All these years later "Downtown" is A SUMMER SONG that still evokes a certain era, and the star who put it on the charts is still more than ready to sing it. Michelle Miller brings us up-to-date (This story was originally broadcast on December 24, 2017):
If any pop song instantly brings back the '60s, it's "Downtown." It took Petula Clark to the top of the charts.
And half a century later, she was "downtown" again, singing to a sold-out crowd in Annapolis, Maryland.
"You're still an amazing performer," said Miller. "And you're (whispers) 85 years old."
"Shhhh!," Clark replied."
Yes, at the age of 85 Clark is still performing all her hits, still going out on tour, and still releasing new albums.
But what gets her really excited? When she gets to have her own tour bus."It's actually very comfortable," she said. "You know, I've never done anything like this before, so it's kind of fun for me. I'm a bit of a gypsy anyway, so I like this."
She showed Miller her bunk. "I tell you what, I sleep very well there."
"And everyone else sleeps up here with you?"
"Yes, you could put it that way."
To hear Petula Clark perform the title track of her new album, "Living for Today," click on the video player below.
Clark has been in the public eye since she was nine years old, growing up outside London. It was 1942, during the Nazi Blitz, when she went to a live BBC Radio broadcast at the Criterion Theater.
"And in the middle of the rehearsal there was a huge air raid and the place is absolutely shaking. And the producer said, 'Well, would somebody like to come up say a piece of poetry or sing a song just to calm things down?' Nobody else volunteered. So I said, 'Oh, I'll sing a song.' And there it is."
What did she sing? "Mighty Like a Rose." "Don't want me to sing it now, do you?" she said.
"Sweetest little fellow everybody knows.
I don't know what to call him
but he's mighty like a rose."
Excerpt from the Oct. 17, 1942 BBC Radio broadcast "It's All Yours," featuring 9-year-old Petula Clark
She continued singing on the radio, becoming an inspiration to the British troops.
"They called you 'our pet,'" Miller said. "You were Britain's Shirley Temple."
"Kind of, yes."
Clark was so popular, she was featured in newsreels.
"That's kind of sweet isn't it? It's a long time ago, you know? It's very weird watching yourself at that age. Yeah. I wasn't a bad little singer, actually. Those high notes I can't get now, of course!"
But she wanted to be an actress, appearing in more than a dozen movies while still a teenager.
"I made some good movies and quite a lot of bad ones. The film company didn't want me to grow up. They wanted me to stay the little girl, our little pet, and so they would, you know, bind in my bosom and put me in ankle socks."
But grow up she did, pursuing a singing career all over Europe, and then marrying a French PR representative for a record company. They had two daughters.
And then their young family was hit by the phenomenon that was "Downtown."
"Suddenly America was calling, 'You've got to get here!'" Clark said.
"Is that your American accent?"
"Yes, I know. And my husband was saying, 'Who is this Ed Sullivan, and what does he want?'"
"They started playing my music. And of course as soon as they heard it, the audience just went crazy."
"Downtown" became an international hit.
As a child star who became an international pop sensation, it's a little jaw-dropping when Petula Clark starts name-dropping.
She sang for Winston Churchill ("I don't think he came to see me. It was one of those big shows for charity"); was besties with Julie Andrews ("Julie had the same sort of career as me when she was a child and we used to travel on the troop trains together"); danced with Fred Astaire ("And he takes me in his arms, and it was the easiest thing in the world. We just took off and it was wonderful, he was that good"); and acted with Alec Guinness ("I gave Alec Guinness his first movie kiss; the Earth didn't move for either of us!").
But there were sparks when she met Elvis. "He flirted," she demurely said.
It happened when Clark went to see Presley perform in Las Vegas with her friend, singer Karen Carpenter. "Actually he was flirting with both of us: 'Oh wow, the two biggest pop girl stars in the world in my dressing room!'"
Miller said, "The all-American, beautiful voice, Karen Carpenter. All-British pop star. He had the best of both worlds!"
"Well, he didn't have us exactly, but he had a darn good try! So, I'm not going to talk about that any more."
What she IS proud to talk about is her duet with Harry Belafonte on her TV special in 1968: "While I was singing this song I just put my hand on his arm."
"What's wrong with that?" Miller asked.
"The sponsor didn't like it. And he went crazy. He said, 'No way is my star (that's me) going to touch a black man's arm.' He insisted that we do another version of it, which none of us liked. We wanted it to go out the way it was supposed to be with the emotion in it."
Ultimately, Clark and Belafonte's preferred version was broadcast. "In the end, it went out that way because we had the other takes erased," she said. "There was no way that we were going to be bullied by the sponsor. I'm sorry. You know, that's the way it was supposed to be, and that's the way it was!"
And that's how it's been for Petula Clark: now in her eighth decade in show business, she's doing exactly what she wants to do.
Miller said, "Most people your age are chilling out at home. They're not out on a bus tour. I am amazed. Do you amaze yourself, at this age?"
"Sometimes," Clark replied. "Sometimes you're think, 'Wait a minute -- shouldn't I be growing radishes somewhere?' But frankly, this is much more fun!"
It's worth stopping for a couple of hot rum toddies, and celebrating with a year-end toast.
"Cheers. Happy Christmas! Happy New Year!"
For more info:
- "Living for Today" by Petula Clark (BMG), available on CD (Amazon, Barnes & Noble), Digital Download (Amazon, Google Play, iTunes) and Streaming (Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify)
Story produced by Alan Golds.