-An interview with legendary performer Petula Clark
By Ray Shasho
Internationally renowned singer, actress, and composer Petula Clark has been exquisitely entertaining audiences since she was a child performing for the troops during World War II. Clark has sold more than 68 million records. She’s recorded over 1000 songs while landing 15 U.S. Top 40 hits and two #1 hits. She’s charted an astounding 159 recordings worldwide. She’s won Grammy Awards in 1964 and ‘65. The incredible musical collaboration between composer-arranger Tony Hatch and Petula Clark generated hit after hit throughout the Swinging 60’s. She may even be labeled as the ‘First Lady of the British Invasion.’
Petula Clark has also appeared in more than 30 British and American motion pictures including … Finian’s Rainbow (1968) with Fred Astaire and Tommy Steele and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) with Peter O’Toole. Clark was also a popular television personality starring in three of her own American TV specials and as a guest star on countless other shows including her enchanting duets with Dean on The Dean Martin Show. Throughout the 70’s, Clark became a celebrated Las Vegas performer. In the 90’s she performed on Broadway in the production of Blood Brothers. In 2000 … Petula showcased a one-woman show, a concert highlighting her life and career. In 2003, she was the recipient of the Grammy Hall of Fame Award for her everlasting worldwide smash hit “Downtown.”
At 81 … Petula Clark is more brilliant and radiant than ever. Her latest release is entitled … Lost In You. The album is beautifully produced and arranged by John Williams and features twelve magnificent tracks of musical bliss. Petula’s vocals are superlative and her skills as a composer splendor on a track entitled “Reflections.” Her phenomenal lyrical content is brilliantly assimilated to music by Johann Sebastian Bach. The album spotlights a breathtaking cover tribute to an old friend John Lennon. Petula’s “Imagine” is probably the best cover version of the song that I’ve ever heard. She creatively added hints of “Strawberry Fields” to the track. The other two covers are a beautiful rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” and an exciting new version of her 1964 mega hit “Downtown.” Every song on the album sparkles. “Cut Copy Me,” “Imagine” and “Reflections” are personal favorites.
I gave Petula Clark’s Lost In You … (5) Stars!
Petula lives in Switzerland and is as busy as ever. She continues to tour and is anxious to get right back in the studio again. I was extremely honored to be able to speak with Petula Clark recently. She’s glamorous, brilliant, witty, and charming all at the same time. She’s an incredible lady and a worldwide treasure.
Petula and I chatted about her latest album … Lost In You, her signature #1 international hit “Downtown,” a longtime collaboration with Tony Hatch, the British Invasion, the infamous Harry Belafonte story, Dean Martin, my notorious 'Field of Dreams' question and so much more.
Here’s my recent interview with International Singing Superstar, Top 40 Hits Musical Legend, Composer and Actress … PETULA CLARK.
Petula was in the Rhône-Alpes region at the south-eastern part of France in Megève during our interview.
Ray Shasho: Petula how are you?
Petula Clark: “I’m well Ray; we’re up in the mountains here. We have a chalet up here. It’s been a beautiful day, and it’s always perfect when you have lots of snow and blue skies. It’s not Florida …but not bad at all.”
Ray Shasho: You live in Switzerland?
Petula Clark: “I’ve been living in Geneva, Switzerland for many years. There’s a German and Italian part … we’re in the French speaking part. It’s actually an interesting country.”
Ray Shasho: What enticed you into becoming a professional singer?
Petula Clark: “I started very young. My mother was from Wales and I spent quite a lot of my childhood in Wales and I used to speak Welsh. The first time I sang in public was in Chapel. But I didn’t make up my mind to become a professional singer; I was about five or six years old. In fact on the new album there’s a song called “Reflections.” I wrote the lyrics to some music by Bach and I decided to write about that moment in my childhood in Wales. That’s when I first became conscious of music within me and then it was important to me.”
“From then on … the first time that I sang in a big way was on the BBC in London, it was during the war and there was a lot of bombing going on. It was a fairly dangerous kind of place to be. But the BBC used to do a show at a theater in Piccadilly, which is still there; it’s called the Criterion Theatre. The BBC used this theatre because it’s underground and in fact it’s still there underground. They used to do this show especially for the troops and I had an uncle who was in the service. It was just a show for kids who could send messages to their dads, uncles or brothers… just say we’re fine and I hope you’re okay kind of thing.”
“In the middle of the rehearsal for this show there was a huge air raid. So some of the kids were really getting scared and the producer asked if somebody would like to come up and say a piece of poetry or sing a song to calm things down a bit. No one else volunteered so I got up and sang a song. I think I was eight years old. I sang into the microphone and they heard it in the control room and decided it would be nice if I sang for the show too. So they recorded me and it went out to the troops and had a huge positive reaction. From then on I became a regular on BBC radio. So that was the beginning of my career in England.”
Ray Shasho: What types of music were you listening to back then?
Petula Clark: “I was listening to jazz then and swing and then of course rock and roll came along but the BBC was not playing that kind of music. You had to tune in to Radio Luxembourg or there were pirate radio stations where you could hear that kind of thing. Sometimes you’d get records smuggled over from the states. In general, we in the UK were listening to American music. We had some good performers but we wanted to hear American music because that was the real thing. What happened eventually in the 60’s, all the American music which was really a one way traffic coming from America to the UK, suddenly turned around and was coming from the UK to America. It was still basically American music which we had in some way digested. When I say we, I’m talking about The Beatles, Rolling Stones and all the groups… we had digested this American music and as it got into our system we somehow touched it with our Englishness and made it sound a little bit different. I think that’s what attracted Americans when they heard it.”
Ray Shasho: I think Lonnie Donegan also gave the Brits a taste of things to come, perhaps a precursor to Beatles music.
Petula Clark: “Yes, with the Skiffle music. Lonnie, who I knew, he was basically copying American music. But The Beatles put something else into it. They put music into it. And of course eventually with George Martin it became something very special and orchestral. Many acts were using an orchestra in a very interesting way. If you want to talk about the English side of it … that’s where we were coming from, taking the kind of music that we had grown up with and putting out our own personal feeling into it.”
Ray Shasho: The collaboration between you and Tony Hatch which produced a seemingly endless string of Top 40 hits throughout the 60’s was extraordinary.
Petula Clark: “It was interesting stuff too because it’s musically well constructed. The problem that I have basically with rock and roll when it first happened is that it sounded a bit basic to me. I had grown up with Swing and listened to Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. I was used to hearing great harmonies and for me rock and roll was a bit flat, I understood the beat but I wanted to hear some music in there too.”
Ray Shasho: Well after saying that … I believe you also represented the women of the British Invasion.
Petula Clark: “I suppose so and do know what you mean of course. There was this sudden invasion by all the British groups and I kind of got sucked into it in a very pleasant way. (All laughing) And let’s face it there was Dusty Springfield too, she was the best, and then there was Lulu and a few others. I really was fortunate because I had Tony Hatch writing great songs for me. Really what matters is having the right songs to sing.”
Ray Shasho: “Petula, is it true that Tony initially wanted The Drifters to sing “Downtown”?
Petula Clark: “You know I don’t know if that’s absolutely true, I know Tony very well, in fact I saw him the other day. We’ve talked about that and I’m not even sure if that story is really true. It might be… but I honestly don’t know.”
Ray Shasho: Well that’s why I get to substantiate these stories directly with the actual artist. (All laughing) I also read that Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) was a session player and contributed in the studio on the “Downtown” recording.
Petula Clark: Oh yea, we had great musicians on all those London sessions, they were the cream of the crop, and Jimmy was just one of those great musicians. At the time we didn’t know he was going to be Jimmy Page. (All laughing) It’s funny, I saw him recently at a party at the Royal Academy of Arts, it’s everybody who is anybody in British show business is there. I was just strolling through there and this guy was leaning against some painting and he said … “Hi Petula do you remember me?” I looked at him and saw this good looking guy with silver hair and I said …I think so. He said of course, I’m Jimmy … Jimmy Page, I used to play on many of your sessions.”
Ray Shasho: Petula, I must ask you about the controversy regarding holding singer Harry Belafonte’s arm in 1968.
Petula Clark: “Oh please … this story just keeps coming back. I saw Harry very recently, we were in Dublin doing a thing for Amnesty International and the story has kept us very close. It was my first special for NBC and it was very important. They had asked me who I would like as my guest and I had always admired Harry, I had mentioned his name, they asked him and he said yes. Obviously I was delighted. We rehearsed for about two or three weeks and really got along well. We liked each other, had fun, and had the same feelings about a lot of different things. The song that we decided to do as a duet was a song that I had co-written called “On the Path of Glory” a kind of anti-war song. Let’s face it, I wasn’t Bob Dylan going around waving banners and things … but I am anti-war of course.”
“So anyway we liked singing the song together and when we came to tape it I put my hand on his arm. What happened was the guy that was representing the sponsor went crazy of course, saying, “I’m not going to have my star touching a black man’s arm” … and we didn’t know about this because we were in the studio. We didn’t hear all this. So the producer Steve Binder (Produced Elvis: The ‘68 Comeback Special) who is absolutely great said okay we’ll try something a little bit different. We then tried it where we were not actually standing together using special effects. But later my husband and I decided that we were going to use the take with me standing next to Harry. So we had to get rid of the other take, which is what we did. I couldn’t figure out what this was all about … my piano player and choreographer were black. For me it was what we call a storm in a teacup. At that moment it was very important. It made the news and I was very surprised that it got out.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve always admired you, not only for your incredible success of Top 40 hits, but also for the legendary singers and actors you’ve befriended and performed with. I’ve always enjoyed the duets you did with Dean Martin.
Petula Clark: “I’m not really nostalgic and sit around saying, yea, those were the good old days. But performing with Dean was such fun. We laughed all the time. It was the easiest thing in the world because he never rehearsed. Everybody else had to rehearse so that they knew what was going on, but he never really knew what was going on, which was part of the charm. He always looked like he was a bit dazed, which in fact he was because he actually didn’t know what was happening next. After I had done the show, which was about three times, they realized that I was a very fast learner and that Dean liked working with me. I used to come in just the day before and they would make all my clothes for me, I didn’t need fittings because they knew what I liked to wear. They didn’t have to work on the music because they knew my voice and so I would just slip into the show. It was just fun.”
Ray Shasho: I always admired Dean Martin’s cool and laid-back persona.
Petula Clark: “I think he was very talented. People sometimes thought that he wasn’t Sinatra or Jerry Lewis … but he had a very special talent, there was nobody quite like Dean. I’ve watched and worked with him often enough to see the skill of what he did. That sort of casual thing he did is not as easy as people think it is.”
Ray Shasho: Petula your latest album entitled … Lost in You is an absolute masterpiece and I gave it (5) stars. If I could give it more stars … I would. You are truly an amazing woman, you not only look as beautiful as ever, but you continue to sing as beautiful as ever.
Petula Clark: “Thank you! It was so easy to make this album. We made this in a tiny studio. It didn’t even look like a studio but almost sort of like a garden house. I think on a couple of tracks you could actually hear the birds in the garden because my vocal microphone was in front of a window. I could actually see flowers and birds and the cat chasing whatever he was chasing. It was only the engineer, John, and myself in that tiny studio. We didn’t go to Abbey Road or anything like that and frankly if you’ve got the right songs, the right engineer, and you’re feeling good… that’s all you need really. We had a little moment where John suggested that we do “Downtown” and I said no way. Then I had to go to Paris for a few days and when I returned he sat me down in the studio, pressed a button and said just listen to this. I said that’s really nice what is it? He said that’s “Downtown.” I said are you sure? He said just try singing it. And it was just like singing a new song. I don’t know if it quite works but it was interesting for me to do it.”
Ray Shasho: It was difficult to single out my favorite tracks on the album because they were all equally great. But if I had to name a few favorites … loved “Cut Copy Me”… “Next to You,” and your artistic and awe- inspiring rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” which cleverly embraces Strawberry Fields-like overtones.
Petula Clark: “Well, I liked John and he was very sweet to me. When we were choosing songs for an album like this we said we should do some covers. One of them was “Downtown,” “Love Me Tender” because I met Elvis a few times and then John Williams the producer said how about a Beatles song? I said yes but there were so many to choose from. We tried “Blackbird” but I didn’t think it worked for me. I was very close to doing “Long and Winding Road” and then I thought, no, it’s got to be John. So “Imagine” is my tribute to him and it was my idea to do the Strawberry Fields bit.”
Ray Shasho: I think besides John’s original version of “Imagine,” I have to say that I enjoyed your cover version of the song better than any previous covers that I’ve heard.
Petula Clark: “Oh thank you! I loved singing it. I have sung it before but never recorded it before. But we’ve got it down now.”
Ray Shasho: “You penned the lyrics on “Reflections” a beautiful and heartfelt composition about how music became your life since a child in Wales. Talk about the song.
Petula Clark: “I wrote the lyrics and the guy who wrote the music is Johann Sebastian Bach. (All laughing) So I didn’t write the music. This was John Williams’s idea, he said why don’t we take a piece of classical music and put lyric to it. So he played me this piece by Bach and I thought, that’s beautiful, but who’s going to write the lyrics to that? He said well you are. I said oh really, well give me an idea. So he said make it very personal and so I did.”
Ray Shasho: I watched a collaboration you did with Irish rockers ‘The Saw Doctors’ on You Tube singing “Downtown.”
Petula Clark: “That was just having fun. I actually did my bit in Paris. I was doing a concert in Paris and wasn’t able to be with the guys.”
Ray Shasho: You also collaborated with French/Armenian singer Charles Aznavour recently?
Petula Clark: “I did a French album just before I did the English one. We were going to do a duet and I went along to his office, I know him quite well, and just as I was leaving he gave me this piece of paper with some lyrics and said write some music to this. I don’t take myself very serious as a songwriter but in this case I was writing the music. So I did the music to this Aznavour song which is actually quite pretty.”
Ray Shasho: Petula, here’s a question that I ask everyone that I interview and the responses are always fascinating. If you had a ‘Field of Dreams’ wish like the movie, to play, sing or collaborate with anyone from the past or present, who would that be?
Petula Clark: “Oh dear. It’s difficult to just pin one down because I’ve performed with a lot of great people. I wouldn’t mind performing with Pink Floyd. I did this thing in Dublin and got together with Roger Waters. We had a long chat together. Looking back …Pink Floyd was a great band. I don’t think it will ever happen but I think it would be fun to play with them.”
Ray Shasho: How about upcoming concert dates … I noticed various Australia dates in April and May and then limited engagements in Singapore and Canada?
Petula Clark: “Yes, April and May and I’m going to be doing some French dates too. For the moment that’s sort of it. They wanted me to do another UK tour in the spring next year but I don’t think I’ll be able to do that because I’ve got some French dates coming up. But I’d like to go into the studio again… that would be nice. I’ve talked to John and I’m going to London next week, so I’ll probably have some meetings with him and other people and do some songwriting.”
Ray Shasho: Petula one last question … and I know you should never discuss age with a woman, but you turned 81 last November. You look stunning and frankly sound better than ever. Do you have any secrets to share?
Petula Clark: “No secrets … I don’t do anything. Seriously I think I’m just lucky. I don’t think about age to be honest with you. I have no idea how old you are and I don’t care. Either you can do it or you can’t … it’s got not much to do with age frankly.”
Ray Shasho: Petula it’s been a real pleasure … thank you so much for being on the call today, but more importantly for all the incredible music you’ve given us and continue to bring.
Petula Clark: “Thank you very much Ray, I enjoyed it.”
Very special thanks to Claude Wolff
Petula Clark’s incredible new album Lost In You is available at amazon.com
Petula Clark official website
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Coming up NEXT … My interview with Michael Pinder original keyboardist and founder of The Moody Blues
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