The "Downtown" vocal legend is embarking on a new U.S. tour—her first!—in support of a new album named for her personal mantra: Living for Today

By Jordan Runtagh
November 22, 2017 02:45 PM
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Petula Clark makes it her mission to live for today, but she’d prefer to make an exception on the afternoon we speak. The iconic singer—best known for her string of million-sellers in the 1960s—turned 85 this day, and an attempt to begin our phone call with a happy birthday greeting is met with a faux groan. “No, no no—don’t go there. I haven’t done those for a long, long time,” she says with a good-natured laugh.

Age is certainly irrelevant, but that goes double for Clark, who is currently in the midst of her very first solo tour of the United States, which ends on Dec. 26 at B.B. King’s in New York City’s Time Square. The finale is a fitting one—songwriter and frequent collaborator Tony Hatch dreamed up the melody for her signature song, 1965’s evergreen cosmopolitan anthem “Downtown,” while strolling just a few blocks up the road.

Clark teamed up with Hatch for her new album, which takes its name from her personal mantra: Living for Today. The title track is a fresh and surprisingly funky ode to being in the now, but the legend was gracious enough to open up about her remarkable past in music, performing, film, and civil rights.

The name of your new album is Living for Today—how did you settle on that for the title?

I had co-written this song with my musical director, “Living for Today,” and I liked it. I think I’ve been living for the day for a long, long time! This is really all we have, the moment right now. When I’m talking to you, I’m not doing anything else—I’m concentrating on talking to you. When I put the phone down I’ll be concentrating on something else. It’s a whole way of living that I’ve been doing for many years.

The song has such an optimistic message.

Yes, I think it’s optimistic song. There’s that line about, “Tomorrow never comes anyway.” Tomorrow turns into today! I wrote it as an optimistic song. And another song I wrote, “The Rainbow,” is also optimistic. [But] I’m perfectly aware of what’s going on in the world. The background of our lives is not very nice, so we have to keep on trucking. That’s what I do. I’m on tour at the moment and we’ll get on the bus tomorrow and on we go. I make the most of every moment of my life.

How does it feel to go on tour in the States? Isn’t this your first in quite a number of years?

Actually, I’d never done a tour in the US of my own shows. I did [theatrical productions] Sunset Boulevard and Blood Brothers, but I never have done a tour of my own shows. This is the first one. I used to do concerts here and there, like Chicago and San Francisco, but never an actual tour. This is it!

What’s the most exciting thing about it for you?

The most exciting thing is appearing in front of a live audience. That’s really what this is about. Everything else is just electronic this and that, you know. When you get on the stage, that’s it. That’s the moment of truth, and I like that. When I go on, I’m never quite sure what my set is going to be, I’m never quite sure what I’m going to say, and I’m never quite sure what the audience is going to be like. There’s an element of risk to it, which I really like.

Your new album has several covers, including the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” What do you look for when you’re covering a song? What speaks to you and makes you decide you need to sing it?

Most of this album is produced by a man, would you believe, with the name of John Williams. He’s not your John Williams! He’s an English John Williams and he suggested “Blackbird.” I’m asked to do Beatles songs all the time and I do sing them—I love them. I always hesitated doing this one because it’s a rather fragile little song. So we played Paul’s version [first], which is absolutely gorgeous. Then I did [it], and it’s absolutely lovely, I absolutely adored singing it. It’s quite a complex little song, actually.

And with “Fever,” I had grown up listening to Peggy Lee. She was my idol and I knew every breath she took on Black Coffee—you know her wonderful album? I knew every breath, everything. One day many, many years later I actually met her, which I saw as a moment of truth. And she was great and she seemed delightful and everything. We sang together, she guested on my show, and we became friends. I said to John, “I can’t sing ‘Fever,’ that’s her song.” And he said, “Yes you can!” He knows me well (we made two other CDs together) and understands my self doubt and reservations when it comes to covers. He’s a kind man, and a fine producer.

I had to go somewhere for a couple of hours and I came back and they had done the [backing] track. I went to my microphone and before I’d started singing I had a little word with Peggy. I said, “OK, girl, I hope you don’t mind me doing this, but you have to know that every time I’m singing this I’m going to see you and you’re going to be as beautiful and sassy as ever.” So that’s the truth.

You have an extensive career as an actress in addition to your singing. Do you feel as though the best singers have a touch of the actress in them to put across the emotion of the song? What is the overlap between acting and singing?

I think the two are very close, I really do. I think a great actor has a kind of music inside him. It’s very personal. In my own point of view—I don’t know what other singers go through—certainly I have images going through my head when I sing, I don’t just get up there and belt it out. Every song is personal to me for some reason or another. Even the very old ones, there’s a kind of image going through my head. I think that’s important, what’s going on inside you is what’s coming out.

You began singing in public at a very young age, in front of people like Winston Churchill. Was that nerve-wracking for you?

Oh, not at all! [laughs] That’s the thing about childhood. I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous! I think you’re talking about the concert we did at the Albert Hall. I was backstage reading a comic and somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Petula, you’re on.” So I dog-eared the page and went out onto the Albert Hall, my dear, which is quite fearsome. I sang three or four songs, tore the place down, and came back to my comic. It was really as if nothing had happened. It’s not like that anymore! Children are different. I just loved singing. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t see anything particularly important about it.

You’ll be playing in New York City next month, not far from where Tony Hatch was standing when he first dreamed up the melody for “Downtown.”

I know! Isn’t that funny? I’m playing B.B. King’s, would you believe. This is quite fun, it’s like a rock and roll tour.

Do you still remember the first time you heard “Downtown”?

Of course I do. I was living in Paris. I’m married to a Frenchman, so I moved there to be with him. Quite out of the blue, I was not expecting to fall in love with a Frenchman and move to Paris, but there I was. My life is full of stuff like that. But I was doing all my recording in London—I had huge hits in France, Germany and Italy. Tony Hatch was a junior producer at Pye Records and I got to know him and like him. He came over to Paris to talk about the next French session. It was about four o’clock, time for tea. He said to me, “You should be recording again in English soon.” I had this ridiculous career going on and I had two small children, too. I said, “If I could find the next song, yes.” And he said, “Well, I started writing the song. Would you like to hear it?” And I said, “Of course I would.” “OK, it’s called ‘Downtown.’” So I went into the kitchen to make tea when I heard “Downtown” for the first time. [laughs] I came back into the room and said, “That’s one wonderful tune. If you can write a lyric to the standard of the tune I’ll do it.” And two weeks later we did. We recorded it in London. I think we did three takes—live, of course, huge orchestra—and I think we used the second one. And that was it. We knew we made a really good record, but we had no idea we’d made a monster record. I don’t think anyone ever really knows. But Tony was just writing brilliantly. His sound and my sound, the whole thing blended together.

One of my favorite hits of yours is “This Is My Song,” which I understand was written by Charlie Chaplin for his movie, [1967’s A Countess from Hong Kong]. What was it like to cross paths with him?

The publisher sent me the song, and it was very complex getting to hear it because they sent me this huge tape. I had to go to a radio station in Reno, would you believe, to listen to it! I didn’t think too much of it at first. The arrangement had been done in Paris and I didn’t much like it. Warner Brothers sent an arranger over and we recorded it in LA and it became a huge, huge hit. It was then that Charlie [got in touch]. He was thrilled at the success of it, because the movie was not a huge success. He lived not very far from us in Geneva and he invited me over for tea. So I go along and I ring the doorbell and there’s Charlie Chaplin standing at the door with a big smile on his face. We spent the most amazing day together, very joyful, dancing around his living room, playing piano. He had so many wonderful stories. He was totally overjoyed with the success of the song.

In addition to your musical legacy, you made television history when you appeared with Harry Belafonte on your 1968 NBC special [which featured the first image of physical contact between a black man and a white woman broadcast on an American network]. What are your memories of the feud with the sponsors who wanted the scene cut, and how did you ensure it was included?

NBC had asked me who I wanted as my guest, and I said Harry Belafonte. I was so thrilled when he accepted. We worked together for about three weeks rehearsing the show. We’d become friends, we were quite close. He felt quite strongly about a lot of things. When we came to tape it, that’s when all the trouble started. It didn’t feel like an amazing stand to me. I’m English, and I came here without any of that kind of baggage. And then I landed right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement and I just wasn’t going to take it. I wasn’t going to stand for that. So I stomped my little foot and there it was.

I have one more question, which is both an easy one and a hard one. Is there any one song in particular that gives you the most joy to sing?

That is a hard one and I’m not trying to back out of it, but the truth is it’s always the new one. The new song is like a new lover. You’re still finding out about it. It’s all fresh, so the new songs are the ones I enjoy singing the most because I’m still finding out about them. It doesn’t mean I don’t like the old songs—I love “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” and “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love.” They’re magnificent songs, but right now it’s the new ones!