By Paul Grein
British-born Petula Clark has had one of the longest recording careers in history. She cut her first song, “Put Your Shoes on Lucy,” back in 1949. Clark’s latest album, From Now On, was released in 2016—and she is currently in the studio recording another one.
Clark is best remembered in this country for a long string of stylish 1960s hits, including “Downtown,” “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love” and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway.” Clark has had success in other mediums as well. She was a mainstay on TV variety shows in the 1960s and 1970s. She starred in such films as Finian’s Rainbow and Goodbye Mr. Chips. She has headlined several stage musicals, including Blood Brothers on Broadway.
Clark, who is set to receive a (long-overdue) star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (date to be announced), also still gives concerts around the world. She has three Southern California dates upcoming, including the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on Sunday, November 19. That show is four days after Clark’s 85th birthday, something that is hard to imagine for those of us who will always picture a thirtysomething Clark on The Hollywood Palace belting out “Downtown.” Fortunately, all these years of singing vibrant, energetic songs have kept Clark young at heart.
I talked to Clark by phone from Montreal, where she is recording an album of French-Canadian songs.
How have you managed to survive so long in this business, when so many other performers have been bedeviled by one thing or another?
I don’t know. I was just never tempted by all the stuff that’s around. When I was a kid, I had a very strict upbringing. As I got older, I suppose a sense of self-discipline has stayed with me. I was a kid during World War II. Julie Andrews (who, like Clark, was a child performer in England) and I used to sing for the troops, not as a duo, but we used to be on the same shows together. This was a tough kind of life for kids. We were used to a kind of self-discipline.
You obviously like to work. I take it you’d rather stay active than just sit back and relax.
I think that’s true. I was on tour in England recently and I had a great time. I love changing towns every day—and working with great musicians and great bands, singing a great bunch of songs. What’s not to like? Don’t get me wrong: I’m very good at doing nothing too. But there’s a part of me that needs to perform and make music and be part of that whole atmosphere around our work. It actually doesn’t feel like work to me. I guess that’s the trick.
Composer/producer Tony Hatch wrote or co-wrote most of your big hits. He’s not as famous as Burt Bacharach or Jimmy Webb or Paul Williams, but, like them, he wrote great pop songs. You two were very lucky to find each other.
Yes, we were. I met Tony in London. I was recording in French, and he would organize those sessions, book musicians, sometimes do some of the orchestrations. (In 1964,) he came over to Paris (where I was living) to talk about the next French session. During a break for tea, he said ‘You really should be recording again in English.’ I said, ‘Well sure, but I’m really busy and in any case, I need to find the right song.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve started writing a song which you might like.’ He sat down at the piano and played ‘Downtown.’ It wasn’t finished, but he played the tune, which I thought was great. I love the title. I said, ‘Well, if you can write a lyric as good as that tune, I’ll do it. Two weeks later, we went into the studio in London. It was easy, it was great, we loved it—but we didn’t realize that we’d made a monster hit. Joe Smith of Warner Bros. (Records) was in London. He heard it and said ‘I want that.’ He took it back to the States and that was it. It raced up to No. 1 and that was the beginning.
I looked at an old clip of you singing ‘Downtown’ on YouTube the other day and found this comment from a fan: ‘If this doesn’t put a smile on your face, you’re dead.’
I like that. But a few years ago, for an album in England, we took ‘Downtown’ all the way down in tempo. It’s not such a jolly song when you take the tempo down—’When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown.’
But that’s why it’s so great. It has depth. There’s more going on than appears on the surface. The same is true of ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ and ‘Who Am I,’ which may be my favorite. None of these songs are happy-go-lucky.
I have this image of being this blonde little lady who smiles a lot, but I’m not smiling all the time. I know exactly what’s going on in the world. I’m just as concerned about what’s going on as anybody else—and sometimes I write songs about it.
You’ve been writing more of your own songs in recent years. You wrote or co-wrote seven of the 11 songs on your most recent album. You didn’t write any of your American hits. Why didn’t you write more back then?
I was an interpreter. I interpreted other people’s songs and that was fine with me, because I had great songs. It was actually Tony Hatch who encouraged me to write. I guess I was a little timid about writing my own stuff. I would write from time to time, but the idea of going on a stage and singing my own songs, I thought that was a bit risky. But little by little I’ve tried writing songs and they’re very personal to me. I enjoy the act of writing. It’s a muscle which I’m gradually learning to use and I enjoy it. I do quite a lot of my own stuff in my show. It’s a very satisfying feeling to perform your own songs.
Did you ever think in terms of having such a long career, or is just a case that you love what you do and you’re good at it and one year led to the next?
I think the latter. I never thought that I would still be doing this at my age, but if it happens, it happens. Don’t ask me why it happens—or why it happens for some and not for others. I really don’t have an answer for it.
Clark will play the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on Sunday, November 19 at 8pm. Visit Saban.theater for tickets and information. She’ll also play The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Friday, November 17 and The Canyon Club in Santa Clarita on Saturday, November 18. To learn more about Clark visit PetulaClark.net.
Paul Grein writes regularly about pop music for such outlets as Yahoo.com and HitsDailyDouble.com. He wrote the liner notes for “Ultimate Petula Clark,” a 2003 collection of her biggest hits.