Two whole years since a female artist had last got to number 1 (Shirley Bassey, with As I Love You), Petula Clark finally broke the drought with Sailor.
Long before her most famous hit, Downtown (which never got to number 1), Clark had been a child star. She was born Sally Olwen Clark on 15 November 1932, at Longsgrove Hospital in Epsom, Surrey. Both her parents were nurses there, and it was her father who later came up with her stage name, Petula.
During World War Two, she lived with her sister at her grandparents home in South Wales. It was a small, very modest house, with no electricity or running water. Her grandparents spoke little English, so she learnt Welsh. She became a singer in the chapel choir, and discovered a talent for impersonating artists such as Vera Lynn. She first began performing publicly aged only seven, in 1939.
Clark’s big break came about during World War Two, by accident. In 1942, she attended a BBC radio broadcast with her father, and they intended to post a message to her uncle, serving overseas, but the air raid sirens began and the recording delayed. The producer asked for someone to help calm the attendants, and Clark sang Mighty Lak’ a Rose. It went down so well, she was asked to do so again when the broadcast went out, and suddenly Clark was touring and entertaining the troops, as well as King George VI and Sir Winston Churchill. She even became a mascot for the army, her face plastered on tanks for good luck.
Clark garnered a number of film appearances during the rest of the decade, appearing alongside fellow child star and future two-time number 1 artist Anthony Newley in Vice Versa (1948). There was also Petula Clark, her television series for the BBC.
As the 40s wound up, Clark teamed up with producer Alan A Freeman to record a number of international hits, including The Little Shoemaker in 1954. However, she was struggling to shed her image of the child star-turned-adolescent, and wanted to be recognised as a more mature performer. She was able to achieve this away from the UK, becoming popular in France and Belgium. performing alongside Sacha Distel. By the time she came to record Sailor, she was approaching her thirties, and was based in Paris.
The track was an English language version of the 1959 German song, Seemann (Deine Heimat ist das Meer) by Werner Scharfenberger and Fini Busch, which had been a hit for Lolita. In the original, Lolita is aware of her lover’s desire to travel, but Normal Newell (who had produced Russ Conway’s number 1s, Side Saddle and Roulette) had been tasked with writing English lyrics, and he hurriedly turned it into a plea for the sailor to come home, taking only 10 minutes to write his version. Sailor had been brought to Clark’s attention by Tony Hatch, who assisted with the production, on this, their first collaboration. It was Hatch that later penned Downtown, and they had many hits together. He also co-wrote the 1965 number 1 Where Are You Now (My Love) for future wife Jackie Trent. Later, he wrote the theme to Crossroads in 1964, and went on to write several other soap opera themes with Trent, including Emmerdale Farm and Neighbours.
It’s a shame Hatch didn’t get to write something for Clark sooner really, as Sailor is an outdated, old-fashioned ballad playing on people’s memories of World War Two. The orchestra and backing singers make it sound like it could be from the charts of 1953. Also, it certainly shows that Newell knocked off the lyrics so quickly, as there’s not many to comment on (for some reason, Newell was credited as David West) and they’re rather hackneyed and cliched. What it does have going for it, though, is some fine, atmospheric harmonica, courtesy of Harry Pitch.
I can see why Clark was keen to cover Sailor, as it makes her sound older than her years, so it could have helped her shake off her old image – but then again, perhaps not, because of the war connection to the words. It’s no surprise that Clark’s song competed against a version by Anne Shelton, who was also a star during the war, and had scored a number 1 back in 1956 with the awful Lay Down Your Arms. Whatever Petula Clark’s reasons, it worked and her version spent a week at number 1. Shelton’s also made it to the top 10, but it marked the end of her successful career.
It would be six years before Clark’s next number 1, and I’ll talk about her more in depth when we get to 1967, but it’s interesting to note that as I write this, it was 50 years ago this week that Clark made history alongside Harry Belafonte. He was a guest on her US TV special, Petula, and during the show they performed an anti-war duet. At one point, Clark touched Belafonte’s arm, and this marked the ever time a white woman and black man had physical contact on TV. Ridiculously, in some areas this caused a furore, and one of the advertising managers threatened to resign if the moment was transmitted. What a prick.
Written by: Werner Scharfenberger & Fini Busch/David West (English lyrics)
Producer: Alan A Freeman
Weeks at number 1: 1 (23 February-1 March)