229. Petula Clark – This Is My Song (1967)

1376a1e3ee1b9238b057f177593f5136As winter 1967 drew to a close, Britain’s second Polaris nuclear submarine HMS Renown was launched at Birkenhead on 25 February. The following day, non-league footballer Tony Allden died in a freak accident. While playing for Birmingham-based Highgate United, he was struck by a bolt of lightning. Three other players were also hit, but somehow survived. The day after, Britain’s hopes for entry into the EEC were given support by the Dutch government.  1 March saw the opening of popular concert venue Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.

Ruling the singles chart, for the first time in six years, was one of the biggest female singers of the decade, Petula Clark. The music scene had changed several times over since Sailor was number 1, but Clark had soldiered on throughout. Her follow-ups, Romeo and My Friend the Sea, entered the top ten later that year. Being multilingual, she had hits in France with Ya Ya Twist and Chariot during 1962. Around this time she was also given the song Un Enfant by Jacques Brel – one of the few artists to have the honour.

By the time we reach 1964, she had moved into soundtracks, having moderate success with A Couteaux Tirés, in which she also starred, and was on This Is Your Life for the first of three appearances. At her home in France she recieved a visit from her composer Tony Hatch. Having recently been to New York, he played Clark some chords from an incomplete song he was working on. She was very keen, and said if he could come up with some lyrics as good as the melody, she’d record it. That song was Downtown. Her most famous track, a sophisticated slice of classic 1960s pop, was a hit all over the world, and reached number 1 in the US, but missed out on the Christmas number 1 here due to I Feel Fine by the Beatles.

She was now an established star in the US, but back at home she had varying degrees of success. However, My Love reached number four in 1965, and I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love was number six in 1966. As 1967 began, fortune smiled on Clark once more,

In 1966, legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin was making A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). Starring Marlon Brando, it was the final film that Chaplin, wrote, directed, produced and scored. However his plan to have Al Jolson singing This Is My Song had hit a snag. Jolson had died in 1950 – a fact Chaplin refused to believe until somebody showed him a photo of his gravestone. Who could replace him? Chaplin remembered that Clark had a house near him in Switzerland. Neither Clark nor Hatch wanted to record it. They understandably found the lyrics simplistic and old-fashioned. To be fair to Chaplin, this was deliberate. The movie was a throwback to the 30s, hence him wanting Jolson to record it. Hatch declined but Clark eventually relented, recording it in English, French, German and Italian. She had asked Chaplin to consider some new English lyrics, but he refused. To her horror, she discovered Pye Records were going to release it as a single. The last thing she expected was to reach number 1.

And nor can you blame her. Poor Clark, she didn’t like either of her number 1s, and neither do I, really. They’re nowhere near the quality of Downtown. Opening with what sound like mandolins, This Is My Song features, like so many other 60s number 1s, members of the Wrecking Crew as the band. Her twin vocals are strong, but combined they’re too warbly. The words are indeed forgettable – the intro rhymes ‘light’ with ‘bright’ and ‘blue’ with ‘you’. The whole thing sounds rather laboured, like nobody’s heart was really in it. It was dated then and is even more so now. It’s a curio really, rarely heard and only famous now because Chaplin was the writer. Also, am I the only person that hears a similarity between this and the 1982 Christmas number 1, Save Your Love?

Interestingly, Harry Secombe recorded a version at the same time, which reached number two in the charts, before Clark overtook him. He had to re-record his singing because he kept bursting into laughter at how bad the lyrics were.

In 1968 Clark and singer Harry Belafonte caused controversy by becoming the first black man and white woman to make physical contact on television, four days after the death of Martin Luther King. For further info, see Sailor further up the page. Also that year she moved back into acting, appearing in Finian’s Rainbow alongside Fred Astaire. She was nominated for a Golden Globe and was Astaire’s final on-screen partner. The following year she appeared alongside Peter O’Toole in Goodbye, Mr Chips. She also ended up singing backing vocals on John Lennon’s debut solo single. Clarke had visited him during a bed-in with Yoko Ono and before long she was among the singers on Plastic Ono Band’s Give Peace a Chance.

In the early-to-mid-70s she had considerable success with her music and TV appearances on both sides of the Atlantic, but by the middle of the decade she scaled back her career to concentrate on her family. Her children urged her to return to the stage, which she had avoided since 1954. In 1981 she starred as Maria Von Trapp in the West End production of The Sound of Music. She was so good in the role, the real-life Von Trapp proclaimed her to be the best version ever. Her theatre work continued throughout the 80s, along with an updated version of Downtown in 1988.

Ten years later Clark was made a CBE, and in 2000 she toured a one-woman show around the globe, performing songs and anecdotes. 2006 saw the transmission of a BBC Four documentary, Petula Clark: Blue Lady, and in 2013 she released the album Lost in You, featuring a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy and yet another version of Downtown. Her latest English-language album was 2017’s Living for Today, and only last year she released the French-Canadian album Vu d’ici. Now 86, she shows no signs of slowing down.

Written by: Charlie Chaplin

Producer: Ernie Freeman

Weeks at number 1: 2 (16 February-1 March) 

Births:

Politician Ed Balls – 25 February

Designer Jonathan Ive – 27 February 

113. Petula Clark – Sailor (1961)

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 1940s 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 ten 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 wrote the theme to Crossroads in 1964, and went on to write several other soap opera themes with his wife Jackie 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 ten, 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)