Music

Petula Clark: "I’d be lynched if I didn’t sing Downtown"

Veteran music star Petula Clark reflects on the Harry Belafonte controversy and how Downtown changed her life forever

At 16 I was already something of a star and quite a lonely teenager. Rank [The Rank Organisation, Britain’s most powerful film studio at the time] was quite strict and so was my father – he didn’t want me to be spoiled and he didn’t want me to ‘get into trouble’.

I wasn’t allowed to go out with boys or wear certain clothes, all the normal things teenagers want and need to do. I didn’t have a lot of friends; my only friend was my stand-in. My schooling was pretty much nothing. The kids at school were probably half jealous but they also thought it was funny because I was so terrible at school because I was hardly ever there. There was no romance in my life. Diana Dors was around the same time as me and she was this great sex goddess, which I wasn’t. She was getting all the boys. I was just the brave little soldier, getting on with my job.

Petula Clark in Finian’s Rainbow with Fred Astaire. Photo: Moviestore / REX / Shutterstock

At 16 I was actually getting too old for my career with Rank. They liked me better as a child, they weren’t so keen on adolescence. My boobs were bound up so I looked younger. The public wanted me to stay young, as if seeing their little Pet get older was like watching their own youth disappearing. During the war, for many people, it was a very special time in their lives and I was part of that. Seeing me grow up was saying goodbye to that special time. But it was difficult for me, it meant I had no way of expressing my emotions.

When I sang something with more meaning or sophistication, like Peggy Lee’s When the World was Young – my goodness, there was a real mini-revolution. The BBC got letters saying why is she doing that? It was a sign of me growing up and they didn’t like it.

If you want to be a great mum and a great wife, that’s pretty much a full-time job

If I met the 16-year-old me now I’d think she was very shy, not very sure of herself. I’m still like that. Thank God I had a great sense of humour, I laughed a lot. The younger me would find the way my life has gone since then very hard to believe. If I told her one day she’ll meet her idol Ingrid Bergman and sing with Peggy Lee, she’d be beside herself.

The fuss around Harry Belafonte and me [their TV duet on Clark’s NBC show in 1968 was the first time a black man and a white woman touched on American TV] seemed a storm in a tea cup to me. Growing up, I wasn’t aware of discrimination at all. I’d done a BBC radio series with Edric Connor, a wonderful black singer. My musical director in America was black. When they asked me who I wanted on the show I immediately said Harry Belafonte because I thought he was great. I was delighted he accepted and we got on very well. It was just the natural thing to do, to hold his arm at that moment in the song. The sponsor made this ridiculous fuss and wanted to cut the scene. But there was no way I was going to be pushed around by him. I just thought, no, the song is better this way. And that was that. I saw Harry not long ago in Dublin. He remembers it all very well. I think it was very important for him. There’s still great affection between us. That experience kind of bonded us I suppose.

Downtown [a global smash hit in 1965] was a hugely important moment in my career. I was already a huge star in France and French-speaking parts of the world – Algeria, Tunisia, Belgium, Canada. But when Downtown happened I didn’t even have to do promotion in the States; it just went off on the radio stations. When I went to perform there they were standing before I even started. You can’t understate its impact. And that was just the start. After that I had hit after hit after hit. I’ve sung it many, many times and recorded it in French, German, Italian. I’m touring this month and I’d be lynched if I didn’t sing Downtown.

The superwoman thing of having it all, it’s not really true. If you want to be a great mum and a great wife, that’s pretty much a full-time job. There’s no doubt it was difficult to keep up this career on both sides of the Atlantic as a mother of small children. I would turn things down in America because I didn’t want to leave them. We did try schooling in LA but none of us liked that very much. So they went to school in Geneva, which meant I often compromised both ways, between family and career.

My children are adults now and we talk about it. They know I have this guilt about it all. It seemed to me I was saying goodbye to them rather too often and it was always heart-wrenching. Then when I got to the States I was plunged into this incredible world full of fascinating people, and when they invited me to these exciting things I had to say no, I have to go home. So I was constantly pulled both ways.

My biggest piece of advice to the younger me is something I don’t think she could do. It would be to find your own voice. Something only you have. It’s not easy. Some people find it right away. It seems to me that Amy Winehouse found hers right away. But it took me a long time. I had to go through a lot of experiences. I don’t think I found it until I was into my 30s and working in America. I was learning along the way but my real voice didn’t come out until then. I think there’s something in my voice that I can’t describe – I’m not even sure what it is. Lots of singers sing better than me but what makes you an individual, makes you stand out, is almost impossible to define.

If I could go back to any time in my life it would be making Finian’s Rainbow [in 1968] with Francis Ford Coppola, working with Fred Astaire. The whole experience of making a Hollywood movie with those people at that time was probably the happiest in my career. Possibly my life – I had the whole family with me. It was really a golden time. Fred Astaire was funny and kind, a perfectionist. I loved him. We loved each other and Coppola; the three of us together were great.

I woke up early every morning, drove across the hills down to Warner Brothers’ studio in a convertible Mercedes, radio blasting out The Beach Boys or The Byrds, the sun shining. The only downside was when they found out how fast I was driving and banned me from doing it due to insurance issues. They sent a limo to pick me up every day from then on – that was a drag.

From Now On is out now. Petula Clark is touring the UK. petulafromnowon.com

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