Going Downtown

BY BILL BISS, Buzz Columnist

"You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares, and go ... downtown"

Petula Clark is etched in our memory with her Grammy winning song "Downtown." She is an international superstar of music with more than 60 million sales worldwide and 15 U.S. Top 40 hits. In 1998, she was bestowed the Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.

Your career is overwhelming! I know you were already hugely successful in England and France and than you crossed over to the American pop music scene. What did you think of all the musical styles when you first arrived in the states? I've been singing since I was a kid. I was brought up on jazz and swing. When rock-n-roll happened -- and this was before The Beatles, like Presley and the rest of them -- I liked it, but I found that is was lacking in some kind of musical depth. I had been brought up on great harmonies and great lyrics. So, "Rock Around the Clock" wasn't exactly satisfying to me.

When Tony Hatch (composer of many of her songs) presented "Downtown" to me, it really struck a note for me, if you'll excuse the pun. It was a great tune with a great lyric. I thought, "Yes, I will record that!" Personally, I found something very exciting about recording "Downtown," "I Know A Place," "Don't Sleep in the Subway" and all those great songs. It was a different avenue for me that just presented itself to me by Tony.

The 60s in the states was different than the 60s in Europe. Pop music is a mixture of jazz, and folk and blues it's basically American music. All The Beatles did, or The Rolling Stones, was take American music and give it a different flavor.

It was really fresh. It was fresh. Probably because The Beatles and others -- but particularly The Beatles -- put a new slant on to it and put music back into rock-n-roll. Rock-n-roll before that had been more or less a rather bland thing. It had a fast beat and that was it. Now, rock-n-roll is part of our culture.

You danced with Fred Astaire in Finian's Rainbow (1968). (laughter) Well, you know, it was just a bit of a hop, skip and jump. I wasn't exactly Cyd Charisse, let's face it.

What was working with Mr. Astaire like? It was pure joy from beginning to end. Jack Warner of Warner Brothers had to find someone to direct the film and he found this young guy called Francis (Ford) Coppola. More or less, Warner kind of shoved us on to the back lot and said, "OK, get on with it. Don't let it cost too much." (laughter)

We were like a band of gypsies really. Francis was pretty off the wall and Fred was very much the old school. Francis wanted him to dance in a real field. And Fred said, "I don't dance in a real field. You build the field for me." With no rabbit holes and cow pats, you know? He was such fun. He enjoyed himself immensely.

Your television work is filled with so many wonderful moments. Is there one of those moments that you felt the most proud of? A proud moment? I've never been asked that one before. Most people would say the thing with Harry Belafonte (in Petula Clark Spectacular!). I was very proud, not so much for me but for my husband. He refused to let the sponsor who said, "We're not going to let our star (that's me) touch a black man's arm while she's singing." I didn't feel particularly proud because for me the whole thing was ludicrous; making such a fuss about nothing.

I didn't realize that I was in America in the 1960s. I was a bit of an innocent really. There were two takes of the song. My husband gave instructions to erase the other tape. So, the only tape that they had was the one where I touched his arm. That's the way it went out.

That mentality is ridiculous. I know. I think the whole thing was shameful. But I am proud that my husband had the guts to go down and erase everything. You're not supposed to do that.

You are honoring the legacy of Peggy Lee's recordings in L.A. on July 14. Have you chosen the songs to perform as of yet? Yes. I'm going to do a song that I did at Carnegie Hall, which is called "Circle in the Sky" that she wrote. It's one of Peggy's poetic songs. I'm also doing "Heart" -- you know, "you gotta have heart." And I'm doing a duet with Nancy Sinatra. We're doing "Siamese" (Lady and the Tramp).

When I was speaking to the gentlemen who set this interview up, I said that you were doing a couple dates in July and than you got a break till September. He said, "She never takes a break. She's working on projects all the time." Well, that's not true. I came back from Mykonas about three weeks ago and that was great. Oh, I'm a very good beach bum.

Me too. I can hang out on the beach with the best of them.

Petula Clark performs July 15 at Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay. For ticket information, call 619-523-1010 or log on to

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