Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Petula Clark: Luminescent at 90

It’s the 90th birthday today of Petula Clark, the English singer, actress and composer whose career has spanned eight decades.

I’ve been an admirer of Petula since I was in 5th grade, when I well remember imploring my parents to buy for me the K-Tel album of her “20 Fantastic Hits” being advertised on TV at the time. This was in Australia in the mid-1970s. . . . And, yes, they bought it for me, although I remember my mum remarking that the picture on the album’s cover didn’t (to her eyes at least) look like Petula.

Petula, of course, had been around long before the time I obtained her “fantastic hits” album in the mid-1970s. She actually began her singing career during the Second World War as a child entertainer on BBC Radio. While she was performing at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1944, Petula (or “Pet” as she was often called) was discovered by film director Maurice Elvey, who cast her as the precocious orphaned waif Irma in his war drama Medal for the General. She was 12-years-old at the time. Other films followed, some of which saw her working with the greats of British cinema, including Anthony Newley, Peter Ustinov and Alec Guinness. Her television career began in 1946 with an appearance on a BBC variety show, Cabaret Cartoons, which led to her being signed to host her own afternoon series, Petula Clark. Her second series, Pet’s Parlour, followed in 1950.

Petula’s music career began in earnest in the late 1940s, and she had her first UK hit in 1954 with “The Little Shoemaker.” Within two years she began recording in French, the start of a long and successful French-language recording career. It was while visiting Paris in the late 1950s that Petula met her future longtime publicist, collaborator, and husband Claude Wolff.

In 1964 Petula’s English-language success expanded from England to the United States with a four-year run of career-defining, often upbeat singles, many written or co-written by Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent. These songs included her signature recording “Downtown,” “I Know a Place,” “My Love,” “A Sign of the Times,” “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love,” “Who Am I,” “Colour My World,” “This Is My Song” (written by Charlie Chaplin), “Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” “The Other Man’s Grass Is Always Greener,” and “Kiss Me Goodbye.” In the U.S., Petula was sometimes referred to as the “First Lady of the British Invasion,” that cultural phenomenon of the mid-1960s which saw rock and pop music acts from the United Kingdom, along with other aspects of British culture, become popular in the United States.

Petula’s recording successes led to frequent appearances on American variety TV shows hosted by Ed Sullivan and Dean Martin, guest spots on Hullabaloo, Shindig!, The Kraft Music Hall, and The Hollywood Palace, and inclusion in musical specials such as The Best on Record and Rodgers and Hart Today.

In 1968 NBC-TV invited Petula to host her own special in the U.S. In accepting, Petula inadvertently advanced the cause of racial justice. Here’s what happened: While singing a duet of “On the Path of Glory,” an anti-war song that she had composed, with guest Harry Belafonte, Petula took hold of his arm. Watching the footage, a representative from the Chrysler Corporation (the show's sponsor) expressed dismay, fearing that the moment would incur racial backlash from Southern viewers. When he insisted that they substitute a different take, with Clark and Belafonte standing well away from each other, Clark and the executive producer of the show — her husband, Claude Wolff — refused, destroyed all other takes of the song, and delivered the finished program to NBC with the touch intact. The Chrysler representative was fired, and the program aired on April 8, 1968, four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., with high ratings, critical acclaim, and a Primetime Emmy nomination.

Throughout the late 1960s Petula toured in concerts across the U.S., often appearing in supper clubs such as the Copacabana in New York City, the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, and the Empire Room at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Also in the late ’60s, Petula revived her film career, starring in two big movie musicals. In Finian’s Rainbow (1968), she starred opposite Fred Astaire (right), and was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. The following year saw her star with Peter O’Toole in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a musical adaptation of the classic James Hilton novella.

By the early 1980s, Petula had moved away from film and television. At the urging of her three children she took to the stage, starring as Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music in the West End of London. Opening to positive reviews and what was then the largest advance sale in British theatre history, Petula – proclaimed by Maria Von Trapp herself as “the best Maria ever” – extended her initial six-month run to thirteen to accommodate the huge demand for tickets. Her performance garnered an Olivier Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical. In 1983, Petula took on the title role in George Bernard Shaw's Candida.

Petula’s later stage work includes Someone Like You in 1989 and 1990 (for which she composed the score); Blood Brothers, in which she made her Broadway debut in 1993 at the Music Box Theatre, followed by an American tour; and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, appearing in both the West End and American touring productions from 1995 to 2000. With more than 2,500 Sunset Boulevard performances, she has played the role of Norma Desmond, a faded star of the silent screen era, living in the past in her decaying mansion on the fabled Los Angeles street, more often than any other actress.

Throughout her time working in the theatre during the 1980s and ’90s, Petula continued to record new material. A 1981 single, “Natural Love,” reached number 66 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and number 20 on the U.S. Country Singles chart in early 1982. A decade later in 1992, she released “Oxygen,” a techo-pop track produced by Andy Richards and written by Nik Kershaw.

In 2013, after a long absence from the recording studio, Petula released a new album titled Lost in You, containing both new music and covers.

I love this album, and anyone who hears it playing in my home is always drawn to it, asking, Who’s that? Standout tracks include a slowed-down remake of her ’60s hit “Downtown,” a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” and a chilled-out and sublime original song, “Every Word You Say.” The album’s opening track, “Cut Copy Me,” was a hit in Belgium, of all places, while the album itself entered the UK national album chart at number 24 in March of 2013.

Even in her eighties, Petula continued to record and perform, as evidenced by her two most recent albums (2017’s Living for Today and 2018’s French-Canadian album Vu d’ici) and by the fact that since 2019 she’s appeared in London’s West End as The Bird Woman (below) in the popular revival of the musical Mary Poppins.

As you may recall, I had the honor and pleasure of seeing Petula in concert when I was in Australia in May of 2019 (right). I even briefly met and talked with her after the show. How lucky was I?

In celebration of Petula’s 90th birthday, I share her most recent recording, “Luminescent,” a beautiful song she recorded earlier this year with The John Williams Syndicate.

Enjoy! . . . and Happy Birthday, Petula!

For another track by The John Williams Syndicate featuring Petula Clark on vocals, click here.

For more of Petula Clark at The Wild Reed, see:
Meeting a Living Legend
Happy Birthday, Petula (2019)
Petula Clark: Singing for Us, Not at Us
“Pure Class”: Petula Clark’s Latest Offering Captivates
Happy Birthday, Petula! (2015)
Pet Sounds
Well, Look Who’s Coming to Port Macquarie
Petula Clark: Still Colouring Our World (which includes my mum’s review of Petula’s 2014 concert in Port Macquarie)

Related Off-site Links:
Petula Clark: I’m Still on Stage at 90 – Will Hodgkinson (The Times, November 16, 2022).
How Petula Clark Found Herself in the Center of the Biggest TV ScandalAge of Vintage (December 8, 2021).
Petula Clark: From “Downtown” to Mary Poppins: The MusicalThis Morning (November 3, 2020).
Petula Clark Interview: “I Felt As Though I Belonged to Other People – Not Myself” – Dominic Cavendish (The Telegraph, November 1, 2019).
Petula Clark and Harry BelafonteMontreal Gazette (2018).
Petula Clark, Still On the RoadGood Morning (December 24, 2017).
Petula Clark On Her Marriage, New Partner and TouringLoose Women (September 30, 2016).
Petula Clark InterviewBBC Breakfast (September 2016).
Petula Clark Interview – Alex Belfield (The Voice of Reason, 2016).
The Petula Clark StoryBBC Four (2015).
Petula Clark InterviewAfternoon Plus (February 21, 1980).
PetulaClark.net – The Official Website of Petula Clark.

1 comment:

Mike Jim Jones said...

Excellent blog ..Thanks for spreading the word ..I first saw Petula live at the Royal Albert Hall ,London in 1969 when I was 17 and was lucky enough to have been at the theatre tribute after the Mary Poppins Show in London two hours before her 90th birthday .
Petula is unique ,and as the BBC commented on the “Petula Clark at the BBC “ BBC4 TV tribute ..”Her ability to refresh and stay relevant has kept Petula at the top to this day …and has helped us “ forget all our troubles ,forget all our cares”and she reminded us “things will be “great “ for all these years ,over an extraordinary career that’s unlikely to ever be equalled “