Petula Clark was one of Britain’s biggest exports in the 1960s, particularly to France where she was more popular – and decidedly more cool – than in her homeland.
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 in the UK, making frequent appearances on the radio, on television and in films and scoring a string of hits in the 1950s.
In 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. Initially she had no interest in singing in French, but was persuaded after learning that she would work with French publicist Claude Wolff, to whom she had taken an instant liking (the pair married in June 1961). She spoke no French at the time but began recording in the language – and later in German, Italian and Spanish – having learnt the words phonetically. As a result, her pronunciation was heavily accented, but that appeared only to add to her charm. Indeed, as she became fluent in French, she had to take care to retain the accent.
She enjoyed her first French-language hit in Belgium with the French version of Baby lover, and scored a top-five hit in France with Histoire d’un amour shortly afterwards, at the end of 1957.
Further successes followed, including Allo mon coeur in 1958 and the risqué Java pour Petula (which featured French slang, known
as argot) a year later.
Prends mon coeur, a cover of Elvis Presley’s A fool such as I, proved another hit in 1960 and amazed all by outselling the King’s version. At this time she toured extensively with Belgian legend Jacques Brel, who gave her one of his songs, Un enfant, to mark the birth of her first child in 1961. (A live version of the song became one of the few Brel compositions to chart, when it became a minor hit in Canada.)
The early 1960s proved highly successful for the singer, with a hat trick of consecutive chart toppers, Romeo, Ya ya twist (a tremendous yé-yé take on US singer Lee Dorsey’s Ya-ya) and Chariot (the original of I will follow him, later an American smash for Little Peggy March). The song was written by Paul Mauriat under a complex pseudonym for Petula, and other language versions topped the charts the world over, proving her biggest hit to date. (It is odd that the English version failed in the UK though the French version made the top 30.)
1964 kicked off with the release of what many consider to be one of her finest French recordings, La nuit n’en finit plus. The song was a translation of US singer Jackie de Shannon’s Needles and pins (later a hit in the UK for the Searchers) and an emotional tour de force. However, French charts of this time were based on four-track EPs and the lead song on this set (which charted) was Entre nous il est fou. The follow up, Ceux qui ont un coeur, a version of Dionne Warwick’s Anyone who had a heart (later a UK hit for Cilla Black), was a huge success.
That year, she also wrote the score for the French crime caper A couteaux tirés, in which she appeared in a cameo.
Such was her popularity in mainland Europe 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 in the UK and introduced her as an overnight success in the US. It gave her a number two hit in the UK and topped the American charts.
The song was also translated – somewhat awkwardly – into French, as Dans le temps, with Petula having to swallow the ‘le’ to make the lyrics work. Nevertheless, it gave the singer another big hit at the end of the year and was followed by Viens avec moi, a version of soundalike I know a place, in early 1965.
In autumn that year, French radio stations overlooked Il faut revenir – a collaboration between the man behind her run of UK hits, Tony Hatch, and French songwriter Georges Aber, and released in the UK as You’d better come home – in favour of Un jeune homme bien, a version of The Kinks’ A well-respected man. The song was one of many that Petula recorded in French only.
For her next EP, Un mal pour un bien – a version of You’re the one, which Petula had co-written – was picked as the lead track, making the top ten in November 1965. The release also included Va toujours plus loin (a version of Round every corner, though with a far stronger vocal) and went on to chart twice, the second time for Les incorruptibles, one of several songs written for Petula by legendary French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, the man responsible for many hits by yé-yé girl France Gall. He also penned the lead track of the follow up EP, La gadoue, another top ten hit upon its release in January 1966 and still popular today.
All three songs appeared on an album issued later that year that included the stunning, emotion-charged Que faut-il faire pour oublier, a song that Petula had written with Hubert Ballay and was subsequently translated into English as There goes my love, there goes my life.
The hits continued in 1966 with Mon amour (a version of her US chart topper My love), L’agent secret – a light-hearted James Bond-style number that Petula had written with Georges Aber – and Hello Mister Brown, another French-only recording.
1967 proved a turning point in her career, both in France and at home. She topped the French charts with C’est ma chanson a French version of This is my song, which had been written by Charlie Chaplin for the film The countess from Hong Kong. However, the singer paid a high price for its success, as its middle-of-the-road style succeeded in putting off her younger audience.
Matters weren’t helped when La dernière valse (a translation of The last waltz), another adult-oriented number, was chosen as the lead track for the follow up EP. It proved her last hit of the decade.
In the 1970s, after scoring a hit with C’est le refrain de ma vie at the beginning of the decade, she scaled back her recording career to concentrate on her family. However, she made a return to the charts in 1977 with La chanson d’Evita, a version of Don’t cry for me Argentina, from the musical Evita, and one further hit in France, Sauve-moi. This was a Canadian number one and was preceded there by Je voudrais qu’il soit malheureux, which had been given to her by the writers of the stage musicals Miss Saigon and Les misérables, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Shönberg.
With thanks to Richard Harries and Theo Morgan for additional information.