Petula Clark

by Carl Wiser

Petula Clark was 80 years old when she released her 2013 album Lost In You, an elegant and contemporary set produced by John Williams - not the Star Wars guy, but a popular A&R man who produced many of the Peel Sessions for the BBC.

Petula co-wrote three songs on the album, including "Reflections," where she sings about growing up in Wales and singing professionally from age 6:

I'd sing all through the days
And there in the chapel with the organ playing
I knew from the very start
That music was in my heart to stay

She is one of the most celebrated entertainers in Britain, a star of stage and screen with 12 Top-10 hits on the UK chart. She didn't set out to conquer America but did anyway, charting her first #1 before she could even promote it.

Petula doesn't fancy herself a songwriter, but there is evidence to the contrary: She has written over 100 songs, including The Vogues' hit "You're the One." Her hits as a singer came mostly from Tony Hatch, who earned a Songwriters Hall of Fame induction in 2013 with songs like "Downtown" (freshly recorded by Petula on the new album), "Don't Sleep in the Subway" and "A Sign of the Times."

Petula writes when it comes to her, and the muse is still present. On "Reflections," she sings about how her younger self if still with her, still with music in her heart:

So now that my heart is heavy
And the world seems too demanding
I go to that other place and smile with her happy face
She's there with me everywhere
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): You wrote the song "Reflections" on Lost in You, and it's clearly such a personal song. Have there been any other songs that you recorded in your career that have been specifically about you?

Petula Clark: Well, first of all, I didn't write the music. It was written by a bloke by the name of Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach. [Laughing] I did write the lyric, yes.

Well, I have one or two songs that are personal to me. A song called "I'm Not Afraid." It is actually saying, "I'm not afraid to stand before you tonight here in the light that's too bright. I've stood here all through my life, just like tonight, but not quite." It's saying that I'm not afraid to let you know who I am. That's very personal to me. I suppose anybody could sing it. But maybe not many people could sing the lyric of "Reflections," because that really does go back to the truth of my childhood. That's exactly how it was.

Songfacts: When you are performing these songs and recording them, does your acting experience come into play?

Petula: Yes. Every song is sort of like a mini play to me. Incidentally, I just think I should say to you, I don't look on myself as a songwriter at all. I'm a sometime songwriter. I'll write a song if it comes to me, but nobody could say to me, "Will you write me a song?" Because I wouldn't know how to do that. It just has to come.

So yeah, when I'm actually singing the songs on stage, they're like little plays that are going through my head. And some of them are more interesting than others, of course. It depends on the song.

Songfacts: What are some that are particularly interesting?

Petula: Well, this is going to sound really corny, something like "Downtown." I don't know how many times I've sung the song, let's face it. And over the years the images have changed in my head. When I re-recorded it for Lost in You, it was interesting. I had never thought of "Downtown" as a jolly song about going out and having a good time. I've always thought there was this loneliness and there's even a slight feeling of desperation in it. I suppose it keeps songs fresh for me if I see them or feel them in a different way.

Songfacts: Did Tony Hatch give you an idea of what specific downtown he had in mind for that song?

Petula: Oh, I think it was New York, without a doubt. We do have the expression "downtown" in England, but not the way you have it here. I mean, you've got downtown, uptown, and crosstown. We don't have that in the UK or anywhere in Europe. He was definitely inspired by New York.

Songfacts: Is there a specific city that you think about when you perform the song?

Petula: No. It's usually a general image of the sense of getting out and seeing something else. This idea of being alone... I've been there. I have my down days when I'm feeling alone and a bit sorry for myself. And the best thing to do if you can is just to get out there and think about something else and see something else and possibly even talk to someone else - without getting your head bashed in. Not to get too deep into your own solitude and sadness.

Songfacts: Another song that has a different meaning across cultures is "Don't Sleep in the Subway." Because a subway means something different in America than in England. Can you talk about that?

Petula starred in the 1968 musical Finian's Rainbow with Fred Astaire. The film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Petula: Well, I remember Fred Astaire, we used to spend a lot of time just sitting around singing. I thought he was a great singer and he would sing those wonderful songs from his movies. Then he would get me to sing songs and explain. He said, "What does this really mean?" He wanted me to explain a Beatles song, for example.

He said, "What is 'Don't Sleep in the Subway' really all about?" And I said to him, "You know, I don't really know." I said, "All I know is I think it's a wonderful song."

Tony told me at one point that it was made up of three songs. All of Tony's songs have three stages in them. He just sort of glued these three stages together. I just think it's come out really sounding great.

It's a bit of a mystery to me, the song. But it's got to be one of my favorites, though I'm not quite sure what it's about. It doesn't matter.

Petula had her own show called Pet's Parlour, which ran on the BBC from 1950-1953. In 1954, she had her first chart hit with a children's song called "The Little Shoemaker," which went to #7 in the UK and #1 in Australia. A few more UK hits followed, which were often hits in France not for Petula, but for the French singer Dalida, who would cover them. To thwart Dalida, Petula recorded French versions of her songs, and by the early '60s was a star in that country as well.

Americans remained oddly unaware of Petula until she was finally offered a US record deal in 1964 when a Warner Bros. executive, on vacation in London, heard her song "Downtown" and gave her a contract. "Downtown" shot to #1 when it was released in the US, and in early 1965 she quickly conquered America with an Ed Sullivan Show appearance, a Grammy win (Best Rock And Roll Recording for "Downtown"), and a follow-up single, "I Know A Place," that went to #3.
Songfacts: I'm wondering why it took so long for you to get a record deal in America, considering you had already been so successful not only in the UK but also in France.

Petula: Are you talking about back in the '60s?

Songfacts: Yes.

Petula: I don't know. I was under contract to Pye in the UK and they had these sort of deals with Vogue Records in France. I automatically was put onto Vogue in France, because I was with Pye. But Joe Smith from Warner Bros. came over from LA and heard "Downtown," which was already happening in the UK, and said, "I want that."

Frankly, it was the record, it was the song. True, I had had hit records in the UK and then I'd been in France and had loads of records in France, Italy and Germany. But it's that magic thing that happens when the song is right, the moment is right. And it was picked up by the right company. That was it.

Songfacts: Did you have aspirations to conquer America?

Petula: No. Not really. I was very comfortable where I was. I had an enormously successful career in France - and not just records. I was touring all over French-speaking territories, and that's big. Obviously, Belgium, Switzerland, but also Morocco and Algeria and French-speaking Canada. In fact, I was on a tour of French-speaking Canada as a French performer doing a one-woman show in French when "Downtown" hit #1 in the States, just to confuse you.

Songfacts: Well, it's remarkable, because you weren't even there to promote it and the song became such a huge hit.

Petula: Well, I wasn't doing much promotion, not really. The Ed Sullivan Show had been calling every day while I was on tour in Canada saying, "You've got to get here."

And I couldn't get there. Eventually I got there, and the record was #1. I didn't have to promote anything. And then we put out another one, "I Know A Place," and it just galloped away. It was just one of those things.

Songfacts: Was "I Know A Place" conceived as a follow-up to "Downtown"?

Petula: Oh, yes. Of course. Warner Bros., they had this great #1 record, they said, "Come on, we want another one." I wasn't writing, Tony was doing all the writing. I was just singing the songs. He came up with "I Know A Place," which I thought was a good song. I didn't think it was quite up to the standards of "Downtown," but it went in on the wave of "Downtown," really.

Songfacts: Yeah. And it was very much a city song and very cosmopolitan. Were they trying to craft that kind of image for you?

Petula: Oh, about image, I've never thought about image. So maybe. I don't know what my image was. I think I was sort of in the middle of all those, sort of The Stones and The Beatles and all that kind of thing. I was a nice English girl not singing rude lyrics or behaving badly, so I was more like the big sister. But I couldn't tell you what my image was.

Songfacts: There's a story about a later song you did, "My Love," where you were in a plane with Tony Hatch when that was conceived. Is there some truth to that?

Petula: No, I wasn't in the plane. Tony wrote it in a plane. He wrote it coming over to LA from London.

We recorded three songs on that session. We recorded them in LA, and I had to leave immediately after the session. I liked the two other songs quite a lot, but I really didn't like "My Love." Joe Smith, he's a very small man physically. I adore him, but he's about the right height for me. I was able to get hold of his lapels, and I said to him, "Joe, I don't care which ones you put out, but just don't put out 'My Love.'" And he said, "Trust me, baby." And there you go.

Songfacts: What was it about that song that you didn't like?

Petula: I thought it was a bit ordinary. I had got so used to these wonderful songs that Tony had been writing with all these different moods and I thought it was just a bit flat.

You know what, I still do. But I do sing it now. For a long time I wouldn't sing it on stage, but I sort of play around with it a little bit now and that makes it a bit easier for me to do it.

Songfacts: Now, you've talked about how you don't consider yourself a songwriter, but you have written many songs. And, in fact, you wrote one that was a pretty substantial hit. The song "You're the One." Can you talk about that?

Petula: Well, that happened, really, because Tony was writing a lot of songs and we were making yet another LP, and that's like 12, 13 songs. He'd written 12, and he said, "Listen, I haven't got a number 13 in me at all. Write something."

I said, "Okay. I'll try." And I wrote the melody of "You're the One." And he wrote the lyric.

Yeah, it worked quite well. As you know it was recorded by The Vogues and they had a hit with it. But sometimes I sing it on stage and people really like it.

Songfacts: I thought you were more a lyricist than a melody person when it comes to writing songs.

Petula: Well, sometimes I am. Sometimes I write the lyric for somebody else's music, and then sometimes I write the music and sometimes I write both. It just depends on how it falls, really.

Songfacts: Did you ever work with Michael Jackson?

Petula: I didn't work with him, no. I got to know him. He and David Geffen were great friends, and he said to David, "Petula really should be recording again," and he set up a recording session for me.

Michael was never there, but it had one of his engineers and we did three songs at the old A&M Records, the wonderful ex-Chaplin Studios. I don't know what they are now. They're on La Brea, great recording studios. The Herb Alpert studios.

Michael McDonald came in to do the backup - he's a dear friend - and it was produced by an Englishman. Anyway, Michael Jackson was behind that, he set it all up. I never actually worked with him.

Songfacts: Were those songs released?

Petula: They were released in the UK, yes.

Songfacts: I wonder if part of the connection there was because you and Michael both performed a song of Charlie Chaplin.

Petula: Yes. I did record "Smile." And sometimes I'll do it on stage. It's a wonderful song. And I recorded "This is My Song," which was Chaplin. Sometimes I will do a kind of medley of Chaplin songs and I will include "Smile."

Songfacts: Would you ever tweak the lyrics or the arrangement of a song when you were recording it?

Petula: What do you mean by tweak?

Songfacts: Well, Tony Hatch would write you a song and clearly you have the skills to write songs on your own. I was wondering if you would ever change a word here or there or make some musical suggestions for songs before you would record them?

Petula: Frankly, no. I loved so much what Tony was writing for me and the way he played - he plays the piano in a very special way. Sometimes you have somebody else playing piano on the sessions. But, I mean, he's going to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Songfacts: Yes. Well deserved.

Petula: Nobody plays quite like him. I've had many great piano players, and these are very pianistic songs, usually. They have that quite heavy piano sound, and nobody plays it quite like him.

No, I would never suggest any changes. When we get into the studio, that's different, because then we start hearing how the whole thing sounds and so I might change a phrase, but Tony did his thing and I'd do mine. There would be very of little what I would call producing. I've worked with some record producers who all they really want to do is put their stamp on something and make you sound different, and Tony never did that. It's like a good movie director: if the casting is right, the good director will just let you do your thing.

Songfacts: What were your recording sessions like?

Petula: With Tony?

Songfacts: Yes.

Petula: Oh, great. Always exciting, because of his orchestrations. We used to record live, of course, with a big orchestra, so it wasn't that thing of building things up from scratch. We would go in and that was it: What you got was what you heard. It was always a very exciting moment the first time I would hear the orchestration, because he is a brilliant orchestrator.

It was fun and easy, quite honestly. Not all recording sessions are like that, may I say. But with Tony they were just great. Because also for some strange reason we were making hits, and it's a wonderful feeling. We would go into a studio - we recorded most of our stuff in London, but now and then we would record in LA or New York - and when we would arrive at the studio, for instance, in LA, and there would be a kind of excitement, because, "Hey, we've got Tony Hatch and Petula Clark in the studio!"

I remember one drummer, I think it was in New York. He was looking really nervous, and he was the top drummer in New York. I looked at him and I said, "What's wrong?"

He said, "I don't know if I can get that London sound."

I said, "What London sound?"

He said, "Well, you know, that sound..."

I said, "No, I don't actually. Why don't you just play it? That will be fine." I think it was for "Colour My World," actually.

But there's always that feeling that they're making records from somewhere else, and can we do this? Motown had their sound and I can imagine musicians being a bit nervous playing a Motown chart: "Are we going to be able to get that?"

Songfacts: What was your role while the song was being recorded? Did you lay down a guide vocal?

Petula: Well, if you're going back to the Tony Hatch times, I used to record live. And maybe if the vocal wasn't quite right but we got a really good track on the orchestra - because it could be separated - then just to save time I'd put my vocals down later. But there was enough separation in the studio and I used to record live. There was nothing quite like the feeling of recording live with a big orchestra. Sinatra used to do it all the time.

Songfacts: Your song "A Sign of the Times," how did you feel about that one?

Petula: I loved it. It had a slightly different feel. "A Sign of the Times," I suppose you might expect some big political statement or something, but it was just a straight-ahead love song. I think Tony rather liked finding titles that made you think, like "Don't Sleep in the Subway." People would think, is it about drugs? Is it about this? And these were just straightforward songs. I like "Sign of the Times." I think it's a good song.

Songfacts: It's so different now that you're recording Lost in You, just thinking about how you used to go in with these orchestras and now you're recording in a completely different manner. Can you tell me about recording this album and how it compares with the way things used to be done?

Petula: Well, I've done a lot since the '60s. I recorded in Memphis, I recorded in Nashville, I recorded in Vegas, France, Germany. So there are all different ways of approaching recording sessions. It's true, this one is very special. It was recorded in a lovely little studio at the bottom of John Williams' garden, what we call a windy house, like a little playhouse from the outside. Little windows with curtains. You think, "What is this?" And you walk in and it's a small, but perfectly formed, very today studio.

I sing and record in the studio, somebody's playing guitar, then you put the bass on. It's a very creative atmosphere, actually. It's a totally different way of getting to the same point, and I enjoyed it enormously.

But every studio has its own thing going. You don't have to be in Abbey Road to make a great record. You can make a great record in your kitchen if you've got the right equipment and the right ears. It's not rocket science anymore.

Songfacts: Is there a song on the album that you particularly like?

Petula: I like "Cut Copy Me" very much.

Songfacts: Why is that?

Petula: I just loved it from the first time I heard the demo and it was sung by a girl who sang it very well, indeed. I thought, "Uh oh. What am I going to do with this?"

I think the production is interesting. The first mix was actually done in Paris and they did a very good job on it, and it was slightly remixed in England. It's got something a bit mysterious about it, and I like that.

Songfacts: Well, thanks so much. This was fantastic and the new album is just remarkable.

Petula: You think so?

Songfacts: Well, your voice has such a classic sound and it's not something that can be replicated. People try very hard to achieve something like that, but getting it in a modern production has a very special sound.

Petula: Well, thank you so much. We didn't have any agenda when we went in. We didn't say, "Let's do something more than ordinary" or anything. We just went in and did it. So that's very nice to hear that. Thank you.

July 4, 2013. Get more at
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Comments: 12

  • Mimi Sutter from Ft. Lauderdale, FlAlways so light and natural! Looks like she's enjoying herself. Such a delightful creature!
  • Ian Offler from SpainDisappointed that Tony Hatch wife Jackie Trent was not mentioned at all considering she wrote the lyrics for many of Petula’s hits
  • Greg Irvine from CanadaThank you for this well written and insightful article Carl and for all the wonderful memories Petula.
    Please come back to Canada for your next tour!
    I wonder if Petula and Tom Jones ever performed together?
  • Nancy from Queensbury, NyLove this interview.
  • Fred Fiore from Worcester, MaSunday, November 6, 2016
    Born February 24, 1953
    To Carl Wiser
    Searching for Petula Clark, I just discovered this 3 year old interview for the first time.
    There is no female singers' voice who actually entered my very soul except Petula Clark. As an adolescent & then a young teenager, her voice & music influenced me beyond any other singer, really. Yes, there have many other female recording artists through the years, whose music that I've enjoyed, including especially Celine Dion over the last 25 years.
    I was online at UTube music about a week ago, for the first time in many years, looking for Petula Clark music, & was ecstatic to find not only unknown previous music from many, many years ago, but also her two most recent albums from the last few years.
    I also then became consumed & enthralled with her entire biography, & her many recorded television interviews that she gave over the last 30 years, all previously unknown.
    Then I noticed that she was actually touring again, including a concert in Germany, & even concerts in Britain less than a month ago.
    I was 2practically delirious, imagining what it would have been like to have been in one of her audiences!
    In the last week, I probably saved over 75 links from Utube music (I'm sure a tiny fraction of her entire recordings), & then selected & recorded over 50 for my private listening.
    Do you know the indescribable feeling that one gets when they discover previously unknown incredibly beautiful music from a favorite recording artist.
    When this entire 2016 US election cycle is over on Wednesday, & I look back, years from now, on what music was sustaining me during the last week, it will be her wonderfully soul touching 50 songs, many UNHEARD BEFORE including the recent "Reflections", & the unbelievably beautiful "Music", from 1965, which brought tears to my eyes.
    I recently read that her 84th birthday may be arriving on November 15th. She is & has been loved by tens of millions around the world. Even now, she's an underappreciated & forgotten icon, with an unmatched
    I thank her more than ever for what she has done for me, & wish her many happy birthdays for years to come.
  • Wema Lwila from TanzaniaI love the song dearly and deadly.
  • Sam from North CarolinaGreat interview. I loved her songs as a teenager, of course, like everyone else, but had not idea there was so much depth to her. Songwriting, acting, selling out shows in multiple countries. I always thought she was a classy lady and this interview reinforced that.
  • George from New ZealandPetula Clark, an absolute professional through to her 80th year and no doubt beyond. Live on stage she struck me as a thinking musician too, most interesting commentary and very English.
  • Stymied Observer from UsaLovely interview, what a wonderful woman and artist! Grew up singing Petula Clark songs at the top of my little lungs (poor anyone else that was near) and have such bright and happy memories of her songs. From Downtown to I Know A Place, My Love to Don't Sleep in the Subway, A Sign of the Times and more. To this day, Petula Clark songs instantly put a huge and happy smile on my face. Seems about impossible to hear Pet Clark songs and NOT be instantly uplifted. Thank you for all the years of wonderful music, Ms. Clark: You've Made the World That Much Lighter and Brighter - Many Times Over - for Millions of Us.
  • Peter Silverton from Londoni think she means 'wendy house', as in peter pan
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaI second that, an outstanding interview. I have to admit, when I think of 60's pop, I think if Petula Clark. I tis nice to know she's lasted all this time and still going well.
  • Jeff from Long Island NyGreat interview Carl!
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