Petula Clark Biography

15 November 1932, Epsom, Surrey, England. Her Welsh mother, a soprano, taught Petula to sing, which enabled her to commence a stage career at the age of seven and a broadcasting career two years later. Her youthful image and crystal-clear enunciation were ideal for radio and by 1943, she had her own programme with the accent on wartime, morale-building songs. She made her first film in 1944 and then signed for the J. Arthur Rank Organization appearing in over 20 feature films, including the Huggett series, alongside other young hopefuls such as Anthony Newley and Alec Guinness. By 1949 she was recording, and throughout the 50s had several hits on the Polygon and Nixa labels including ‘The Little Shoemaker’, ‘Suddenly There’s A Valley’, ‘With All My Heart’ and ‘Alone’. Around this period, Clark’s success in France led to many concert appearances in Paris and recordings, in French, for the Vogue label.

Eventually, in 1959, at the age of 27 and unhappy with the British audiences’ reluctance to see her as anything but a sweet adolescent, she moved to France, where she married Vogue’s PR representative, Claude Wolff. At the Olympia Theatre, Paris, in 1960, she introduced her new sound, retaining the ultra-clear vocals, but adding to them electronic effects and a hefty beat. Almost immediately her career took off. She had a massive hit with ‘Ya Ya Twist’, for which she received the Grand Prix du Disque, and by 1962 was France’s favourite female vocalist, ahead even of the legendary Edith Piaf. Meanwhile, in Britain, Clark’s versions of ‘Romeo’, ‘My Friend The Sea’ and ‘Sailor’, were chasing Elvis Presley up the charts (the latter reached number 1). Her international breakthrough began in 1964 when the British songwriter/arranger Tony Hatch presented Clark with ‘Downtown’. It became a big hit in western Europe, and a year later climbed to the top of the US charts, clinching her popularity in a country where she was previously unknown. The record sold over three million copies worldwide and gained a Grammy Award in the USA as the best rock ‘n’ roll single. Clark’s subsequent recordings of other Hatch songs, frequently written with his lyricist wife, Jackie Trent, including ‘My Love’, ‘I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love’, ‘Don’t Sleep In The Subway’, all made the US Top 10 (‘My Love’ reached the top). Her recording of ‘This Is My Song’, written by Charlie Chaplin for the Marlon Brando/Sophia Loren epic, A Countess From Hong Kong (1967), reached number 1 in the UK charts and broke into the US Top 5.

Tours of the USA and television guest shots followed. As well as hosting her own BBC Television series, she was given her own US NBC television special Petula, in 1968. This was marred by the programme sponsor’s request that a sequence in which she touched the arm of black guest Harry Belafonte should be removed in deference to the southern states. The show was eventually transmitted complete. That same year Clark revived her film career when she appeared as Sharon, the ‘Glocca Morra’ girl in E.Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg and Burton Lane’s Finian’s Rainbow, co-starring with Fred Astaire and Tommy Steele. While the film was generally regarded as too old-fashioned for 60s audiences, Clark’s performance, with just a touch of the blarney, was well received, as was her partnership with Peter O’Toole in MGM’s 1969 remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, marking her 30 years in showbusiness. She was, by now, not only a major recording star, but an international personality, able to play all over the world, in cabaret and concerts. Between 1981 and 1982 she played the part of Maria in the London revival of Richard Rodgers / Oscar Hammerstein II’s The Sound Of Music. It ran for 14 months, and was a great personal success. In 1989, PYS Records issued a ‘radically remised’ version of her 60s hit, ‘Downtown’, with the original vocal accompanied by an acid house backing track. It went to number 10 in the UK chart.

Clark has sold millions of records worldwide and has been awarded more gold discs than any other British female singer. From early in her career she has written songs, sometimes under the pseudonym of Al Grant; so it was particularly pleasing for Clark to write the music, and appear in a West End musical, Someone Like You. The show opened in March 1990 to mixed reviews, and had only a brief run. Two years later Clark undertook her first concert tour of the UK for 10 years, and in 1993 took over the starring role of Mrs. Johnstone in Willy Russell’s musical Blood Brothers on Broadway, and then toured it through 26 American cities. In 1995, she played the part of Norma Desmond in the London production of Sunset Boulevard for six weeks while Elaine Paige was on holiday, and subsequently led the cast until the show closed in April 1997. A few months on, she was created CBE, ‘for services to entertainment’, in the New Year’s Honours List. Early in 1998 Clark embarked on a UK tour and released Where The Heart Is, a collection of personal favourites. It featured 11 new tracks including her versions of ‘With One Look’, ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’, and ‘The Perfect Year’, three numbers from Sunset Boulevard which had been previously issued as a CD maxi-single. There was also ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’, a song she co-wrote for the ill-fated Someone Like You. Late in 1998/9, Clark starred in a ‘pared-down’ Sunset Boulevard on a major national US tour. In 1999, a radical Ian Levine remix of ‘Downtown’ failed to trouble the charts.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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