Petula Clark Interview: So Much More Than "Downtown," International Entertainment Legend Gets In-Depth and Intimate
Image attributed to Clement Schneider
Born November 15, 1932 in the borough of Epsom in Surrey, England, Petula Clark first broke into the limelight during World War II when she entertained the troops, as a child, both on radio and in concert. From that chance beginning, she would appear on radio, film, print, television and recordings by the time she turned 17 years old. Throughout the 40s and 50s Clark was a regular guest on a vast number of radio shows and became something of a television “pioneer” in England, first appearing on experimental TV and later as host of several of her own television series.
In answer to the rock-and-roll craze of the late fifties, Clark recorded “Sailor,” “Romeo” and “My Friend the Sea.” Asked to record in French, she declined at first but was quickly persuaded to do so by Frenchman Claude Wolff to whom she married in 1961. By the mid 60s Clark had established herself as a superstar throughout Europe with No. 1 tunes sung in different languages in different countries all across the continent.
“[Julie Andrews] was a child performer and so was I. It was during the Second World War in England, and we would go out entertaining the troops. We were often on the same shows together. When we would have to get out of London, we’d travel on troop trains. We were traveling in the dark because no light was allowed in the trains. We would sleep in the luggage racks. We were both pretty skinny, and we were friends.”
Clark recorded “Downtown” written by English composer Tony Hatch, and the rest is music history. “Downtown” skyrocketed to No. 1 in the USA, launching Clark’s American career and earning her a Grammy in 1964. She quickly followed with “I Know a Place” which went to No. 3 and earned her a second Grammy in 1965. Other Top 15 hits included “My Love,” “A Sign of the Times,” “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love,” “This is My Song” and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway.”
The multi-talented artist made her Broadway debut starring opposite David and Shaun Cassidy in Blood Brothers, and in 1998 returned to England where she was presented with a prestigious CBE by her Majesty the Queen of England. Clark appeared as Norma Desmond on stage in Sunset Boulevard, a role she has now played more than any other actress to date.
Throughout Clark’s storied career, which has spanned seven decades, she has also appeared many times on the big screen. Her film appearances include Medal for the General (1944), Murder in Reverse (1945), London Town (1946), Don’t Ever Leave Me (1949), Dance Hall (1950), The Card (1952), Made in Heaven (1952), Track the Man Down (1955), That Woman Opposite (1957), Finian’s Rainbow (1968), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) and Never, Never Land (1980).
Clark released a new album entitled Lost in You in 2013. The record contains new music, some covers and a remake of “Downtown” as well as a performance of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The 81-year-old superstar has not slowed down a bit and continues to tour internationally.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I love the new album! What are the differences in the production and style as compared to your last one?
Petula Clark: I did one in French just before this one, which was more I suppose what you’d call classic. The first track we did was a song called “Cut Copy Me,” which I absolutely love. There was a big reaction to that. People who heard it thought it was really unusual. We liked it, too. That is to say, the producer and I. His name is John Williams. He’s not the American John Williams. He’s very English.
John has a studio which doesn’t look like a studio at all. It looks like a little summerhouse with little windows and everything. It’s cutesy until you get inside, of course, and then it’s a perfect little recording studio. Anyway, we decided to go in and record some more after “Cut Copy Me.” The whole thing was organic. There was no master plan behind it. We didn’t think, “Oh, let’s try and sound contemporary. We chose the songs together, and we had some young writers come in with their songs … and we just did it. It’s hard to explain how it happened really. We were recording in a very cute little studio. We didn’t go into Abbey Road or anything like that. It seems to me that if you have the right songs and the right team of people around you, that’s pretty well all you need. Of course, good recording equipment helps (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A favorite of mine is “Never Enough.” Was that a writing collaboration for you?
Petula Clark: I collaborated with John Williams and Paul, our recording engineer. That’s the way things happened. We were just sitting around in this little studio with lots of cups of tea and biscuits, and it was mostly during the summer. We didn’t have air conditioning in the studio, so we had the doors and windows open (laughs). We had the garden, flowers and birds. Eventually we had to close the windows when we were recording. Sometimes you could hear the birds actually on one or two tracks.
We would just sit together, and if one of us got an idea, we’d start playing with it, and then one of us would jump in or not. There were some songs that just came in ready-made. “Cut Copy Me” was ready-made. I think maybe John co-wrote that with Sarah. Then I co-wrote a song with Grant Sturiale, and that was done really on the computer because he was in New York, and I was in London. We’d just go to and fro on emails. It’s a very different thing recording these days to when I was recording in the 60s. It’s a totally different thing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are the differences between recording then and recording now?
Petula Clark: I was very fortunate because Tony Hatch, who is the producer and also the writer, was writing fantastic songs for me. He wrote “Downtown,” “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” and “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love.” He wrote all of the great hits. It was a very different thing. We would go into a big studio in London. Mostly the songs were recorded in London.
We’d have a big orchestra. I mean, not a band, an orchestra sitting on a rock rhythm section, and we would record live. It was a big sound immediately. There was no fiddling around with it afterward to make it sound big or anything. It just was big (laughs). It was very exciting, singing live with a lot of musicians. There’s nothing quite like it. It was the way Sinatra loved to record and most of the great singers of that time.
Everything has changed. The world has changed. Music has changed. But the basic thing of singing a song hasn’t changed that much. We’ve all had to adjust to the different way of getting to that point. To me, making Lost in You is just as exciting in its own way as recording any of those LPs that we used to do in the 60s.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jimmy Page, legendary guitarist of Led Zeppelin, was 70 years old last week.
Petula Clark: Oh, bless his heart.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He played guitar on the album Downtown.
Petula Clark: Yes. He was a session guitar player. I saw him not that long ago at a cocktail party. The Queen was present, and it was at the Royal Academy of Arts, and everybody in the recording business was there. This guy was leaning against the wall, and I was walking past, and he said, “Hello Petula. Remember me? I played on your sessions.” I looked at this nice looking guy and said, “Jimmy Page!” He’s a lovely man.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you ever think Jimmy would one day be one of the greatest guitarists of all time?
Petula Clark: No. But we had great musicians on those sessions. They were the cream of the crop when we were working in London, and it was the same thing when we were working in LA. We’d have the Wrecking Crew, the rhythm section from LA, and they played on everything. They were the top guys.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): “Downtown” quickly became an international hit. Did you realize what a huge impact the song would have on your career?
Petula Clark: You don’t realize it at the time. Some people have the impression that you know when you’re making a hit. I knew it was a good record. We all knew it was a good record, but we could have no idea where it was going. It was a hit in England, but it was picked up by Joe Smith of Warner Bros. Records of LA. He knew that it was going to be a hit in the states. He said, “I want that!” The next thing we knew he was right (laughs). But every time you go in, you don’t think, “We’re going to make a hit.” It doesn’t work like that. Anybody who tells you anything differently is not telling the absolute truth. You could have a pretty good idea, but nobody knows.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were one of the top female pop vocalists during that time. That had to be fun and exciting, but was it also scary?
Petula Clark: Well, I had been a star in England before all that, and then I had this career in France where I was making hit records in French. “Downtown” just really came out of the blue. I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t saying to myself, “I want to be a star in America.” I was used to being recognized in Europe. It’s really part of the gig, as they say, you know? If you don’t want all the stuff that goes with it, then maybe you’d just better not get into it. That’s the name of the game.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): On one of your TV specials in 1968, Harry Belafonte was a guest. There was a rather famous “incident” on the show that you refused to take out of the final cut even though it was during the time of civil rights and racial unrest. Did that have an impact on your career?
Petula Clark: Not really. Of course, it was talked about a lot. I had walked into this from Europe, and I’m English. I’d lived in France as well. We just didn’t have that situation. I was delighted and flattered when Harry agreed to do my show. Our choreographer was black and my musical director was black. I just didn’t think anything of it. I just happened to touch Harry’s arm while I was singing a song, and the sponsor went crazy. He didn’t want that. He didn’t want his star touching a black man’s arm.
I just didn’t get it. I felt the whole thing was a joke really. But of course, it wasn’t. It was right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, and Harry was very much a part of it. It was just one of those incidents. I saw Harry recently in Dublin at the Amnesty International presentation to him and some other people. It was fantastic to see him again. He has never forgotten that incident. It was important to him. I just happened to be there. I was very much on his side of course.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You recorded “Imagine” on the new album. Does the song hold a special significance to you?
Petula Clark: Oh yes. We wanted to do some cover songs, and you probably noticed we covered “Downtown” which I didn’t want to do at first (laughs). But obviously, the Beatles came up because, well, it’s obvious. I almost did “The Long and Winding Road,” which I love, and then I said, “Wait a minute. It has to be John. It has to be one of John’s songs.” “Imagine” was a song that I had sung on stage many times but had never recorded, so we just decided to do it. I had met John, and he had been lovely to me. It was just my little tribute to him. I’m actually singing it for him more than anything else.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wanted to be an actress when you were a little girl?
Petula Clark: Actually there’s a song on the album called “Reflections” which talks about my childhood in Wales because I’m half Welsh. The Welsh are very musical, so I was surrounded by music right from a very early age. I first started to sing when I was about 5 or 6 in chapel and things like that. But, yes, I had wanted to be an actress. I had gone to the theatre with my dad to see a play and was totally mesmerized by this magical thing that happens when you are engrossed in a play, and the actors are having this effect on an audience. I wanted to do that. In fact, I’ve been very lucky because I’ve been able to do both.
When I was a kid, I was put under contract to a film company called the Rank Organization as an actress because we weren’t making musicals anyway, so I made about 20 odd films as an actress. I had kind of a parallel career as a singer. I did The Sound of Music in London, Blood Brothers on Broadway and Sunset Boulevard on Broadway. They are powerful acting/singing roles. In any case, I have to say that when I do my show, it’s almost like a play for me because every song is like a scene going on in my head. You can’t see it, but I can feel it. I just don’t stand there and get the notes out. Something is going on in my head … usually some kind of play.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When you were small and traveled with Julie Andrews, did the two of you sing together?
Petula Clark: We never sang together. She was a child performer and so was I. It was during the Second World War in England, and we would go out entertaining the troops. We were often on the same shows together. When we would have to get out of London, we’d travel on troop trains. We were traveling in the dark because no light was allowed in the trains. We would sleep in the luggage racks. We were both pretty skinny, and we were friends.
Our parents were perhaps not so “friendly” because of that whole “this is my little girl,” you know, that kind of thing. But we certainly weren’t showbiz kids. It wasn’t that atmosphere. We were singing for the troops, and after we did our concerts, we’d get back on the train and get back to London. A lot of the time we were living in air raid shelters. Our paths have crossed only from time to time, but Julie remembers all of this very well. She remembers that childhood adventure very well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your father managed your early career?
Petula Clark: Oh yes. I made my first radio performance on BBC when I was 8, so I couldn’t go out and manage myself obviously (laughs). He was ambitious and had wanted to be an actor. My father was a very good-looking man. At least he looked like a movie star if you know what I mean. But he was never allowed to do it. His parents were very much against it. So I think when he discovered that he had a child who had some talent … let’s face it, I wasn’t that talented. But I knew how to sing in tune and in tempo which are the basics really. He decided to, shall we say, “encourage” me.
My father didn’t have any influence. We weren’t from a wealthy family and didn’t know anybody in the business, but he sort of chaperoned me and I suppose pushed me forward a little bit. But the world was very different then. We didn’t have all these huge talent shows or that kind of thing. It was a very different process altogether.
After my first radio show, which was done for the forces, I went along to send a message to my uncle who was serving abroad. They had shows like that in the UK for children who could send messages to their dad, brother, cousin or whoever. This was done in Piccadilly right in the center of London in a theatre, which still exists. It was ideal because it was like a big air raid shelter, and the BBC had taken it over to broadcast. I wanted to send a message to my uncle. But in the middle of this broadcast, there was a huge air raid, and the place was shaking. Many of the kids were nervous.
The producer asked if somebody would like to come up and say a poem or sing a song to just take the edge off the nervousness. Nobody else offered, so I stood up and sang into the microphone. That was the first time I was heard, and it was broadcast. It was a huge reaction to that, and that was really my first important contact with an audience.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That just gives new meaning to the words “calming a crowd.”
Petula Clark: Yes. The human voice is an extraordinary thing. I remember some years ago when I was in my 20s. I was ill for a while. We had no television, and I wasn’t allowed to read, but I could listen to the radio. I remember how important that became … the human voice and the power of it. I think it’s still true.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I agree. Who are some of your favorite artists and musicians today?
Petula Clark: Oh my goodness. There are so many. I don’t know. There are so many great singers and musicians out there. I don’t sit around listening to anybody’s music including my own. But I happen to hear things or see something on television. There are some great British singers, too, but America has always led the field somewhat because after all, all of this is American music. The Beatles took American music and turned it into something else, but it’s basically American music.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you enjoy when you’re not traveling or performing?
Petula Clark: I like to write music. I play piano. If you really want to know, I like to go to the opera. I’m not much of a showbiz person. I like nature. I like doing ordinary stuff. I’m not a shopaholic. I have a chalet in the French Alps, and that’s great. I enjoy that. I enjoy traveling. I don’t like the art of traveling anymore, all that stuff you have to go through when you travel. But I do like seeing other places and other cultures. I’ve always enjoyed that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there anything you’d still like to accomplish?
Petula Clark: I just want to get better at it really (laughs). There’s nothing that I especially want to do. My whole career has never been like, “Oh, I want to do that. I’ll go for it.” I’ve never been like that. It’s always been very organic. It just happens. I’ve never been ambitious. I work very hard when I work, and I know how to lay back and smell the roses.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve led such an interesting life and storied career. Are you interested in writing a memoir?
Petula Clark: I’ve been asked so many times, and so many times I’ve said “no” (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, just say “yes” this time (laughs).
Petula Clark: Well, it’s a maybe. I’m hovering on the brink. But it means going into hiding for a while and doing that just, and I don’t much fancy it. There are so many more fun things to do. But I might get around to it. Maybe.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ll take the “maybe” (laughs). What’s coming up other than the tour in Australia?
Petula Clark: I’ve got some things to do in the UK as well, and I also have a tour coming up in France. We’re talking about doing another CD, so I have to start thinking about what I might want to do on that. It has been interesting. The new CD has had sort of a great reaction. I did a UK tour recently. Obviously I do the old songs. I love them anyway. But I sang a lot of the new ones from this CD, and there was a huge reaction.
People absolutely love them, and they love a song called “Crazy,” and we may go more in that direction for the next album. I don’t quite know. But there again, it will be very casual. Some people work well when everything is perfectly worked out for them. I’ve seen performers who go on stage, and everything they say is scripted, and every move they make is choreographed. I couldn’t do that. I have to feel very free and open to any changes that I might sense from myself, the audience and the musicians. That’s the way I’ve always worked, and in the foreseeable future, that’s the way it’s going to be.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Other than “Downtown,” “I Know a Place” is a favorite of mine.
Petula Clark: Oh really? Yeah. I like that too. I like all of them. Some of them I like more. Probably I like “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” and “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love.” They may be my favorites actually.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It has been such a delight today. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Petula Clark: I enjoyed it too, and I love your accent.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Thanks so much. I love yours!
Petula Clark: What accent? I don’t have an accent (laughs).
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