening shortly prior to its release in October 1982. It was one of the biggest events in Charlene’s career, but she said, they had a rough time with the song. I’m guessing the somewhat controversial lyrics, written by Ron Miller, bitterly condemning the atrocities and selfish attitudes of modern life, had something to do with it. Here’s a taster: ‘You’re twelve years old, and sex is legal. Your parents don’t know where or who you are.….Believe the truth can make us free. Someone tried to say it, then we nailed Him to a cross. I guess it’s still the way it used to be.’ I’m thinking that by today’s standards, the lyrics would be considered tame which is rather sad, and surely proves how irresponsible some songwriters are nowadays.
Despite “Used To Be” being an American hit, the single failed miserably in theUK, I’m guessing due to its content. With the lyrics in mind, an edited version was pressed for radio play while the full-length American version was commercially available. Motown’s duets often result from the two artists not being in the studio together: Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye sprang to mind. She laughed “We were in the studio together and we did the vocals between us. He said he loved my voice. Listen, whenever we had a party and Stevie was there, he’d be sitting somewhere and I’d be singing. He used to sing ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ to me. We often goofed around, we had crazy times in the Motown office. Everybody would come, it was like a big family affair. There was the little studio in there; the [music] publishing [department] was there and all these other people. It was so fantastic. I’ll never forget it. It was magical….I was good friends with Stevie’s wife Syreeta. I loved her so much: she was an absolute doll, with a beautiful voice.”
Talking about “Used To Be” reminded Charlene of a song she had written with Ron Miller called “Little People”. She says, “If that came out now it would be a massive hit. We had this guy who sang like Levi from The Four Tops and it was absolutely unbelievable. It all begins and ends with little people who live in a place called yesterday.” She then started to sing a couple of verses, and without wishing to break any copyright laws, here’s a taster of the lyrics (without the singing of course): ‘There’s a passion, there’s a courage. There’s an anger, there’s a fear. There’s a lady in the harbour with a torch and a tear.‘ Phew!
Let’s bring in Paul and talk about the reason we all got together in the first place , “Fairytale Life”, due to be released this month. The plan was to record the track on a solo Charlene. However, when Paul sent her the demo vocal to guide her, she suggested they mix their two voices together. “Once I knew it was a duet,” Paul explained, “I didn’t re-do my vocal, just used the demo one. So that’s what you hear on the track.”
Before moving on, here’s a little backstory. On the very day that “I’ve Never Been To Me” hit the top spot, Paul was born forty years ago in Manchester. After performing on the North West England pub and club circuit when he left school in 1998, he studied music through Access To Music, and Blackburn College, before working for both as a vocal coach. During 2003, with guitarist Mark Bateson, he set up the Elite School of Music, later known as the Darwen School of Music. Also during this year, celebrated producer George Martin presented them with an Award of Excellence.
Nine years on and Paul released his debut independent single “Mighty By Nature”, which was a top seller on the UK iTunes rock chart, later a top thirty entrant in the official indie listing. From here, he released “Let’s Get It On” (earning the respect of Jan Gaye, Marvin’s wife) and “Time Will Pass You By”, both of which brought him to the attention of Russ Winstanley, top Northern Soul DJ and leading promoter on the scene – and, if I may add, a very nice man indeed. Through Russ, Paul was a regular performer at weekenders, with The World’s Biggest Northern Soul Weekender at Butlins, and the final Northern Soul Survivors gig, both in Skegness, among them.
On the recording front, the singer didn’t mess about either. For example, he flew to Detroit to record “Tomorrow’s World” at the United Sound Systems studio with celebrity session singers including Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard (original Vandellas), Pat Lewis and Kim Weston. Other singles followed like “Baby, It’s Yours” with the Fantastic Four on support vocals; “Wonderin'” and “A Good Good Thing”, both tracks earmarked for his pending “Lost Soul” album.
So, back to the present and Paul: “I looked to see if Charlene was on Facebook and I started my message with ‘I’m a singer in the UK and your song was number one on the day I was born’. There weren’t many Motown number ones in the eighties, and knowing how much Motown means to me, it was quite a coincidence. I also told her I’d been working on the Motown scene with Kim, the Vandellas, Gloria (Jones), Chris (Clark) and everybody, and Charlene replied over night.” She was keen to know if Paul wrote and also sang because she was looking for a songwriting partner: “Charlene sits at the piano and comes up with all these ideas. I think the thing she struggles with is she doesn’t have her own equipment over there to get it all down and recorded. And I do at this end. So I sent her some of my original songs and it went on from there.”
So, Charlene is across the Atlantic and Paul is tucked away in Darwen. How does that work? He explained, “The first time we spoke on the phone we must have stayed a couple of hours or so. She was sat at the piano and she played me two or three half finished songs. I said I liked ‘Fairytale Life’ because it reminded me of a Sam Cooke kind of style. It had a slightly gospel/pop sound to it. So, the next time we spoke on the phone, I was at the piano in my studio at a time when it wasn’t so late that I couldn’t play my piano. The first time we spoke, I couldn’t get on my piano at home for fear of waking up the neighbours! The second time we did it from my studio into Charlene’s living room. I just suggested a few chord changes, then I recorded the piano down and sent it to her. She said just as a basis, ‘Do you know “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles, it’s a modern pop song but it’s got an almost Motown piano sound to it?’ I knew exactly what she meant so I put the piano and some drums down again in an almost made-to-sound order for her. And when I sent it back to her, it was exactly what she wanted.” Charlene added, “I just had a little bit of the song – a melody and a few words – but couldn’t go any further. The result was great, I loved working with him.”
Paul’s uncle Pete plays bass, drums and guitar on “Fairytale Life”, having recorded the parts in his home studio, while Blackburn-based Paddy Higginson handles the fantastic sax break. “When we finished the track I said to Charlene I think this is the most ‘Motown’ you’ve ever sounded!”
Now that “Fairytale Life” is finished it’s heading for public consumption, digitally at first, he said, but if there’s a big enough demand, vinyl copies will be pressed. For now though, iTunes is the place to be. “In terms of promoting,” Paul told me, “everyone that I know will know we’re into the Motown sound. We worked on a couple of ballad ideas as well, but I said what we really want to release now is what could have been a Motown record. Hopefully, people will lap it up – and, who knows, you might even find that Motown fans who weren’t necessarily Charlene fans because she recorded ballads, will latch on to this song – I don’t think Northern Soul DJs will pick up on it because it’s not a ‘dancer.’ A lot of people call me a Northern Soul artist and I don’t particularly like that because what I love is Motown. I know a lot of people think they are one and the same but a lot of Motown is mid-tempo and slow. It doesn’t have to be dance floor stuff. But with Northern Soul fans, if they can’t dance to it, they’re not interested.”
Bringing a close to this extraordinary chat which was thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, I do wish them every soulful success with this slice of foot tapping, Motown-influenced song, rather typical of those performed back in the day on Detroit’s Apollo Theatre stage. If nothing else, it’s rather special hearing Charlene sing again. I was about to tell her this, when she sighed, “Sharon, you know what song I’d love to do?” Before I could respond, she starts singing, ‘I don’t like you, but I love you. Seems that I’m always thinking of you…‘ So we all had a little singsong with Paul reaching notes that Charlene couldn’t and I wouldn’t even attempt.
“You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” never sounded so good!