Music Interviews
4:20 am
Sat December 21, 2013

War Stories From Petula Clark

Originally published on Sat December 21, 2013 10:30 am

Petula Clark's show business career spans more than 70 years, from the time of the Blitz to the era of the blog. She found signature hits, including "Downtown" and "I Know a Place," in the 1960s and '70s.

But she began her career decades earlier, as an 8-year-old girl in a London theater, in the early years of the Second World War. The BBC had been using the theater as a studio because of its strategic location: underground.

"They used to use this place to do shows for the forces serving overseas, and this particular show was one where children could send messages to their dads, their uncles, their brothers," Clark tells NPR's Scott Simon. "During the rehearsal, there was the most enormous air raid; this was during the Blitz in London. The producer asked if somebody would like to come up, one of the kids, to just say a piece of poetry or something, to lighten things up. Nobody else volunteered, I said, 'I'll come!' I was eight years old, very small, and they put me on a box so that I could reach the microphone. And I sang."

Clark's performance went over well, especially to those listening in the control room, and became the first of many she'd do at the BBC's behest — some of which, she suspects, doubled as coded messages to soldiers in the field.

Petula Clark has a new album, Lost In You, which features a dramatically different version of "Downtown." Hear more of her conversation with with Scott Simon, including how she crashed a John Lennon and Yoko Ono "bed-in" to ask for career advice, at the audio link.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Petula Clark's show business career spans more than 70 years, from the time of the blitz to the era of the blog. She was a 10-year-old girl booked to sing over the BBC to build morale during World War II. After the war, she became a '50s starlet, then entered new stardom in the '60s and '70s with signature hits, including "Downtown" and "I Know a Place." She has now released her first new recording in 15 years, and it opens with a delicate and contemporary song in which her voice sounds ageless.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PETULA CLARK: (Singing) I want you to hold me forever, making you cry. Forget the (unintelligible)...

SIMON: Her new album is "Lost in You." And Petula Clark joins us from the RTS Studios in Geneva, Switzerland. Thanks so much for being with us.

CLARK: I'm delighted to be with you. How are you, Scott? How are things?

SIMON: Things are just fine. I'm talking to Petula Clark. Well, let me go back a little bit, if I could. So, as I heard the story, a BBC producer heard you singing in a tube stop one night during the blitz?

CLARK: No, that's absolutely not right.

SIMON: All right. These British tabloids in which I do my research...

CLARK: Do you want me to tell you the real story?

SIMON: Yes, I do.

CLARK: You know, I actually started singing when I was about 6. And when I was about 8, I went along to the Criterion Theater, which is in Piccadilly Circus. And the BBC were using this theater as a studio because it was - and still is - underground, really under the earth. And they used to use this place to do shows for the forces serving overseas. And this particular show was one where children could send messages to their dads or their uncles, their brothers. I had an uncle who was serving, funnily enough, in Iraq at the time - my Uncle Dudley. And I went along to send a message to him, just to say hello, uncle, we're fine, don't worry about us and that kind of thing. And during the rehearsal, there was the most enormous air raid - this was during the blitz in London. And the producer asked if somebody would like to just sing a piece of poetry or something just to lighten things up. Nobody else volunteered, so I said I'll come, you know, I'll sing a song. I was 8 years old. Very small. And they put me on a box so that I could reach the microphone and I sang. And that was the first time I sang on the air. And there was a huge reaction to it. I mean, a positive one, may I say.

(LAUGHTER)

CLARK: And from them on, the BBC used me quite a lot. But apparently - I mean, I don't know if this is true, Scott - but apparently I was talking in code a lot. So, there were messages going through that I knew nothing about, of course, so.

SIMON: Oh, my word. So, they would give you poetry to recite and there were messages encoded in the poetry.

CLARK: Yes, that's what I've been told. I actually don't know if that's true.

SIMON: Well, we'll air it anyway. Look, you were doing important work. But all that being said, did you ever feel like you missed out on a childhood?

CLARK: Not really. You know, all of us kids in England were missing out in some way. We were living in air raid shelters a lot of the time and food was rationed. It was a strange time for us all. For me, of course, yes, I was performing but I loved it. You know, I loved singing then and I love singing now. You know, it's part of me, it's in my makeup, in my genes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Want to play a little bit of another song that's on this CD and get to another story in the Petula Clark legend, if we could.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IMAGINE")

CLARK: (Singing) Nothing to kill or die for, there's no religion too. Imagine all the people living life in peace...

SIMON: Now, that's a very nice version of John Lennon's "Imagine."

CLARK: Thank you.

SIMON: So, is this true? You are on the original recording of "Give Peace a Chance?"

CLARK: Yes. But that was a total accident. You know, it all happened in Montreal. I was there doing a one-woman show where I had sung entirely in French before. And we thought, well, how great. You know, I can go back and do the French hits and the English hits and, you know, do a bilingual show. Wrong. I mean, it was open war in the theater. It was just...

SIMON: This was at a time of great Quebec separatism.

CLARK: Yes. And it was difficult. I needed to talk to somebody who had nothing to do with me. And I knew John Lennon was in town. He was doing a bed-in with Yoko. I don't know if your listeners remember what that was. And I thought, well, you know, I don't know John but might be nice to just talk to him about this. So, I went over to his hotel, and I go up to his room - the door is open. I walk in and there they are sitting in bed, John and Yoko. And John said, hello, Pet, and more or less burst into tears in his arms and told him my sad story. And he was so smart, so sweet. He said don't worry about it. Go and have a glass of wine in the sitting room. He had a suite and so I went in there. And very cool - no druggie kind of thing going on. And there was this music coming over some speakers and it was very simple. And we all started joining in. And it was "Give Peace a Chance." And I had no idea we were being recorded, but we were. And that's how I got to be on the record of "Give Peace a Chance."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWNTOWN")

CLARK: (Singing) When you're alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown. When you've got worries...

SIMON: I don't want to delay any more in getting to an absolutely haunting version you do of...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWNTOWN")

CLARK: (Singing) ...downtown.

SIMON: May I refer to it as at least your greatest English language hit?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWNTOWN")

CLARK: (Singing) Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty, how can you lose?

SIMON: What were you trying to put in this song in 2013?

CLARK: Well, Scott, I did not want to do "Downtown" again. You know, I've sung it thousands of times and I love it dearly. And I said to John, our producer, when he suggested we rethink it, I said, no, let's leave it alone. And I said, OK, OK. And when I came back a couple of days later, I went into the studio and John sat me down. He said just have a listen to this. He pressed the button and I listened. I thought, oh, that's kind of beautiful. What is it? He said that's "Downtown." So, I got up to my vocal mic, put the track on, and I found myself, Scott, singing out another song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWNTOWN")

CLARK: (Singing) You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares about downtown, where all the lights are bright, downtown, waiting for you tonight, downtown, you're going to be all right now.

And I realized what I had known for a long time but there's more to "Downtown" than just being a jolly song about getting out and having some fun. It's a beautiful song and there are people who will say, well, what did you do that for? Well, you know, because, because I wanted to. And finally I enjoy doing it this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWNTOWN")

CLARK: (Singing) Downtown, things will be great when you're downtown...

SIMON: Petula Clark. Her new CD, "Lost in You." She joins us from Geneva, Switzerland. Thanks so much for being with us.

CLARK: Thank you, Scott, for asking me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWNTOWN")

CLARK: (Singing) When you're alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown. When you've got worries, all the noise and the hurry seems to help I know...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.