Petula Clark was one of Britain’s biggest exports in the 1960s, often proving more popular in France and the US than at home. She was one of the few singers to survive the beat boom – thanks to Downtown, the song that reinvented her career in 1964.
She was born Sally Clark on 15 November 1932 in Ewell, Surrey, near London. Known as Petula from a very early age, she became a child star, making frequent appearances on the radio, performing concerts for the troops – often being dockside to welcome sailors home – on television and in films. In 1951, she was awarded television personality of the year and went on to score a string of hits in Britain in the 1950s.
In late 1957, after appearing at the Olympia in Paris, she was invited to sing in French for the Vogue record label, which had links with London’s Pye Records. It was then she met French publicist Claude Wolff, who she married in June 1961. She began recording in French – and later in German, Italian and Spanish – having learnt the words phonetically, and enjoyed great success with the results.
She scored her first British chart topper with Sailor in February 1961 and enjoyed a number of further hits, including Romeo, My friend the sea and, surprisingly, the French-language Ya ya twist.
However, the arrival of the beat boom in Britain in 1963 saw Petula come to be considered passé in her homeland. Such was her popularity in the rest of Europe, particularly in France, that she was on the verge of giving up recording for the British market. But then she was offered Downtown, the song that turned her career around.
The song’s writer, Tony Hatch, has said that he originally intended Downtown for The Drifters as he felt the American feel of the record would suit a US group but ended up playing an incomplete version of it to Petula on a trip to Paris, where the singer was living by that time. She liked it and urged him to finish it (which he finally did in the toilets of the Pye studios minutes before it was recorded). He has said that if Petula had not insisted that he finish this song it probably would have ended up unfinished. It became her next UK single and shot to number two in the UK charts upon its release in November 1964 (kept off the number one spot by the Beatles).
With its Americanese title, the song was an obvious choice for release in the States, where it topped the charts in January 1965 and won the singer a Grammy award.
Back at home, soundalike I know a place made the UK top 20, though it proved a big hit in the States and gave the singer another Grammy win. (She was nominated for a further eight Grammys over the following years.)
With Petula then headlining in Las Vegas (she was the first female artist to be paid a million dollars) and appearing frequently on American television, an inevitable lack of promotion in the UK may explain why US hits You’d better come and Round every corner home failed in Britain.
Petula had been writing songs since the mid-1950s (her earliest songs were published under her father’s name, Leslie Clark, while later songs were sometimes published under the pseudonym Al Grant). Many of her French hits were her own compositions and her songwriting skills are often overlooked. When the American group the Vogues covered a song she co-wrote with Tony Hatch, You’re the one, and reached the top three in the States with it, receiving a gold disc, Pye decided to pull Petula’s original version as a single from her LP The new Petula Clark album. However, it narrowly failed to make the UK top 20. Its B-side, Gotta tell the world, an English version of the French song Donne-moi des fleurs that Petula had written with acclaimed French poet Pierre Delanoë, would arguably have made a better top side. (The album also included the original of the classic Call me, though it was never issued as a single by Petula.)
Her next single, however, firmly re-established the singer in the charts. My love, issued in February 1966, entered the chart at number three and proved another US chart topper. The song had been written in a hurry by Hatch after realising during a transatlantic flight that the lyrics of the song he’d penned for Petula as her next single, The life and soul of the party, were meaningless in the US, which had become an important market for the singer.
The follow up, A sign of the times, missed the top 40 in the UK but was one of her biggest hits in the States. It later became a floor filler on the UK’s northern soul dance scene.
I couldn’t live without your love, issued two months later, was another big hit, both at home and in the US. It was her first single where writing credits were shared between Hatch and his future (second) wife, singer Jackie Trent. Petula and Jackie didn’t enjoy an easy relationship, at least initially, as Petula had been friendly with Hatch’s first wife. The pair eventually struck up a friendship, which endures today, but a problem was hit when Petula’s husband Claude and Jackie could not get on. Claude allegedly found Jackie’s rather earthy humour intolerable and did not want his wife to record Jackie’s lyrics. However, after Jackie presented Petula with this song (originally intended as a single for Jackie herself), Jackie’s name appeared on the credits and she even wrote a few songs with Petula.
Subsequent UK singles Who am I? and Colour my world – two further Hatch/Trent compositions – both missed the UK charts but were big in the States and elsewhere.
1967 proved a turning point in her career. She scored a huge hit with This is my song, which had been written by Charlie Chaplin for the film The countess from Hong Kong. Petula had been reluctant to record the song with its original, somewhat dated English lyrics, though Chaplin insisted that they should not be changed. She came to record it at the insistence of legendary producer Sonny Burke, at the end of a recording session for the French, German and Italian versions, and it went on to top the UK charts in February 1967 and was a massive hit in the US.
However, the singer paid a high price for its success. Its middle-of-the-road style put off her younger audience. That she was in her mid-30s and was starring in her own light entertainment show on BBC television only served to confirm in the minds of many that she was most definitely not cool. The ‘easy listening’ tag stuck from this point.
Her next single, Don’t sleep in the subway, was again aimed squarely at the American market. The single made number 12 in the UK charts and gave the singer another top five hit in the US.
At home, the follow up, The cat in the window, flopped but again gave her a substantial American hit. It had been written for her by the in-house team for US group the Turtles, Gordon and Bonner. Then The other man’s grass, issued in December 1967, made the top 20 – just – but has gone on to become considered something of a classic.
Sadly, however, it proved her last British hit of the decade. Subsequent singles Kiss me goodbye (written for her by Les Reed and Barry Mason), Don’t give up, I wanna sing with your band, Happy heart, Look at mine and No one better than you all failed to recapture her former glory at home, though some provided hits elsewhere.
However, she returned to acting, starring in Finian’s rainbow opposite Fred Astaire in 1968 (for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination) and in Goodbye, Mr Chips alongside Peter O’Toole a year later.
Though she continued to record and appear on television in the 1970s, eventually she scaled back her career to concentrate on her family. A role for UNICEF kept her in the public eye, however. In Canada, she made occasional forays into the charts and in the US, she enjoyed a country and western hit in 1981 with Natural love.
By the 1980s, she took the lead in the stage version of the musical The sound of music in London’s West End and made a return to the UK charts with a remix of Downtown. With Fay Weldon and Dee Shipman, she also co-wrote a West End show, Someone like you, which she starred in.
In the 1990s she took the lead in the Broadway and American touring productions of the musical Blood brothers and in British West End and American national tour stage versions of Sunset Boulevard. In 1998 she was awarded a CBE by the Queen, and in 2007-08 there was a petiton to have her made a Dame.
With thanks to Richard Harries and Theo Morgan for additional research.