Petula Clark (born in 1932 in Surrey, England) is an English singer, film and stage actress and songwriter. She was exposed to entertaining even at a young age, singing on the radio during wartime Britain. By 1950s she was one of her country’s biggest stars, and when the British Invasion swept the US in the 1960s she was able to enter into the consciousness of the American audiences. Among Clark’s Stateside hits were “I Know A Place”, “My Love”, “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love”, “This Is My Song”, “Don’t Sleep In The Subway”, and her signature song “Downtown” – which reached #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100, making Clark the first British female singer to achieve that feat. Towards the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s onwards Clark’s hits have practically dried up. However, she has remained very much visible on national and international touring while recording sporadically, with her last album Lost In You bringing up familiar favorites from the past as well as newly recorded songs.
Early life and becoming a juvenile star
All-around British entertainer Petula Clark was born Petula Sally Olwen Clark in Surrey, United Kingdom on November 15, 1932. She was born a total performer, having sung first in their chapel choir and next in the theater.
When she was not yet ten years old, she entertained the wartime audience and troops via radio broadcast, where she became quite a fixture. She toured around the country, alongside fellow child performers Julie Andrews and Anthony Newley. When Clark was 11 or 12 she made her film debut in the tearjerker A Medal for the General in 1944.
By the 1950s, Clark had already been a celebrity in her home country. In 1954, she achieved her first charting single, “The Little Shoemaker” (#7 UK). She had other successful singles in the UK, eventually achieving her first #1 hit with 1961’s “Sailor.”
International sensation via the hit single “Downtown’
Clark was a big star in France as well, thus having a healthy career on both sides of the Channel. In France, she scored many hits such as “Ya-Ya Twist,” “Chariot,” and “Monsieur.”
When the British Invasion took America over in the early 1960s, Clark seemed to waste no time capturing the enraptured State-side audience. In 1964, a song was given to her by songwriter-producer Tony Hatch, titled “Downtown.” The song turned out to be the biggest hit of Clark’s recording career. “Downtown” became a hit first in the UK and many European countries as well as Japan and India. When “Downtown” was later released in the United States (on the Warner Bros. label), it went all the way to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Petula Clark was now a major international star.
Peak of popularity in the US
Clark also had other hits, most of them also written and produced by Hatch. These included “I Know a Place” (#3 US, #17 UK), her only US #1 hit “My Love” (which also went to #4 in the UK), “A Sign of the Times” (#11 US, #49 UK), “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love” (#9 US, #6 UK), “Colour My World” (#16 US), “This Is My Song”, (#3 US, #1 UK), “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” (#5 US, #12 UK), and her last US Top 20 US hit “Kiss Me Goodbye” (#15 US, #50 UK), which charted in 1968.
Like many other British stars at that time, Clark was quite popular in the States. So popular in fact, that she was even given a chance to host her own television special. Aired on NBC around 1968, the TV special was simply titled Petula. On one segment of the show involving her and guest Harry Belafonte, she held his arm while they were singing “On the Path of Glory.” This alerted the show’s sponsors who requested that the segment should be removed in fears that it might spark a racist bigotry from their Southern viewers. Petula and her producers refused, and they eventually destroyed all the substitute takes, forcing the original take to be used. The result was astronomically high ratings and praises from the critics following its broadcast in April 1968. In the late 1960s, she also made a return to the big screen, appearing in notable films such as Finian’s Rainbow and a remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
Petula Clark in later years
As the 1970s her hits began to dry up, and in later years Clark kept herself occupied mostly by touring internationally, performing in clubs in the States and Europe. In 1981, she made a triumphant return to the theater, starring the West End production of The Sound of Music.
In the 21st century Clark is still fairly active touring, even well into her 70s. In 2013, she released her latest studio album titled Lost in You (on Sony label), her collaboration with musician/producer John Williams. The album featured some covers (including an updated version of “Dowtown”) as well as new material. “Downtown” is undeniably a pop classic, having been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.