Great Songs: 'Downtown'-- First of 15 Hits in a Row by Petula Clark
If you were around in the mid-1960s, Petula Clark (b.1932) was an extremely popular figure who had 15 songs in a row that went to the top of the charts. “Downtown,” her first international hit, was produced and written by Tony Hatch (b.1938).
In 1963, Hatch was named Clark's producer: Hatch produced five English-language singles for Clark, but none reached the charts.
In the fall of 1964, Hatch had made his first visit to New York City. "I was staying at a hotel on Central Park and I wandered down to Broadway and to Times Square and, naively, I thought I was downtown. Forgetting that in New York especially downtown is a lot further downtown getting on towards Battery Park. I loved the whole atmosphere there and the [music] came to me very, very quickly.” Hatch was hoping to pitch the song to the popular group, the Drifters.
Soon, Hatch presented Clark with possible material for a recording session. None of the songs were written by him. Hatch said, "She was not very enthusiastic about [the material] and asked me if I was working on anything new myself. Reluctantly (because the [lyric] was still so unfinished) I played her the tune of my New York inspiration and slipped in the word 'Downtown' in the appropriate places. 'That's the one I want to record,' she said. 'It just needs some great lyrics.’”
Thirty minutes before the scheduled recording session, Hatch was still refining the song's lyrics in the studio's washroom.
“Downtown “ was released in the U.S. in December 1964. It first appeared near the bottom of the national charts. Despite the Christmas season traditionally being the worst time to break a new song. "Downtown" shot up to the Top Ten in five weeks and the next week was #1. It retained that position another week before being overtaken by the the Righteous Brothers' “You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'.” Clark became the first English female artist to have a U.S. #1 hit during the rock and roll era.
The song transformed her into a huge international star. What followed was a remarkable series of hits: "I Know A Place," "You'd Better Come Home," and "Round Every Corner." She and Hatch wrote "You're The One," which became a major hit for The Vogues. Tony Hatch and Petula Clark became known as the British equivalent of Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick.
The song "Call Me," written for and recorded by Petula Clark in 1965, became a hit for Chris Montez later in the year.
Petula Clark's run of hits continued with "My Love," "A Sign Of The Times," "Who Am I?," "Color My World," and "I Couldn't Live Without Your Love." Hatch also wrote Clark's 1967 hits "Don't Sleep In the Subway" and "The Other Man's Grass Is Always Greener."
Clark, who had been playing to her French speaking fans in small venues in Quebec when "Downtown" hit the U.S. charts, swiftly cut non-English versions of the song for the markets in France, Italy and Germany. The absence in each region's language of a two-syllable equivalent of "downtown" necessitated a lyric recasting for the versions aimed at France ("Dans le temps"), Italy ("Ciao Ciao") and Spain ("Chao Chao")
Following 9/11, New York City adopted Clark's version of "Downtown" as the theme song for a series of commercials encouraging tourism to Lower Manhattan. The song has been used by other metropolitan areas — including Chicago, Indianapolis, and Singapore — for promotional purposes as well.
Petula Clark’s professional career began as an entertainer on BBC Radio during World War II. She was a popular figure whose songs bolstered the spirits of the troops. During the 1950s she started recording in French and having international success in both French and English.
Born to English father Leslie Norman Clark and Welsh mother Doris (née Phillips), both nurses at Long Grove Hospital, in Epsom, Surrey, England, she was christened Petula Sally Olwen Clark. As a child, she sang in the chapel choir and showed a talent for mimicry, frequently impersonating stars Vera Lynn, Carmen Miranda, and Sophie Tucker for the amusement of family and friends.
In October 1942, Clark made her radio debut while attending a BBC broadcast with her father, hoping to send a message to an uncle stationed overseas. During an air raid, the producer requested that someone perform to settle the jittery audience, and she volunteered a rendering of "Mighty Lak a Rose" to an enthusiastic response in the theater. She then repeated her performance for the broadcast audience, launching a series of some 500 appearances in programs designed to entertain the troops. In addition to radio work, Clark frequently toured the United Kingdom with fellow child performer Julie Andrews. Clark became known as "Britain's Shirley Temple," and she was considered a mascot by the British Army, whose troops plastered her photos on their tanks for good luck as they advanced into battle.
In 1946, Clark launched her television career on a BBC variety show.
Clark's recording successes led to frequent appearances on American 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-TV invited Clark to host her own special in the U.S., and in doing so she inadvertently made television history. While singing a duet of "On the Path of Glory," an anti-war song that she had composed, with guest Harry Belafonte, she took hold of his arm, to the dismay of a representative from the Chrysler Corporation, the show's sponsor, who feared that the moment would incur the racist bigotry of Southern viewers.
When he insisted that they substitute a different take, with Clark and Belafonte standing well away from one another, Clark and her husband, the executive producer of the show, refused, destroyed all other takes of the song and delivered the finished program to NBC with the moment preserved. The program aired in April 1968, with high ratings and critical acclaim. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the original telecast, Clark and her husband appeared at the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan in September 2008, to discuss the show and its impact, following a broadcast of the program.
Clark later was the hostess of two more specials, another one for NBC and one for ABC - one which served as a pilot for a projected weekly series. Clark declined the offer in order to please her children, who disliked living in Los Angeles.
Clark revived her movie career in the late 1960s, starring in two musical films. In "Finian's Rainbow" (1968), she starred opposite Fred Astaire and she was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for her performance. With her role, she again made history by becoming Astaire's final on-screen dance partner. The following year she was cast with Peter O'Toole in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips."
In the mid-1970s, Clark scaled back her career in order to devote more time to her family.
In 1981, at the urging of her children, she returned to legitimate theater, starring as Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music in London's West End. Opening to rave reviews and what was then the largest advance sale in British theatre history, Clark — proclaimed by Maria Von Trapp herself as "the best Maria ever" — extended her initial six-month run to thirteen to accommodate the huge demand for tickets. In 1983, she took on the title role in George Bernard Shaw's Candida. Later stage work includes Someone Like You in 1989 and 1990, for which she composed the score; Blood Brothers, in which she made her Broadway debut in 1993 at the Music Box Theatre, followed by the American tour; and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, appearing in both the West End and American touring productions from 1995 through 2000. With more than 2,500 performances, she has played the role more often than any other actress.
She continues to tour the world and recently appeared in concert in New York City.
Read an interview with Petula Clark at retrosellers.com
Visit your local library to obtain these resources:
This Is My Song: Petula Clark
by Andrea Korn
Encyclopedia of Women in Today's World
Zeiss, Mary S.; et al, (2011)
New Women in Rock
Liz Thomson, Giovanni Dadomo; et al, (1982).
by David Halberstam, (1996).
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll
by Holly George-Warren, Patricia Romanowski, Jon Pareles, (2001).
Rock and Roll: A Social History
by Paul Friedlander, (1996).
The Sound of the City: the Rise of Rock and Roll
by Charlie Gillett, (1970).
Trouble girls:the Rolling Stone book of women in rock
Barbara Odaiir, (1997)
Grrrls:viva rock divas
Amy Raphael, (1996)
Never mind the bollocks:women rewrite rock
Amy Raphael, (1995)
Photo: Petula Clark, a British Invasion pop singer-big hit 1966 "Downtown" and many others. Here she is performing in the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut in 2008. Michael Borkson.