This is my song
27 February 2004
Mary Anne Gill

Perennial pop singer Petula Clark, on the eve of her Hamilton concert, talks to Mary Anne Gill about a lifetime in entertainment.

PETULA CLARK is chewing a lolly so it's hard to confirm whether she's just said she's never been to New Zealand before because no one ever invited her.

It seems an absurd notion really. She is one of the world's best-selling pop artists, a singer and songwriter for more than 60 years, and promoters have never asked her to perform in New Zealand?

Clark seems confused about how it could have happened.

"I've been to Australia a few times," she says over the phone from her Sydney hotel room.

"I don't know why I've never been there (to New Zealand). Even before "Lord of the Rings", I heard New Zealand was beautiful. I really can't wait to get there."

Next week, the 71-year-old grandmother of two will arrive in New Zealand for three concerts - in Christchurch on Friday, Auckland on Saturday and Hamilton's Founders Theatre on Sunday night (March 7). At the moment she's completing a sell-out Australian tour.

Mention Petula Clark to anyone over 40 and they're likely to break into song:

"When you're alone and life is making you lonely you can always go - downtown. When you've got worries all the noise and the hurry seems to help I know - downtown."

On a roll, the same person might then sing: "Don't sleep in the subway darling, don't stand in the pouring rain."

But long before Downtown and Don't Sleep in the Subway made the pop charts worldwide in the 1960s, Clark was already a superstar with another generation.

At an age where she could put her feet up and live off past glories, Clark is doing what she's always done - entertaining.

These days she divides her time between homes in London, Miami and Geneva and still performs in stage shows worldwide.

"It's a privilege," she says.

"There's millions of people who drag themselves off to work each day and I get to do this."

"It's a great way to live."

So what's the secret to her long career?

"I don't stop and think about it. "When I do, when someone like you asks me, I realise yes it's a long time but it's almost like you're talking about someone else. I don't like dwelling on the past."

PETULA CLARK was born on November 15, 1932 in Ewell, a small village in Surrey, England. Before World II started in 1939, she sang in school concerts and in churches.

During the war she performed in shows for the Allied forces all over Britain.

By the end of the war, the English version of Shirley Temple was a star thanks to a "voice as sweet as chapel bells" and her movie debut in the 1944 film "Medal for the General."

She went on to appear in more than 30 British and American movies including Francis Ford Coppola's "Finian's Rainbow" with Fred Astaire and Tommy Steele and "Goodbye Mr Chips" with Peter O'Toole and Michael Redgrave.

But it's her recording career which has made her an entertainment legend.

To date she's sold more than 68 million records and made more than 1000 recordings in five languages.

Her first hits were children's songs like Put Your Shoes on Lucy, Where Did My Snowman Go and The Little Shoemaker.

In 1957, an invitation to sing at the Olympia Theatre in France not only introduced her to a new audience but also to handsome French public relations manager Claude Wolff, whom she later married. He

convinced her to record in French and she found herself reinvented as a French chanteuse. In many French-speaking countries, she is classified as a French singer.

In Canada, she's as big as Celine Dion, an artist Clark thinks is a bit overexposed now.

Clark has also recorded songs in German and Italian, topping charts throughout Europe.

Her first No 1 in Britain came in 1961 with Sailor.

Three years later, songwriter Tony Hatch visited Clark in Paris with a copy of his new song Downtown.

It rocketed to the top of the charts in the US, earning her a Grammy award, the first British female artist to win one. She was also named top female vocalist of the year.

Back in England, Downtown was, ironically, thwarted from reaching No 1 by US group the Supremes with Baby Love, and then by the Rolling Stones' Little Red Rooster.

Clark got a second Grammy in 1965 with I Know a Place. She went on to have 15 top 40 hits in the US, including two at No 1 and became a household name performing on dozens of TV shows including "The Ed Sullivan Show", "American Bandstand" and "The Dean Martin Show."

Controversy came in 1968 when, in an NBC TV special in the US, she made a stand for racial equality by touching West Indian singer Harry Belafonte during a duet and then refused to let the network cut it when sponsors were upset.

Her British career was just as spectacular as her American one.

Another No 1 came in 1967 when she bumped The Monkees off the top of the charts with This Is My Song, written by Charlie Chaplin.

She had 28 songs in the UK charts between 1949 and 1988 when Downtown was re-mixed and released again, reaching No 10.

CLARK SAYS the 1960s were a bit of a blur. Not, she hastens to add, because of any drug-taking or fast lifestyle, but because of her hectic schedule. She was a star everywhere. "I (already) had this huge career in France. I was working alongside some great people. The scene was just so amazing. The '60s were a revolution. I was just a small part of that."

By the late 1960s, Clark and Wolff had two children. Once they started school Clark eased back on her touring. The couple went on to have a third child. Now she and Claude, who are still married but live apart, have two grandchildren, Sebastien, eight, and Annabelle, two, who live in New York.

In the 1980s, Clark reinvented herself as a concert and musical theatre performer. She appeared in "The Sound of Music" as Maria in the West End, continued with "Candida" and then appeared in a musical she co-wrote called "Someone Like You."

In 1994, she starred on Broadway in "Blood Brothers", playing the mother of former teenybopper stars David and Shaun Cassidy.

She then played Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard" on the West End from 1998-2000.

The release of her Ultimate Collection in 2002 saw her embark on a 24-city tour of the UK at the age of 69.

Clark's favourite contemporary artist is Norah Jones. "She is really talented. I love her second CD (Feels Like Home)."

She has little time for singers like Britney Spears, saying entertaining these days is a lot about image and not whether anyone can actually sing.

Last year Clark was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

"(Entertaining) it's not a grind," she says. "Sometimes being in this business is like going up a down escalator. When you get to the top you've got to just keep on going."

And that explains why she's still touring and still singing.

It's what she's been doing for so long that giving up would be an admission she's got nothing more to offer and that's not the case.

Petula Clark says her shows in Australia and New Zealand last 2 1/2 hours. She thrives on the energy of it all. She'll be singing most of her hits, including Downtown.

And you can bet when they file out of the Founders Theatre in Hamilton on Sunday it'll be the one they'll still be singing.

"The lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares. So go - downtown, where all the lights are bright - downtown, waiting for you tonight - downtown, you're gonna be alright now... downtown, downtown, downtown."