Petula Clark was born in Epsom, Surrey, UK, on 15 November 1932 and was encouraged by her father to seek a career in show business from an early age.
Her mother taught her how to sing, and her first “paid” job was for a bag of sweets from Bentalls department store in Kingston-upon-Thames, where she performed with the resident band in the store’s entrance while shopping.
Her initial forays into the entertainment industry were as a child performer during the wartime years. She found some degree of stardom on radio shows and played over 150 shows in two years, earning the nickname of “The Forces Girl”.
Throughout her teens and into the mid-1950s, Petula featured in more than two dozen movies and was one of the stars of The Huggetts‘ film series alongside Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison. She released her debut record in 1949.
She enjoyed many minor hits during the 50s and was featured regularly on British television.
In 1959 she left London to live in France with her husband, Claude Woolf, a music publishing executive, and in the early 60s, began recording French language versions of her singles as well as the original English versions.
In 1964, Tony Hatch (who had been producing French sessions for Petula) managed to interest her in a song he had written called Downtown – originally intended for The Drifters.
She recorded the single in only two takes, immediately hitting #2 in the UK charts. Petula’s career went sky-high, with appearances on Ready, Steady, Go!, Top of the Pops and Sunday Night At The London Palladium.
In January 1965, Downtown knocked The Beatles‘ I Feel Fine out of the #1 position in America to hit the top of the US charts – Making Pet the first British female to top the American charts since Vera Lynn in 1952.
Visiting America, Petula performed Downtown, and I Know A Place on The Ed Sullivan Show, while Downtown earned her the “Best Rock & Roll recording of 1964” award at the seventh annual Grammy Awards.
I Know A Place hit the #3 spot in the US charts, making Petula Clark the only female vocalist to chart her first two singles in the US Top Three – A record that would stand until Cyndi Lauper repeated the feat in 1984.
Throughout the following four years, Petula released many more successful records, performed live in the US and Britain, hosted her own six-week BBC TV series (This Is Petula Clark), appeared in front of HRH Princess Margaret at the London Palladium, performed for President Johnson at the White House, starred in US TV commercials for the Chrysler Plymouth and starred in the movies Finian’s Rainbow (1968) – with Fred Astaire and Tommy Steele – and Goodbye Mr Chips (1969) – with Peter O’Toole.
As remarkable as it seemed, Petula was also the centre of controversy in 1968. During her first American TV show, Petula, she kissed one of her guests, Harry Belafonte.
The program was sponsored by Chrysler-Plymouth, which made its protestations – a white woman doesn’t kiss a black man, especially during prime-time viewing – and demanded the kiss be edited. The television network refused, whereupon public outrage ensued.
Her career during the 1970s centred around live performances at venues such as Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and tours of Australia, Japan and South Africa. She also hosted The Sound of Petula for BBC TV.
By the end of the decade, she was living in semi-seclusion in her Geneva chateau, where she devoted much time to her husband and three children.
Performances throughout the 80s included starring as Maria in the London stage version of The Sound Of Music, appearing in an American Civil War musical entitled Someone Like You staged at Cambridge, and promoting a remixed dance version of Downtown, which crashed into the British Top Ten during December 1988.
In the 1990s, Petula toured the UK for the first time since 1982 and appeared in Blood Brothers in New York.