Breaking into the U.S. music scene didn't happen immediately for Petula Clark. In fact, more than 20 years passed after her start in show business before she finally made her way "Downtown" and pulled it off. She would have been fine had she settled for simple superstardom in her native England, but it turns out she was marketable in any language. Born in Epsom, Surrey, Petula began her career on BBC radio in 1942 at the age of nine. Singing on broadcasts during World War II to entertain the troops, she worked for a time with a young Julie Andrews, also a native of Surrey. She became a mascot of sorts for the British Army, bearing comparisons to America's Shirley Temple. The motion picture industry came calling when director Maurice Elvey caught a performance by the child at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1944. A role as a wartime orphan in A Medal For the General was her first of more than two dozen films.
After some television work, including her own late '40s performance show Pet's Parlour, Petula's recording career began with the 78 RPM "Put Your Shoes On, Lucy" on EMI's Columbia label. There were some 20 releases, mostly for Polygon Records (founded by her father, Leslie Norman Clark), before Petula hit the charts in 1954 with the top ten U.K. hit "The Little Shoemaker" (originally a French song, there were two major hit versions in America, by The Gaylords and Hugo Winterhalter's orchestra featuring Eddie Fisher). It gave her the "in" she'd needed and hits came more often after that.
When Britain's Pye-Nixa Records bought out Polygon in 1955 (later shortening the name to Pye), she continued with them, and her '50s hits often paralleled popular U.S. versions of the same songs, including "Suddenly There's a Valley" (Gogi Grant) and "With All My Heart" (Jodie Sands). In 1960, Austrian artist Lolita had an international hit with "Sailor (Your Home is the Sea)," sung in German. Clark's English-language version (titled, simply, "Sailor") was her first single to go to number one in England, yet in the U.S. it was Lolita's foreign language original that caught on. Petula's music had been licensed to American labels off and on since 1953, on Coral, King and MGM, but without success. "Romeo" and "My Friend the Sea" were top tens in the U.K. in '61, and both came out in the U.S. (on Warwick and London, respectively), yet still there was no breakthrough. Even in Europe sales were lackluster except in France, where her releases had been solid for a few years. She moved there in 1961, marrying Claude Wolff of Vogue Records, her label across the Channel, hitting big soon after with "Romeo" and "Ya Ya Twist," a loose translation in French of Lee Dorsey's 1961 hit "Ya Ya."
Clark had written the occasional song, but in 1964 she tackled a big project, composing the music soundtrack of the French film A Couteaux Tires (Daggers Drawn), directed by Charles Gerard. It was a career course she might have explored further had it not been for 25-year-old songwriter Tony Hatch, whose biggest success up to that time was "Look For a Star" from the 1960 film Circus of Horrors, performed in the film by Garry Mills. Hatch had worked with Petula at Vogue and came up with some songs he felt would be good for her career - and his. Hesitant at first, she gave the young composer a chance and recorded "Downtown" (inspired by a visit Tony had made to New York City). Released in England in November 1964, and just as it was holding at number two behind The Beatles' "I Feel Fine" at the end of the year, the song debuted on the charts in America, a first for the 32-year-old singer who'd been making records a full 15 years. By late January the single, on the Warner Bros. label, had gone where only Vera Lynn (with "Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart" in 1952) had been before: a female British vocalist had a number one hit in America. Suddenly there was a new "girl" singer that everyone in the States was talking about!
Tony and Pet (as she was often called) were a hot team after that. "I Know a Place," with a similar theme, was an immediate smash (she recommends '...a place where we can go' that most certainly can be found downtown!). In April, while this second hit was riding high, the Grammy Awards handed Petula the prize for "Downtown" (which had just made the nomination cutoff date) in the category of Best Rock and Roll Recording (her competition included the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" and Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman").
While Petula was writing songs for many of the B sides, the hit A sides were strictly the domain of Tony Hatch. "You'd Better Come Home" and "Round Every Corner" (containing a prediction that 'man will soon be standing on the moon above,' proven accurate less than four years later) rounded out 1965. She was the best-selling female act of the year, one of the better examples of benefits reaped through long-term perseverance. She did score one major hit as a songwriter in England: "You're the One" was top ten there while a cover version by The Vogues reached the U.S. top ten in October '65, beginning a hot four-year run for the Pittsburgh-area group. Pet kicked off 1966 with "My Love," her second U.S. number one, followed by "A Sign of the Times." The Grammys for 1965 (presented in March) found her nominated for "I Know a Place" in a slightly different category than the previous year, Best Contemporary Rock and Roll Vocal Performance, Female. Once again, she won the award.
During this time Hatch, a married man, had been discreetly seeing singer Jackie Trent (whose "Where Are You Now" had been a number one hit U.K. hit in May 1965). They were married when his divorce became final in 1966, and suddenly Hatch-Trent showed up on the songwriting credits of Clark's hits, beginning with "I Couldn't Live Without Your Love" (rumored to be about the couple's relationship), which hit the top ten in August. Most subsequent singles carried the husband-and-wife's names, including the rest of Pet's '66 output, "Who Am I" and "Color My World." One of her biggest hits, though, was one without the Hatch touch: "This is My Song," written by Charlie Chaplin for the score of his 1967 film A Countess From Hong Kong. Tony disliked the song and refused to be a part of it (perhaps it was a control issue) and even Petula was unsure it had hit potential (or maybe she didn't want to break up the nonstop string of Hatch hits). With the left field choice of Sonny Burke and Ernie Freeman (both based in Los Angeles) as producer and arranger, Pye released it anyway. A number one hit in her native land, Warner Bros. quickly followed suit in America; it went top ten in the spring of '67. "Don't Sleep in the Subway" (her only Tony-Jackie hit with a reverse credit, Trent-Hatch) also hit the top ten that summer.
After the success of "This is My Song," Petula made a decision to try new things. She reached out to L.A. producers Charles Koppelman and Don Rubin in the hopes of continuing her streak of hits with fresh material. The result was a Gary Bonner-Alan Gordon song, "The Cat in the Window (The Bird in the Sky)," the lowest-charting single since "Downtown" had kicked her career into high gear. She alternated her choices in material for some time afterwards, with songs by Hatch and Trent alternating with songs from other sources. Her biggest 1968 hit was a ballad written by Les Reed and Barry Mason, "Kiss Me Goodbye." Its follow-up that summer, "Don't Give Up," was her 15th American top 40 hit in a row...and last.
But hit records aren't everything! Her movie career was revitalized in the the late '60s with two major studio films. The first, Finian's Rainbow, was an early directorial effort by Francis Ford Coppola, pairing her with Fred Astaire in a musical fantasy that also starred '50s British hitmaker Tommy Steele. She received a Golden Globe nomination for best Actress (Musical or Comedy) for her performance. The second was a musical remake of the 1939 classic Goodbye, Mr. Chips. She took on the role, originated by Greer Garson in the original, of Mrs. to Peter O'Toole's Mr. Chips.
Then there was her TV special, which inadvertently caused a controversy. Appropriately titled Petula, the variety show featured just one guest, Harry Belafonte. During the show's taping in March 1968, a few weeks before it was scheduled to air, Clark and Belafonte shared a duet on a war protest song called "On the Path of Glory." At one point in the song, Petula touched Belafonte's arm. An executive with the sponsor, Plymouth-Chrysler, immediately demanded it be cut from the show at the risk of offending viewers and potential Plymouth customers. The shock of it all! She touched a black man's arm! In no uncertain terms, Petula, her husband Claude Wolff (the special's executive producer) and director Steve Binder refused to go along with it. The story leaked to the print media a few weeks before the broadcast and they had a field day with it. Most of the articles praised Clark's decision and derided the attitude of the Chrysler company who, within days, made a move to save face by firing the exec who started the whole mess. I recall when all this was going on and even at a young age I was surprised by the inanity of such an attitude on the part of the sponsor. Hadn't Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman shared a kiss in the 1965 film A Patch of Blue, which caused a bit of a stir but was included in the finished cut? Weren't there other earlier, similar instances in both real life and the entertainment industry where no one was particularly concerned? The publicity sparked greater interest in the Petula special, which scored big ratings when it aired in April '68. Hats off to NBC for airing the show intact.
Did I say "Don't Give Up" was her last top 40 hit in the U.S.? Well, there was one more she was involved in that's worthy of mention. John Lennon and Yoko Ono's famous "bed-in" at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Quebec, resulted in the recording of "Give Peace a Chance" on June 1, 1969. Many celebrities were present, singing along, including Petula Clark. Released as a single, the song was a late summer hit, nicely capping off the most eventful and successful decade of this gifted singer's fascinating career.
- The Little Shoemaker - 1954
- Majorca - 1955
- Suddenly There's a Valley - 1955
- With All My Heart - 1957
- Alone - 1957
- Baby Lover - 1958
- Sailor - 1961
- Romeo - 1961
- My Friend the Sea - 1961
- Ya Ya Twist - 1962
- Downtown - 1965
- I Know a Place - 1965
- You'd Better Come Home - 1965
- Round Every Corner - 1965
- You're the One - 1965
- My Love - 1966
- A Sign of the Times - 1966
- I Couldn't Live Without Your Love - 1966
- Who Am I - 1966
- Color My World - 1966
- This is My Song - 1967
- Don't Sleep in the Subway - 1967
- The Cat in the Window (The Bird in the Sky) - 1967
- The Other Man's Grass is Always Greener - 1967
- Kiss Me Goodbye - 1968
- Don't Give Up - 1968
- American Boys - 1968
- Happy Heart - 1969
- Look at Mine - 1969
- No One Better Than You - 1969