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In Nov. 2001, Petula Clark took to Washington Square Park with performers from downtown theater and dance companies, singing her iconic "Downtown" to kick off an effort to energize lower Manhattan in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Clark will play her first New York cabaret engagement in decades starting Jan. 24 at Feinstein's.
In Nov. 2001, Petula Clark took to Washington Square Park with performers from downtown theater and dance companies, singing her iconic "Downtown" to kick off an effort to energize lower Manhattan in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Clark will play her first New York cabaret engagement in decades starting Jan. 24 at Feinstein's. Scott Gries/Getty Images
The facts of Petula Clark's career are kind of impressive: Huge popularity as a child performer in England; more than 70 million records sold, including "Downtown," "I Know a Place," and other smash hits of the 1960s. She's had starring roles in musicals on film (Finian's Rainbow, Goodbye, Mr. Chips) and stage (The Sound of Music, Sunset Boulevard, Blood Brothers). Now, at age 79, the lady still performs all over the world.
But the last time she appeared as a solo artist in New York City was about 35 years ago. So it's big news in certain circles that she's set for a gig at Feinstein's, the supper club in the Regency Hotel, running Jan. 24 through Feb. 4. To mark the occasion, writer Michael Portantiere recently put a few questions to Clark — though it wasn't easy tracking her down.
Bonne après-midi, Petula. Where are you exactly?
I'm up in the French Alps. It's a glorious sunny day here with lots and lots of snow. Picture-postcard stuff.
When I was setting up this interview, there was some question as to which country I'd be calling. You're quite the jet-setter.
Oh, come on! It's really not so glamorous. It's a lot of traveling, and you never quite know where anything is. "Did I leave it there, or did I leave it there?" I actually don't do a lot of touring as such; I do concerts here and there. I'll be going to Australia after New York, and that will be a tour of several cities. But as for actually getting on the bus and touring, I hardly do that at all anymore.
Judging from what I've read, Feinstein's will be a different sort of venue for you.
I haven't done cabaret since I can remember. The last time I did my own show in New York was in the Empire Room at the Waldorf, but that was more like a concert; I had a big orchestra, it was a big stage, and I think I had some dancers with me. But I haven't sung in an intimate cabaret like Feinstein's in a long time.
Why have you stayed away from New York except for your stint in Blood Brothers?
Well, you know — I adore the city, I have great respect for it, and I didn't want to come back and do just anything. Feinstein's had asked me a couple of times, but I said no because I wasn't sure if I really wanted to do cabaret again. But then I thought, "Why not just go for it?" I'm not writing a cabaret act, or anything like that; I wouldn't know how. I think the people who'll come to see me will expect me to sing certain songs, which I will, and I'll do other stuff as well. But it's a slightly different attitude in cabaret as compared to a concert. I'm excited about it.
Me too. I was just listening to one of your more obscure recordings, the French film soundtrack of Finian's Rainbow. It's wonderful to hear you sing those beautiful songs en français.
Yes, I did the dubbing myself. God, it was difficult. It's funny: I was in French-speaking Canada some time ago, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips was on the television. I didn't do the dubbing for that one, but someone had copied my voice in a most eerie fashion. It was extraordinary – although, in that case, only the dialogue was dubbed. The songs were in English.
In Finian's, you were Fred Astaire's last dancing partner, I believe.
That's what they say — certainly on the big screen. He may have done a television special or two with someone else after that. I mean, you can hardly call what we did real dancing. It was just a little Irish jig. But I did dance with him!
Were you intimidated at all?
Oh, I was scared stiff. But he was such a sweetheart. I worked with his choreographer, Hermes Pan, for a couple of weeks and then, when I got to dance with Fred, it was the easiest thing in the world. He knew how to make you feel good and look good. He and Francis [Ford Coppola] and I used to hang out together and sing all the time; Francis liked to sing in Italian, and Fred loved pop music. It was more than just making a movie, it was a great experience.
Why haven't you done more musical theater?
I like to change it around and do different things. I don't like to get stuck in a rut of any kind. On the other hand, if a great role came up for me – another Sunset Boulevard, or something – of course, I would accept. But if it doesn't come up, it doesn't bother me. There are always plenty of things for me to do.
You've had an amazing life and career, but you haven't yet written an autobiography.
No, I haven't. I don't know how many times I've been asked to do it, and I'm just balking at the whole thing. I can't get myself to sit down and think about my life. It would take me at least two years to do it, and I can think of a lot more fun things to do than that.
You've been writing songs for decades, sometimes under the name Al Grant. Why the pseudonym?
For publishing reasons, I suppose. I've been doing a lot more writing over the past few years, and I've been using my own name. Al Grant was just a phase.
What current singers do you admire?
Amy Winehouse was extraordinary, and [her death] was a true tragedy. The voice was unique, but she also had the most amazing musical mind. I like Adele, of course; she writes interesting songs and has an interesting way of singing them. There are always good singers coming and, unfortunately, going. They have a couple of hits, and then they disappear. But I think Adele will be one of the lasting ones.
You were well established as a singer in other countries before "Downtown" became a sensation in America. Still, to have such a monster hit in the U.S. market must have been an incredible experience.
Yes, it was — and it was totally unplanned. You can't plan that kind of thing. I've heard people say, "I'm off to the States! I'm going to conquer America!" It doesn't work like that. The only person it did sort of work for was Olivia Newton-John. I remember I had a conversation with her at the BBC studios in London years ago. She came into my dressing room and said, [slips into a dead-on imitation of ON-J's Australian twang:] "Y'now, Petula, uv been ahsked t'gow owver to America. Waddaya think?" I said, "Yes, that sounds like a good idea." And look what happened. With "Downtown," it was just the right song at the right time. But I wasn't expecting it, and it complicated my life a lot.
You had one of your biggest hits with a song titled "Who Am I?" Do you know who you are? And if so, was it a recent discovery, or have you known for a while?
[Laughs] That's a big one to throw at me! [Pauses] Sometimes I think I know who I am — like most people. Right at this moment, I'm very comfortable. It's very quiet up here, and I love nature. I'm good at being on my own, listening to other people's music, playing piano, and writing. I love all that. But I guess when I'm on stage, that's when I'm really myself.
Will your show at Feinstein's have a title?
Not as far as I know. The last tour I did in Australia was called "You and I," and I open with that song [from Goodbye, Mr. Chips]. But no, I don't think we have a title for this one. I don't even know what the program is at the moment; it's still very loose. We won't be using any tracks for this show. I've used them in the past, for backup voices and instruments, but at Feinstein's, it will just be me and four musicians. What you'll see is what you'll get.
Have you ever been to Feinstein's?
I have, yes, a couple of times. I saw my old friend Cleo Laine there; I went with Liza to see her. And, the last time I was in New York, I went to see Bebe Neuwirth. It's not an easy room; I think it'll be quite a test for me. But that's okay, I don't mind tests. I quite enjoy them. So there's a question mark in my head, but I'm looking forward to it. That's what this business is all about.