Music icon Petula Clark talks her megahit “Downtown,” Broadway, films & seven decades of performing

Petula Clark began her career as an entertainer on BBC Radio during World War II and after finding success recording in French during the 1950s, she released the song “Downtown” which would become a global megahit. Songs like “Colour My World” and “My Love” continued her success and caused her to be dubbed the “First Lady of the British Invasion.” She went on to star in hit films including “Finian’s Rainbow,” for which she was Golden Globe nominated, and “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” Now, after selling more than 68 million records and more than seven decades of performing, she talks about her past successes, what she learned from Hollywood legends and how she’s continuing her love of music with her latest album.

Petula Clark by Pip

You had a lot of success before “Downtown” exploded onto the global charts. Now, that song is in the Grammy Hall of Fame, what was the biggest takeaway you had from that explosive moment of success?

The first time I sang “Downtown” live on US TV, I walked out on stage and everyone was standing and cheering even before I started singing. New Yorkers had taken this song (and me) into their hearts.

In 1968, while singing with Harry Belafonte on TV, you took hold of his arm. That was the first scene of physical contact between a black man and a white woman to ever appear on US television. Were you aware at the time you did it that it would be momentous in terms of televised equality in the States?

Harry and I had become very close during the two weeks of rehearsal and we both felt strongly about this anti-war song. It was a simple and normal gesture for me to touch his arm! But, of course, this was the Civil Rights moment and the media blew this totally emotional gesture into something else.

You brought your talents to the big screen with two of cinemas most lauded leading men. What did working with Fred Astaire in “Finian’s Rainbow” teach you?

Fred was unique, as everyone knows. Working alongside him was pure joy. We had some much fun. Fred, Francis Coppola and I laughed and sang through the whole shoot.

How about Peter O’Toole in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”? How did working with him help you grow as an artist?

It’s always an education working with a great artist. Peter was funny, kind, and I still miss him.

Some people may not know you’ve also been both on Broadway and on the West End. That’s no small feat. What did performing on stage in a theatrical production teach you about yourself?

The theatre is the best! I enjoy the immediate reaction of live performance, and working as part of a team on stage. [It taught me that] the show must go on.

Petula Clark by Pip

You played Maria von Trapp and Norma Desmond – two of the most iconic roles on the stage. How did those experiences surprise you?

Those two roles are totally different and yet they came quite easily to me. I guess that’s what acting is all about.

Decades into your career, you haven’t stopped performing and creating. What continues to drive you?

I feel that I am lucky to be doing something I love. The audience is what gives me energy every time.

You aren’t resting on your past successes and your new album sounds current and engaging. What was the inspiration for your most recent album “From Now On?”

My previous CD, “Lost In You,” was such a great experience so the idea of working in the same studio with John Williams at the helm and Paul at the controls was too good to resist. That little studio is magic.

What made recording this album different than your previous records?

Every album is different. I’ve recorded in all kinds of studios and with various producers and musicians. They can influence the way a song develops. This album is very organic.

After more than 70 years in the business, how do you take care of your voice so you can remain performing?

I really don’t do anything to keep my voice in shape except try not to get a cold.

Check out “From Now On” on Spotify today!

Interview by Ryan Brinson
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