British singer Petula Clark was a big star at home and in France and Germany before she launched herself in Italy. She enjoyed success throughout the 1960s with songs she had recorded in Italian.
In her native Britain, Petula Clark had been a child star, making frequent appearances on the radio, on television and in films and scoring a string of hits in the 1950s.
The early 1960s saw her enjoy great success throughout Europe, and Italy was no exception. My heart topped the Italian charts at the beginning of 1962 and the French-language Ya ya twist soon followed it into the top ten.
When Harry Wright scored a top five hit with Abat-jour, an Italian translation of Petula’s Romeo, in September 1962, the decision was taken to have Petula record translated versions of her material for the Italian market. She had already been performing in French for several years and had recently begun recording in German, having learnt the words phonetically, so the move was a logical one.
The first song picked for reworking into Italian was Chariot, a French song that had been a worldwide hit for Petula in English, French and German and later a US smash for Little Peggy March as I will follow him. In Italian it became Sul mio carro and went on to top the Italian charts in December 1962.
The following year, Monsieur, a translation of Petula’s first German chart topper, and La nostra storia, a version of the French Elle est finie (La belle histoire), provided further Italian successes. (In English, the latter is known as This is goodbye.)
In 1964, Quelli che hanno un cuore, a version of Dionne Warwick’s Anyone who had a heart (also a UK chart topper for Cilla Black), was another top ten hit.
1965 kicked off with Petula joining fellow Brit girls Dusty Springfield, Kiki Dee and Anita Harris at the San Remo song festival. The practice at the time was to have two singers – one Italian and one international – perform each song. Both Petula and Italian star Betty Curtis performed the dramatic Invece no, which finished sixth, though only Petula scored a hit with the song, selling 250,000 copies within the first month of its release. Petula remembers the contest well, as she shared a dressing room with Dusty and they found to their annoyance that the paparazzi were trying to photograph them from a window in the roof.
Such was her popularity in mainland Europe that she had been on the verge of giving up recording for the British market. In late 1964, however, she had been 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.
Inevitably, the song was picked for translation into other languages. As Ciao ciao it topped the Italian charts in August 1965 and won the Festivalbar song contest.
Petula was awarded Italy’s Juke Box Queen Award for 1965, though, perhaps surprisingly, her next release, the subtle Io resto qui, failed. The song was a translation of Regardez-les, a French song that Petula had helped write, and one of her favourite Italian recordings. The English title was Just say goodbye and it was also recorded by US group The Walker Brothers.
Gocce di mare – another translation, this time of Round every corner – gave the singer another hit in 1966, though fans flipped the record over for the excellent original Italian composition Un giorno mi hai sorriso. Indeed the song was considered so good that it also turned up on the B-side of Petula’s next single, the hit L’amore è il vento, a version of her US chart topper My love.
1967 proved a turning point in her career. She topped the Italian charts with Cara felicità, an Italian 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 Kiss me goodbye, another adult-oriented number, was translated into Italian and issued as the follow up. It proved her last hit of the decade.
Subsequent singles Il sole nel cuore, a version of Happy heart, in 1969, and 1970’s Melody man and Splendido all failed.
By the early 1970s, it had become far less common for international singers to record translations of their domestic hits. Petula’s final release in Italian was 1972’s È una canzone cosí, a version of the French song C’est le refrain de ma vie (also a hit in her homeland as The song of my life).
Though she continued to record in English and appear on television in the 1970s, eventually she scaled back her career to concentrate on her family.
In the 1980s and 1990s she became a regular on the stage in London and in the US.
With thanks to Richard Harries and Theo Morgan for additional information.