Britain’s child performer little Petula Sally Olwen Clark toured the UK (sometimes with fellow child performer Julie Andrews) becoming known as “Britain’s Shirley Temple.” She sang acted on radio, stage and recordings. Even though Petula was a superstar in the US by the 1950s, I and other Americans first came to know her after hearing “Downtown” on our am radios!
“Neither Clark, who was performing in French Canada when the song first received major airplay, nor Hatch realized the impact the song would have on their respective careers. Released in four different languages in late 1964, “Downtown” was a success in the UK, France (in both English and French versions), Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Italy, and even Rhodesia, Japan, and India. During a visit to the Vogue offices in Paris, Warner Brothers executive Joe Smith heard it and acquired the rights for the United States. “Downtown” went to number 1 on the US charts in January 1965 and sold three million copies in America. It was the first of fifteen consecutive Top 40 hits Clark scored in the US, including “I Know a Place”, “My Love”, “A Sign of the Times”, “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love”, “This Is My Song” (from the Charles Chaplin film A Countess from Hong Kong), and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway.” The American recording industry honored her with Grammy Awards for “Best Rock & Roll Record” for “Downtown” in 1964 and for “Best Contemporary Female Vocal Performance” for “I Know a Place” in 1965. In 2003, her recording of “Downtown” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In 1964, Clark wrote the musical score for the French crime caper A Couteaux Tirés (At Daggers Drawn) and played a cameo as herself in the movie. Although it was only a mild success, it added a new dimension — that of film composer — to Clark’s career.
Clark’s recording successes led to frequent appearances on US variety programs hosted by Ed Sullivan and Dean Martin, guest shots on Hullabaloo, Shindig!, The Kraft Music Hall, and The Hollywood Palace, and inclusion in musical specials such as The Best on Record and Rodgers and Hart Today.
In 1968, NBC invited her to host her own special in the USA, and in doing so she inadvertently made television history. While singing a duet of “On the Path of Glory”, an anti-war song she had composed, with guest Harry Belafonte, Clark touched his arm, to the dismay of a representative from Chrysler, the show’s sponsor, who feared the brief moment would offend Southern viewers at a time when racial conflict was still a major issue in the US. When he insisted they substitute a different take, with Clark and Belafonte standing well away from each other, she and husband Wolff, producer of the show, refused, destroyed all other takes of the song, and delivered the finished program to NBC with the touch intact. It aired on April 8, 1968 to high ratings and critical acclaim, and marked the first time a man and woman of different races exchanged physical contact on American television. (To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the telecast, Clark and Belafonte reunited at the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan to discuss the broadcast and its impact.)*
Clark subsequently hosted two more specials, another for NBC and one for ABC, which served as a pilot for a projected weekly series. She declined the offer in order to appease her children, who disliked living in Los Angeles.” (SOURCE: The “Downtown” Era)
The specific details of Ms. Clark’s career both before and after “Downtown” can be found on her well tended Official Web Site – PetulaClark.net. This link will lead you to the Career — Biography.
As for the wonderful song “Downtown”, written by English composer, songwriter, pianist, music arranger, and producer Tony Hatch (pictured below with Petula and their gold records for “Downtown”), here is a summary of how the song and their musical collaboration came to be from Mr. Hatch’s WIKI entry
“After “Valentino”, the first Tony Hatch composition to be recorded by Petula Clark, he became her regular producer. They collaborated on a series of French language recordings for Vogue Records. (Clark, whose husband was French and who spoke the language fluently, had a successful career throughout Europe.) Hatch became one of her regular songwriting partners, in addition to supplying English words for songs she had composed with French lyricists.
In 1964, Hatch made his first trip to New York City in search of new material for Clark. The visit inspired him to write “Downtown”, originally with The Drifters in mind. When Clark heard the still unfinished tune, she told him that if he could write lyrics to match the quality of the music, she would record the song as her next single. Its release transformed her into a huge international star, topping charts globally early in 1965, and introducing her to the US market. The year also yielded the remarkable series of hits “I Know A Place”, “You’d Better Come Home”, and “Round Every Corner” for Clark. She and Hatch wrote “You’re The One”, which became a major hit for The Vogues. Tony Hatch and Petula Clark became established as the British equivalent of Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick.”
Please enjoy this vintage clip of Ms. Clarke performing “Downtown” live in 1965 when it reached #1 on the U.S. Billboard pop charts.
And I wanted to share this 2007 clip to let you know that Ms. Clark is still able to entertain us in her seventh decade of life by performing “Downtown” over 40 years later from the time she first introduced us to it and I sang it (for my Barbie doll) on play dates. Gotta love, love, love PBS. Be sure to contribute.
Keep the oldies alive and in your heart.
* The Archive of American Television has an article Wednesday, April 09, 2008
“40th Anniversary of Petula Clark-Harry Belafonte “Touch” Controversy” that is interesting reading. I remember this incident well from my childhood. It is all the grownups around me would talk about for quite some time. My how times have changed — haven’t they?!
Post Update 02/28/11
Downtown,” performed by Petula Clark on Warner Brothers Records, won the 1964 Grammy for Best Rock and Roll Recording.