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Petula Clark, 85

Petula 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.