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Petula Clark, 85

Petula ClarkPetula Clark turns 85 today. When I saw that information in the Birthdays column of the Guardian this morning, I thought immediately of an album called …in other words, recorded in 1962. That record, not her No 1 hit with “Downtown” two years later, is the reason I think fondly of her.

It’s Petula Clark’s jazz album, recorded over three nights at Olympic Studios in Barnes. She’s accompanied by the Kenny Powell on piano, Brian Brocklehurst  on double bass and Art Morgan on drums, plus Ray Davies on trumpet and Bill Le Sage on vibes. The album was probably intended to have a late-night vibe, although the freshness of Clark’s tone and the vivacity of her delivery remove it from that stereotype.

Her story is an extraordinary one, although probably taken for granted today. She began her performing career in 1942, a month before her tenth birthday, entertaining the overseas troops via BBC radio broadcasts. She sang for King George VI and Winston Churchill, and soon became a juvenile star of wartime films. In peacetime she became a recording artist, under the aegis of Joe “Mr Piano” Henderson, her mentor.

So far, so middle-of-the-road. But then, in late 1962, I heard …in other words; a neighbour’s son, a few years older than me, occasionally let me listen to his jazz albums, and this was a new acquisition, nestling among Dizzy Gillespie’s Greatest Trumpet of Them All, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at the Olympia in Paris (still my favourite live album of all time), and the first volume of Jacques Loussier’s Play Bach series.

Petula Clark was never going to be Billie Holiday or Betty Carter. But when you listen to her sing “Just You, Just Me” or “When Lights Are Low”, you hear someone who swings easily and naturally, who phrases beautifully, who controls her vibrato carefully, and who makes up in directness what she lacks in emotional profundity. I suppose there’s not much more depth here than there was in, say, Julie London, but she delivers ballads like Irving Gordon’s “Be Anything” or “There’s Nothing More to Say” (written by Henderson to mark the end of their relationship) with poise and an affecting simplicity.

Her accompanists are terrific. Powell gets in some cryptic bebop licks fore and aft of “Just You”, Brocklehurst swings hard, Morgan shows his hard-bop chops on Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s “Gotta Have Me With You When You Go”, the great Le Sage excels on “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, and Davies — who later became the leader of the Button-Down Brass, and is the father of the producer Rhett Davies — pops up with solos of an excellence that would do credit to a Ruby Braff or a Joe Newman.

There’s humour, too, in perky versions of “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” and “Mademoiselle de Paris”, and most of all in Robert Maxwell’s “George”, a ballad-tempo fragment that might have fallen from the worktable of Dorothy Parker, its entire lyric consisting of these lines: “You and I and George / Were walking through the park one day / And you held my hand / As if to say, ‘I love you.’ / Soon we reached a brook / And George fell in and drowned himself / And floated out to sea / Leaving you alone with me.” It has to be sung straight, without comic inflection, and Clark just about brings it off.

But the track that’s stayed with me most vividly over five and a half decades is Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Can Get Along Without You Very Well”. For this forerunner of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love”, Bob Dylan’s “Most of the Time” and Donald Fagen’s “I’m Not the Same Without You”, Clark camouflages heartbreak with exactly the right air of Hepburn-like insouciance.

She was 29 when she recorded the 15 tracks that made up …in other words. Now she’s 85, and still singing. Many happy returns, Miss Clark.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Happy Birthday Pet”….

    November 15, 2017
  2. Lovely tribute, Richard . I must seek that 1962 album out

    Rgds

    Tim Rolls

    November 15, 2017
  3. Brian #

    I can only echo the comments of Tim Rolls. Thanks for another top class piece of writing.

    November 15, 2017
  4. crocodilechuck #

    Yes, lovely post, Richard.

    btw, its ‘Atchison’

    November 15, 2017
    • Atterbury Laurie #

      Btw its “it’s”

      November 16, 2017
  5. Please check out Petula singing Cut Copy Me, an almost Portishead styles song, and a slow, torch ballad new version of Downtown on her “Lost In You” album of just a few years ago. Brilliant, moving stuff much, much deserving of a wider audience.

    November 15, 2017
  6. When I saw the title of this post I immediately assumed it was an obituary. Glad to hear that’s not the case.

    November 15, 2017
  7. Funny you should mention I’m not In Love, because she did a great disco interpretation of the 10cc tune on her 1978 album Destiny (Scherrie Payne, Freda’s sister, also did a great uptempo version): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QwgJjk0Px0

    November 15, 2017
  8. Not to forget Pet’s incendiary version of Cole Porter’s ‘Too Darn Hot’. Wow!

    November 15, 2017
  9. Michael Rüsenberg #

    Dear Richard,

    this post gives me the chance to express my deep respect for your blog. The spectrum is unbelievably wide and varied. I´d love to have invented such a venture, but there is no second chance. And I am quite happy with the one I have. But concentrating on writing what one likes, is something worthwhile. You can get old with that as long as you can type…. I´ll have Gunter Gebauer on my series in Bonn tomorrow night; this time with heavy philosophic stuff, “from emotion to language”. Best from Cologne

    Michael

    November 15, 2017
  10. deepinder cheema #

    Which reminds me the composer Thijs Van Leer when he was in a pop band called Focus who were very popular in the UK and US nicked a musical passage from ‘Don’t sleep in the Subway’ for Focus III on the bands 3rd album. It bugged me for years until It came to me whilst driving through Wendlebury towards Weston On the Green. The Polydor cassette came from Witney. It’s funny how music fixes when you hear it, must be something hard wired. Ironically I’m Birmingham.

    November 15, 2017
    • First time I´ve heard of Focus referred to as a ´pop´band ! Saw them recently here in Valparaiso Chile as part of their supposed farewell tour in South America.

      November 16, 2017
  11. As well as the above try and give a listen to her version of “Needles and Pins” sung in French. It’s featured in the excellent film “Two days,One night”.

    November 15, 2017
  12. Thanks for this timely post Richard. Petula Clarke was one of the pioneers that that laid the path from 1940s and 50s entertainment to 1960s pop culture. I think she’s often overlooked because of that. My favourite Clarke moment is not musical but her appearance as a noisily precocious child in the 1945 Powell and Pressburger film “I Know Where I’m Going” with Wendy Hillier and the quite wonderful Roger Livesey. She remains a bridge to a bygone culture.

    November 16, 2017
  13. Arrrgh! And of course that should be Clark, not Clarke.

    November 16, 2017
  14. saverio pechini #

    Glenn Gould ‘ s favourite pop singer .

    November 16, 2017
  15. Tim Adkin #

    Honourable mention in dispatches also for Pet’s “Memphis” album – not as good as Dusty’s but not far off.

    November 16, 2017
  16. Nice post Richard. I remember her from when I was 15 too. Always thought she was a cut above the Marion Ryan types we saw on TV on those days.

    November 16, 2017
  17. Guy Thomas #

    Sending Petula all the best. An appreciative doff of the cap to Richard WilliamsGuy

    November 16, 2017

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