Saturday, January 4, 2014

Petula Clark, The #56 Female Artist of the Rock Era

Petula was born in Epsom, England, and sang in the chapel choir as a child. Early on, she was interested in theatre, but her first public performances were as a singer, singing with an orchestra accompanying her in the entrance of Bentall's Department Store in Kingston upon Thames in 1939. A chance beginning at age nine launched Petula in her career, and she would be on radio, film, television and in the newspapers by the time she reached seventeen.

In October, 1942, Petula attended a BBC broadcast with her father in the hopes of sending a message to an uncle stationed overseas. However, the broadcast was interrupted by an air raid, as England was being attacked by the Nazi regime in Germany. During the bombing, the show's producer requested that someone perform to settle the jittery audience gathered in the theatre. Clark volunteered, and sang "Mighty Lak' a Rose" to great response. She then repeated the performance for the radio audience when the show resumed, and would appear in nearly 500 programs designed to entertain the English troops.

Clark performed in front of King George VI and Winston Churchill, and became known as "Britain's Shirley Temple". She was considered a mascot by the British Army, whose troops plastered their tanks with photos of Petula for good luck as they advanced into battle. While performing in 1944, Clark was discovered by film director Maurice Elvey, and Petula starred in the movie Medal for the General. She starred in several B-films, but also worked with Anthony Newley in Vice Versa and Alec Guinness in The Card and I Know Where I'm Going!

Clark began her television career with an appearance on Cabaret Cartoons, and she hosted two of her own shows on BBC, the self-titled series Petula Clark and Pet's Parlour.

In 1947, Clark met Joe Henderson at the Maurice Publishing Company.  The two became linked both musically and romantically.  Two years later, Petula recorded for both Polygon and Decca Records and enjoyed several early hits in the U.K. in the mid-1950s ("The Little Shoemaker", "Majorca", "Suddenly There's A Valley" and "With All My Heart".  The former became her first Top 10 song in the U.K., and a #1 record in Australia.

But it took the American public 13 years to discover her.

In 1957, Clark performed in Paris, where she met the man that would become her longtime publicist, collaborator, and future husband, Claude Wolff.  Wolff signed her with Vogue Records in France, and Petula toured France and Belgium.  Meanwhile, Polygon was gobbled up and Clark became part of the famous Pye Records family in the U.K.  She began recording in German, French, Italian and Spanish and was establishing herself as a European star.  "Sailor" hit #1 in the U.K. and #2 in France in 1961.  

In fact, Clark's success in her native England and in France was nearly identical.  "Romeo" and "My Friend The Sea" also landed in the Top 10 in the U.K. in the early 1960s.  In 1964, Clark wrote the French Soundtrack to A Couteaux Tires (aka Daggers Drawn). 

But Clark's career was floundering.  Composer-arranger Tony Hatch, who had been working with her, flew to Petula's home in Paris with new songs.  Initially, Clark wasn't interested, until Hatch played a few chords of an unfinished song inspired by his trip to New York City.  Petula told Hatch that if he could write lyrics as good as the melody, she wanted to record the song as her next single.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Clark was performing in Canada when the song first hit the airwaves.  "Downtown" was released in four different languages in late 1964, and it hit #1 in the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and Italy and #2 in the U.K. and Ireland.  It sold three million copies in the U.S. alone, and won the Grammy Award for Best Rock and Roll Recording.  It was one of the top songs of 1965, and is one of The Top 500 Songs of the Rock Era*.

"Downtown" was the first of fifteen straight Top 40 hits in the U.S.  "I Know A Place" was lined up next, and it shot up to #3.

Petula, or "Pet" as she was affectionately called, hit #1 again in 1966 with "My Love".

In 1966, Clark released the single "A Sign Of The Times", which peaked at #2 on the Easy Listening chart and #11 overall.

The follow-up ("I Couldn't Live Without Your Love") was even bigger, a #1 Easy Listening smash and #9 overall.

"Colour My World" peaked at #16 in the U.S. and #10 in Australia.

"This Is My Song", which Clark also recorded in French, German and Italian, reached #1 in the U.K., France and Ireland, #3 in the United States and #4 in Canada.

Clark's success was now worldwide, and she frequently appeared on television shows such as The Ed Sullivan ShowThe Dean Martin ShowHullabaloo and Shindig!  In 1968, Petula hosted her own television special on NBC.  While singing a duet of "On the Path Of Glory" with guest Harry Belafonte, she took hold of his arm, inadvertently making television history.

A representative of Chrysler, the show's sponsor, was dismayed, fearing the moment would incur the racist bigotry of viewers in the South.  When he suggested a different take, with the two performers standing well away from each other.  Clark and her husband, Wolff, who was the executive producer of the show, refused.  The rest of the world, of course, wasn't as biased as people in the American South.  The program aired on April 8, 1968 to high ratings and critical acclaim.  

Clark hosted two other specials, another one for NBC and one on ABC, before starring in the television series This is Petula Clark from 1966-1968.  Pet starred in two successful musical films, In Finian's Rainbow in 1968 (in which she earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress-Motion Picture Musical or Comedy) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1969.

Clark toured in the United States throughout the late 60's, performing in clubs such as the Copacabana in New York City, the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles and the Empire Room at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where she continually smashed attendance records.  Clark supported the launch of Herb Alpert and his A&M record label, which became one of the world's biggest and most successful. 

Clark's final Top 10 was this one, which hit #1 in Australia and #5 in the U.S. and Canada: ("Don't Sleep) In The Subway".

While Petula's songs in the 1970's did not enjoy the success of the previous decade, she continued to tour worldwide, and appeared in ads for Coca Cola, Plymouth, Burlington Industries and Chrysler.  She hosted the television series The Sound of Petula in 1973 and 1974.  By the mid-part of the decade, Clark scaled back her career to focus on her family.  

In 1981, at the urging of her children, Clark returned to the theatre playing the role of Maria in The Sound of Music in London.  Clark's initial run of six months had to be extended to thirteen to accommodate the huge demand for tickets.  Petula continued to star in theatre, performing in Candida, Someone Like You, and making her Broadway debut in 1993 in Blood Brothers.

Clark stayed active into the new millennium with recordings and concerts and appearances throughout the world.  In 2010, Clark was named President of the Hastings Musical Festival, and she toured Australia, New Zealand and Canada to sellout crowds.  A French album of all new material was released in 2012. 

In 1998, Clark received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II.  In 2004, her landmark classic, "Downtown", was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.  In 2012, Petula was given the Medaille du Commandeur de l'ordre des Arts et des Letters de France.

Clark has enjoyed 59 hits in either the U.K., the U.S., or both, and has sold over 68 million records in her fabulous career.  

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