Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at 11:39 a.m.
Petula Clark, born November 15, 1932, is best-known for a series of effusive, infectious songs that helped define the image of the "Swinging London" during its glory years in the mid-1960s. Indeed, for those whose memory is still flush with those halcyon days when all things English dominated pop culture, Petula Clark was a genuinely formidable presence, a feminine presence that complemented the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and all those other acts that dutifully participated in the initial wave of the British Invasion.
Those hits -- no fewer than 15 in all, including "Downtown," "I Know a Place," "My Love," "I Couldn't Live Without Your Love," "A Sign of the Times," "Don't Sleep in the Subway" -- were every bit as energetic and engaging as anything touted by her countrymen. With her vibrant vocals, radio-ready material, engaging English charm, and girl-next-door good looks, she made an early, indelible impression. Her singles sold in the millions, her performances garnered a pair of Grammys, and her recording of "Downtown" gained her entry into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Sadly, once the '60s ended, Clark's recordings yielded diminished returns, her hits mainly confined to that earlier era. Fortunately, for those who were once so enamored, there are still reasons to maintain ongoing appreciation. Here, then, is Clark's after-story and reasons why her legacy lingers on...
• Clark's talents didn't start or end with her '60s big hits. She was a staple on the BBC as a teenager during World War II, although she began recording in earnest in the late '50s and even made a name for herself as an actress early on. Her later big-screen appearances included roles in such classics as Finian's Rainbow opposite Fred Astaire (which found her garnering a Golden Globe nomination and the distinction of being Astaire's final onscreen dance partner), and Goodbye, Mr. Chips with Peter O'Toole.
• In truth, the songs didn't stop in the '60s, even though her later efforts were never as formidable. Still, that didn't prevent her from mining her earlier arsenal. She remade "Downtown" in 1988, renaming it "Downtown '88," and it returned her to the U.K. top ten and a belated appearance on the venerable Top of the Pops. Her last attempt at a hit was "Oxygen" in 1992, a song produced by singer Nik Kershaw.
• Clark continued to tour, and in 2000, she starred in a one-woman show, a self-penned musical about her life and career. In November 2006, she was the subject of a BBC documentary titled Petula Clark: Blue Lady, and last year she took center stage in a DVD titled My Music: The British Beat, part of a video series detailing the British Invasion. She also starred with a number of other artists in a tribute to the late Peggy Lee at the Hollywood Bowl.
• It's said that Clark gave the Carpenters their first big break when she brought them to the attention of Herb Alpert, one of the principles behind A&M Records. The duo were performing at a premier party for Goodbye, Mr. Chips when they caught Clark's attention. The rest, of course, is history.
• If it weren't for her knack for knowing a good tune, "Downtown" might have gone to the Drifters, for whom it was originally intended. When songwriter Tony Hatch played her the melody, she reportedly remarked that if he could write a lyric for it that was equally compelling, she would record it and make it her own. And, of course, she did.
• Clark's hits turned her into a staple on American television, but she inadvertently made history when she hosted her own TV special on NBC in 1968. Her featured guest on the show was African-American singer Harry Belafonte, and during one of their duets, she instinctively grabbed his arm in a gesture of appreciation. Chrysler, the show's sponsor, had a major meltdown, fearing that this otherwise innocuous gesture would alienate Southern viewers. When they insisted that the two performers substitute an alternate take, Clark steadfastly refused and destroyed all the other footage that didn't include the "offending" gesture. The program subsequently aired on April 8, 1968, four days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and yet it reaped extraordinary ratings and critical acclaim. She was later offered a weekly series, but she declined, citing the fact she had no desire to live in L.A.
• A natural performer, Clark also ventured into musical theater. In 1981, she starred in The Sound of Music on London's West End. Maria Von Trapp, on whom the musical was based, called her "the best Maria ever." She later starred on Broadway in the acclaimed play Blood Brothers. And what kind of Brit would she be if she didn't do at least one Andrew Lloyd Weber extravaganza? Naturally, then, she took on the role of Nora Desmond in a production of Sunset Boulevard on London's West End and later revived the role in the touring company as well.
• If you missed her onstage, you might have caught her in a commercial. Over the years, she's plugged Plymouth, Coca-Cola, Burlington Industries, and Chrysler Sunbeam.
• Clark's also reaped her share of big-time kudos. In 1998, she took home that ultimate of English honors when was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth. In 2007, she was awarded the 2007 Film & TV Music Award for Best Use of a Song in a Television Program when "Downtown" was resurrected in a sequence on "Lost." Loved the show, but no, I don't recall that episode either.
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