Downtown Girl
Forty years of recordings by Petula Clark outline a stellar career

by Octavio Roca
San Francisco Examiner

October 3, 1999

It was a long and tuneful road that led Petula Clark to the role of Norma Desmond in San Francisco this week. She was a child star of the BBC in wartime London in 1944, and she returned to the BBC Concert Orchestra 55 years later to record Norma's songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Sunset Boulevard” that highlight a special edition of her latest recording, “Petula Clark – Here for You.”

In the 1960s, amid numerous Beatle clone bands and cookie-cutter Motown groups, Clark stood out with a distinctive style and a sexy, seductive voice that was instantly recognizable. She recorded hits in five languages, becoming a cult figure in France before returning to England in triumph with “Downtown.” And when the Beatles kept her from the No. 1 spot on the British charts, Clark turned around and knocked them off that spot in the United States.

Clark recorded 17 best-selling albums for Pye Records between 1957 and 1971, and it is for Pye in the mid-'60s that she created her unique sound. The singer's fruitful collaboration with Tony Hatch – Britain's answer to Burt Bacharach, and one of the great songwriters of the last half of our century – burst on the international scene with “Downtown” and grew into one of the most powerful forces of the British Invasion. It was Hatch – often writing with his partner Jackie Trent – who composed worldwide chart- toppers for Clark, including “A Sign of the Times,” “Don't Sleep in the Subway,” “Colour My World,” “I Couldn't Live Without Your Love,” “I Know a Place,” “My Love,” “You'd Better Come Home” and “Round Every Corner.”

The Hatch hits, in addition to Charlie Chaplin's “This Is My Song,” and sometimes the songs from Clark's movie musicals “Finian's Rainbow” and “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” make up most of the material in the more than a dozen hit compilations available on CD.

Yet there is much more. Clark, after all, has entertained and won over millions to the virtues of jazz and pop, American rock 'n' roll, British music hall, French chansons and West End tunes. Here is a personal checklist of Petula Clark's Top 10.

1. “Jumble Sale: Rarities and Obscurities 1959-1964” (Sequel Records, two CDs). She hadn't yet found her trademark sound, but at this stage Clark was remarkable in her musical reach. Included here are two albums, “In Other Words” and “Petula Clark in Hollywood,” plus 25 singles that display influences ranging from the Britpop lure of Adam Faith to the All-American sweetness of Buddy Holly. “Suddenly,” originally a Eurovision song- contest entry, stands out, along with the early Hatch number “Valentino.”

2. “Downtown” (Sequel). Up until 1962, Clark released gold record after gold record in France, Germany and Italy – but her English versions of these records did not make it in the United Kingdom or the United States. When “Downtown” changed all that in 1964 – debuting at No. 1, winning Clark her first Grammy and providing her with instant fame – Pye Records rushed to release an album that consisted of that megahit plus all the stuff in English from the previous couple of years. They should have been hits. About half of the songs, incidentally, are by a composer billed as “Mark Anthony,” who in reality was the young Hatch writing under a pseudonym.

3. “I Know a Place” (Sequel). Released as “The New Petula Clark Album” in England, this now classic 1965 follow-up to “Downtown” is the first one produced entirely by Hatch. It is delicious, not only in the new batch of Hatch songs it introduces but also in the composer's very British arrangements of such American hits as “Dancing in the Streets” and “Goin' Out of My Head.” From Hatch's pen came “Strangers and Lovers,” “You're the One” (co-written with Clark), “Call Me,” “Round Every Corner” and the American hit “You'd Better Come Home.”

4. “Don't Sleep in the Subway” (RPM Records). A British CD compilation of two albums: “Petula Clark Sings the International Songs” (1965) and “These Are My Songs” (1967). The first was a bow to Clark's European career, and a terrific collection of evergreens such as “Never on Sunday,” “Volare” (another Eurovision song), “Love Me With All Our Heart” and “The Boy From Ipanema,” plus the first song the Beatles gave her, “I Want to – Hold Your Hand.” “These Are My Songs” was a huge seller worldwide, and it boasts songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Francis Lai, Lee Hazlewood, Chaplin and Clark, in addition to Hatch's “Don't Sleep in the Subway.” A nice bonus included here is Clark's recording of “San Francisco.”

5. “My Love” (Sequel). Produced by Hatch and, along with “I Know a Place,” one of the absolute essentials in the Clark discography. The hits “My Love,” “A Sign of the Times” and “Hold On to What You've Got” are on this album, plus the Beatles covers “Rain” and “We Can Work It Out” and an unlikely “If I Were a Bell” from “Guys and Dolls.” Hatch's arrangements are rivaled only by Bacharach's and Henry Mancini's as the very best and most elegant of '60s pop.

6. “Live at the Copacabana” (Sequel). Clark was surprised to hear that this 1966 performance was on CD – the tapes had been lost in the Pye vaults until 1993. It may be the best, certainly the most intimate, of her live recordings. It is also a chance to catch a glimpse of what else was on the singer's mind besides hits. The act captured here includes a rambunctious “My Love” and “I Know a Place.” But there also is a weird and wonderful medley of “Hello, Dolly,” “Call Me” and “My Name Is Petula.” Her witty take on Anthony Newley's “Typically English” alone is worth the price of the disc.

7. “Live at the Royal Albert Hall” (GNP Crescendo). A big, brassy show with Clark making everything from “Hey Jude” to almost all the numbers in “My Fair Lady” her own. Not the typical Clark album, but surprising, unique singing.

8. “C'est ma chanson” (Vogue-Mode Laser). It was never easy to break into the French music scene, and it was downright miraculous that this English girl managed to hold her own in a field then dominated by the likes of Juliette Greco, Dalida and Yves Montand – not to mention Edith Piaf, who was enjoying one of the most spectacular Indian summers in pop history. “C'est ma chanson,” her disarmingly sweet French version of Chaplin's “This Is My Song,” is but one of Clark's many European hits included in this compilation. Francophiles may want to look into the five-disc series of imports called “Petula Clark: Anthologie.”

9. “Blood Brothers” (First Night Records). Willy Russell's musical opened in 1988 in London, where it is still selling out. The powerhouse role of Mrs. Johnstone has been recorded by Barbara Dickson and Kiki Dee, both of whom had great success with the role onstage. That said, the casting of Clark took “Blood Brothers” to a new musical level, and this is the cast album to have. David and Shaun Cassidy play her twin sons, Russell plays the Narrator, and the heartbreaking curtain number “Tell Me It's Not True” is some of Clark's most spectacular, dramatic singing on record.

10. “Petula Clark – Here for You” (Varese Sarabande, Special “Sunset Boulevard” Tour Edition). For byzantine contractual reasons, this disc is for sale only in the lobbies of the theaters where Clark stars in “Sunset Boulevard.” The regular 1998 release, sold in stores, is a remarkable set of 14 songs ranging from a searing “Losing My Mind” by Stephen Sondheim to the urbane “I Concentrate on You” by Cole Porter, plus unexpected pleasures such as “Not a Day Goes By” from “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Look to the Rainbow” from “Finian's Rainbow.” The special edition has all that plus Andrew Lloyd Webber's “With One Look,” “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and “The Perfect Year.” It's the perfect “Sunset Boulevard” souvenir.