This was Petula Clark's first hit in the US, which was slow to discover her talents. In the UK, she was a star as a singer and as a television performer, where she was a regular on the BBC. In the early '60s, she also caught on in France when she started recording her songs in French. Oddly, she didn't get an American record deal until late in 1964 when a Warner Bros. executive named Joe Smith, who was vacationing in England, heard the song and signed her to a deal.
When "Downtown" was released in the US, it shot to #1, making Petula the first female singer from the UK to hit #1 in the US during the rock era (after 1955). Remarkably, she didn't even promote the song before it hit the top spot, as she was touring French-speaking countries at the time. "The Ed Sullivan Show
had been calling every day while I was on tour in Canada saying, 'You've got to get here,'" Petula told Songfacts. "I couldn't get there. Eventually I got there, and the record was #1." (Here's our full Petula Clark interview
On the surface, this song is about having a delightful time during a trip downtown. But what happens when the night is over and the singer returns to her everyday life? After all, the trip into the city is merely an escape.
While many listeners don't process the song on this level, Petula does. An accomplished actress, she thinks of her songs as "mini movies" when she performs them, and considers the feelings behind them. This song, to her, isn't so chipper. "I've always thought there was this loneliness and there's even a slight feeling of desperation in it," she told us.
A British songwriter and producer named Tony Hatch wrote this. During the '60s, he wrote most of Clark's material, including her follow-up hit "I Know a Place" (which also dealt with city life). Hatch was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2013.
Does Petula envision a specific downtown when she performs this song? Here's what she told us: "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."
The word "downtown" had a different meaning in America than it did in the UK. In America, "downtown" is the heart of the city where the action happens. The word wasn't used much in Britain at the time, but it generally meant the less affluent part of the town's central area. The song's writer, Tony Hatch, used the word in its American meaning, as he was inspired by a walk down Broadway during his first visit to New York. These days, the the American "heart of the city" use of the phrase is common in the UK.
Allan Sherman did a parody of this song called "Crazy Downtown," which went to #40 in the US in August 1965. Sherman's song is about how the parents are elated when their children go downtown, as they finally have some time to themselves at home.
In 1966, a 59-year-old grandmother billed as "Mrs. Miller" released her version, taking it to #82. Mrs. Miller earned a brief bout of stardom by covering popular songs quite poorly, including "Downtown."
Petula Clark came to record this song at a time when she had carved a successful career in French, Italian and German-speaking territories. She recalled to The Guardian that Tony Hatch suggested she should be recording again in English. "My head wasn't in it at the time," she admitted, "I was totally into French, Italian, German, whatever. I said: 'Well, you know, if I could find the right song' and he said he had an unfinished song he wanted to play me, and he played 'Downtown' on the piano. I said: 'Woah, I like that.' So I asked him to write a lyric up to the standard of the tune, and two weeks later we did it."
This won a Grammy in 1965 for Best Rock & Roll Recording, making Clark the first British singer to win a Grammy. In 2003, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Jerro - New Alexandria, PA
Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie sing this in the 1999 movie Girl, Interrupted
, and it plays during the ending credits. The song was also included on the soundtrack to the 1997 movie Twin Town
, starring Rhys Ifans.
Jerro - New Alexandria, PA
After the words, "And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you," there is the drum roll from Little Peggy March's #1 version of the French tune "Chariot." In 1962 Petula had a big continental hit with the same song, which was also known as "I Will Follow Him."
Artists to record this song include Patty Duke, Frank Sinatra, The B-52s and Yo La Tengo. One of the more popular renditions is by Dolly Parton, who released it on her 1984 album The Great Pretender. Parton is known as a country singer, but her "Downtown" is keyboard-driven and totally devoid of twang. It was a minor hit, going to #80 that year in the US.
This features prominently in the Seinfeld episode "The Bottle Deposit," when George, oblivious to his orders on a major work project and afraid to ask his boss for clarification, discovers he must go downtown. When his boss references the song, George and Jerry try to decipher the lyrics for clues.
Clark recorded a new version of this song for her 2013 album Lost in You, which was released when she was 80 years old.