Petula Clark Beyond "Downtown"


Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.

Petula Clark's new single "Cut Copy Me" appears somewhere near the top of the list of "excellent singles by people who would not widely have been expected to make an excellent single in 2013." (It appears on her album Lost in You, which came out in the U.S. this week.) Here's hoping Lana Del Rey sounds this good in 55 years:

Clark is best known as a singer, but she's also been an actor in films and on stage, a songwriter, and a soundtrack composer, and also co-wrote the musical Someone Like You with novelist Fay Weldon. And she's now been performing for over 70 years, beginning with a radio appearance during World War II.

Almost as soon as TV came to the U.K., Clark was part of it. (She was already a regular in "adorable kid"-type movie roles by that point.) As a thirteen-year-old in 1946, she appeared on the show "Television is Here Again," singing "Miser Miser;" you can already hear her voice taking shape.

By the mid-'50s, Clark was already scoring international hits. "The Little Shoemaker" was a slightly corny translation of Rudi Revil's French song "Le petit cordonnier"; it was her first Top Ten hit in the U.K., and made the top of the charts in Australia.

In the early '60s Clark started to become better known as a singer in Europe than in the U.K., starting with a string of hits she sang in French. ("The whole French thing is because I went there after I fell in love with a Frenchman – it had nothing to do with a career at all," she told the Guardian recently.) In 1962, she had a #1 hit in France with "Ya Ya Twist," an extremely yé-yé-ish version of Lee Dorsey's R&B song "Ya Ya" (yes, the same one we mentioned John Lennon singing last week).

After that, she became a full-on polyglot performer. Sometimes she sang her Anglophone repertoire in translation; sometimes, as with 1965's "Invece No," below, she found songs to sing in Italian (or French, or German). Her Spanish-language recording of the Dionne Warwick/Cilla Black song "Anyone Who Had a Heart" was the most successful one in Spain. From 1961 to 1972, she was a fixture on pop charts across Europe.

When Clark is remembered for anything in the U.S., though, it's almost always 1964's "Downtown." Her signature song was written by Tony Hatch, who produced her records for years and wrote many of her hits. (Fun fact: supposedly, one of the guitarists playing on it is Jimmy Page.) With "Downtown," she went from being a trend-hopping pop chameleon to having a real persona: a smiling romantic whose precise enunciation hinted at well-masked heartbreak.

That's not to say that she couldn't play the chameleon when it was called for. When Swinging London elaborated on the glamour hinted at in "Downtown," Clark reinvented herself as one of its icons. 1966's "A Sign of the Times," promoted with the super-mod clip below, actually did poorly in the U.K. at first--but it was a substantial hit in the U.S., and eventually became one of her most familiar songs.

She also kept up with the sounds of the times. 1967's "Don't Sleep in the Subway," written by Hatch and Jackie Trent, is effectively a pastiche of what the Beach Boys had been up to between Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations."

In April, 1968, she starred in her own American TV special, "Petula," and took Harry Belafonte's arm during "On the Path of Glory," below. A representative from Chrysler, who'd sponsored the show, objected--this was several months after there had been a minor cultural freakout over Sammy Davis Jr. kissing Nancy Sinatra on the cheek in her TV special. Clark (and her husband, the special's producer) destroyed all other takes of the song, and insisted that the show go out intact. By the time it aired, the Chrysler representative had been fired.

Over the course of the '70s and '80s, there were progressively fewer singers of Clark's kind on the radio, and commercial interest in her increasingly focused on her old hits. "Downtown '77"--actually released in 1976--was a disco remake that she plastered a smile on her face to sing on TV. (A bit over a decade later, she hit the U.K. Top 10 one last time with a remix of the original version, "Downtown '88.")

Still, Clark had a few worlds left to conquer. She appeared for the first time on the U.S. country chart in 1982, with "Natural Love," below. And she spent the better part of the '90s playing Norma Desmond in the stage musical production of Sunset Boulevard.

Clark is now 80 years old, and still has a gift for making whatever she sings ripple with barely repressed emotional subtext. Brace yourself for this remarkable recent live performance (from British TV) of another song she sings on Lost in You: Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy."