Gary James' Interview With
Petula Clark

She is the most successful British female recording artist, having sold more than 70 million records. Her signature song, "Downtown", went to number one on the U.S. charts in January, 1965, selling more than 3 million copies in America. That record was the first of 15 consecutive Top 40 hits, including "Don't Sleep In The Subway", "I Couldn't Live Without Your Love", "A Sign Of The Times" and "I Know A Place". She won a Grammy Award for Best Rock And Roll Record for "Downtown" and Best Contemporary Female Vocal Performance for "I Know A Place". In 2003, her recorded version of "Downtown" was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. She appeared on such shows as Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Hullabaloo, Shindig!, The Kraft Music Hall and The Hollywood Palace. Her tours have taken her all over the world. And what's really amazing is before all of her success in the United States, she was already a star in Europe!

Petula Clark talked with us about her life.

Q - You have recorded a new CD titled "Lost In You". When is this CD going to be released?

A - It's coming out in the U.K. in about mid-February (2013). It was going to come out earlier, but Sony decided it would be a good idea to let the Christmas craziness be over before we put it out. Everybody's scratching around trying to find a Christmas hit. That's how it works in the U.K anyway. We prefer not to get mixed up with that, so we're releasing it a bit later, which gives us a bit more breathing space.

Q - So, you're still touring. But where? Primarily in the U.K.?

A - Well, I'm not really touring. I'm doing concerts here and there. The next one is in Amsterdam, then one in Belgium and then one in Paris. That's not 'til March actually. That's at the Olympic in Paris. I did one in Paris a few months back, but this will be at the Olympic.

Q - Through the years, other people, Tony Hatch, wrote material for you. Did you ever write any of your own material?

A - I have been writing from way back, yes. I wrote the music for "You're The One", which was just an extra on an album because Tony said to me "I'm a bit sort of written out here. Would you write something?" So I wrote the tune and he did a very quick lyric to it and we found ourselves with a song that is fine. I actually quite like it. Then The Vogues took it over here (the U.S.) and had a hit with it. But apart from that, in France I was writing with some really good people. And more recently, I've been doing more writing. The latest one on the new CD is written with Grant Sturell. He wrote the music and I wrote the lyric. It's called "I Won't Care". And I've sort of done a little bit of writing with John Williams as well. We're talking about our John Williams, not the John Williams. I write sort of when I feel like it. I don't look on myself as a songwriter. I'm a sometime songwriter.

Q - Besides The Vogues, has anyone ever covered one of the songs you made famous?

A - I don't think so, not as far as I know. Nothing notable. Usually I have to say the songs I write are very personal to me. As I'm not a professional songwriter, I just write when I feel like it, when I feel I need to write something. So, maybe that makes my songs too personal. I don't know. But that's fine. I only do them for me really, basically.

Q - According to Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia Of Rock 'n' Roll, you were semi-retired by 1977. What does that mean?

A - No. I don't know what that means at all. (laughs) I don't know where that comes from really. Well, because I wasn't working all that much in the States. I had a family too. I have another life apart from show biz you know. I just pulled back a little bit I suppose. But I don't look on that as retirement. Not even semi-retirement. I wasn't full out, if you like. That's true.

Q - I think back in 1965, was that the year you were on Ed Sullivan?

A - Yes.

Q - I don't think the public understood that you were already a star in Europe, England, France and Germany. I certainly had no idea.

A - Italy too. (laughs) My life has been sort of like in different stages. I was a child performer. I was under contract as an actress in England. Then I got married to a Frenchman, which wasn't part of any plan. I just went to live in France and almost by accident I became a big star in France and that led to being a star in all French speaking countries. That's huge, you know? French speaking Canada, which is where I was when "Downtown" became number one in the States, Switzerland, Belgium, Morocco, Algeria. All those different countries. Then I started recording in Italian and had hits there. Germany, as you mentioned. And really all over Europe.

Q - It seems it took the British Invasion to get you over to the States on The Ed Sullivan Show. Why weren't you on Ed Sullivan before The Beatles? You were a star!

A - I've no idea. Well, in any case as far as not being on until The Beatles, that was probably because I was very, very busy in Europe. The Sullivan Show kept calling me. "You gotta get over here!" (laughs) And I couldn't. I had contracts to work in Europe. I got there eventually, but of course it was very exciting because I hadn't done any promotion for "Downtown". It just happened on its own. Suddenly I arrived in New York and it was like crazy. (laughs) It was very exciting.

Q - Did you realize when you were recording that song that it would be so successful?

A - No. It doesn't work like that actually. I heard it and it wasn't even finished when I heard it. Tony (Hatch, the songwriter of "Downtown") played it for me. I was living in Paris. You know, I was recording a lot in French and other languages and Tony was a young record producer from London and I was doing all my recording in London, so I knew him. He was in the apartment in Paris and said "You should be recording again in English." I said "Well, I've got a great career as it is. I would have to find the right song." He said "Well, I just started writing a song. It's not finished yet. Would you like to hear it?" I said "Of course." When I first heard it, I loved it from the moment I heard it. It was a great melody and a hook and I loved its title. I said "If you can finish the lyric up to the standard of music, I would love to go in and do it." That's what happened. We had no idea when the record was done. We knew it was good, but we had no idea it was one of those world hits. Nobody knows. I really don't think anyone knows.

Q - What did that song do for your career? Did you headline every venue you played?

A - Well, I was already headlining every venue I played in Europe. But suddenly, America had opened up to me and I don't think they quite knew what to do with me because I wasn't a new, young... well, I wasn't new to America, but I wasn't in-experienced. So, the people in America just didn't know quite what to do with me. I did the Copa here in New York. Then they decided Vegas was the way to go. I did some concerts. I headlined in Vegas for about 12 years after that. So yes, I was headlining, quite definitely. "Downtown" was just the beginning, as you know. Tony went on to write lots of songs for me. It was just like falling off a log. It was just so easy, you know?

Q - Did Brian Epstein ever ask to manage you?

A - No. I knew him. I was working out of France in any case. My husband was managing me. Nobody dared to get near that. (laughs)

Q - When you were just a little girl your father was certain you could be a star. Why did he think that?

A - Well, that's a bit hard for me to answer. I have no idea. That's a long, long time ago. I was just a little girl singing 'round the house like most girls sing around the house. My father wasn't in show business. We weren't from a show business milieu at all. I just liked to sing. I was kind of shy and singing was a way of getting past that. I used to sing in school. We were living partly around London, which was very heavily bombarded during the war. Most of our school days were spent in air raid shelters. I would sing for the kids. I'm part Welsh, singing in the chapel in Wales. In fact, one of the new songs on the album is called "Reflections". I wrote the lyric for it. The music is by a guy named Johan Sebastian Bach. (laughs) It's about my childhood in Wales. It was sort of a very simple, peaceful place to be and partly in London and hellish for all the kids. We were living in a war zone really. That's when I started singing if you like and being noticed I suppose a bit. It really happened when I sang for a program on the BBC, which was destined to only be heard by the Forces serving overseas during the war. I sang for that and I became sort of like a overnight star in a way, and it just went on from there. It's a long story and it's way back. So, that was the first phase if you like. And then I went into the movies and became a star very quickly in England. And then I went to France and that came out of the blue. It wasn't expected at all. I found myself with the big career in Europe and then in America. So there's all those different phases.

Q - Do you play an instrument?

A - Yes. Sometimes I write music. I've been writing music recently for a musical. I'm writing the music for that. Someone else is writing the lyrics, but sometimes I will do both. Sometimes I'll just do the lyrics. (laughs) So, I just enjoy the whole act of writing. Almost as much as singing, actually.

Q - Do you now make your home in the United States?

A - No. My home is in Genève, Switzerland, but I spend a lot of time in London of course. The new album was made in London. Before that I was doing another album in France.

Q - So you're here in the States to take care of business?

A - Well, would you believe I've come to New York for a holiday, for a break. I've been in the studio between the French album and the English one for months, a good year. I just needed to get away from that. I have a daughter who lives here. I'm enjoying New York. I was going to go to Miami, but I decided not to. (laughs) So, I'm just having fun here.

Q - I think you should write the story of your life.

A - Well, don't get me on that one. I don't know how many times I've been asked to do that. I don't think I'll get around to it. It just takes too much time and when you asked me about my childhood, it's so misty for me I don't really know if I want to go back that far, but I would have to. Digging around in my past is not always what I want to do. I'm much more interested in now.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

Petula Clark
Photo from Gary James' Press Kit Collection