IN THE OPINION of many rock critics, the best all-around album by a white female pop singer recorded and released in the ’60s may be DUSTY IN MEMPHIS. But, for my taste, the lady with the best pipes and the best all-around taste in pop music in that decade was Petula Clark. And “pop” was the music she recorded throughout her career, which began as a child star in 1949!
By 1963, she was an international star who had scored #1 hits in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and Australia. But in 1964 she became an international superstar when Downtown reached the top of the charts in six countries, including—finally!—the United States.
In the next three years, she was the top female artist on US singles surveys, reaching #1 once more (with My Love) along with seven more singles reaching the Top 20. Unfortunately, the hits came to a halt in 1967.
Many observers attributed her success to having been caught up in wake of the Beatles-led ‘British Invasion.’ This is not an unfair observation, as she’d had fifteen years to crack the US charts with a lone Top 40 hit to call her own.
A more accurate assessment might be that the consistently strong singles that she and her songwriting partner/producer Tony Hatch put on disc were irresistible.
Her music was also consistent in another way: it was pure pop, almost devoid of anything that could be considered black blues-based music.
Petula Clark had been a hitmaker in France since 957, but when Vogue released Down Town there, they failed to include a picture sleeve. They followed the single with a an EP titled Petula Chante En Anglais (“Petula Sings In English”) that focused on her first international hit. She always reminded me of Julie Andrews at this stage of her life: beautiful but too damn wholesome!
Not taken seriously by critics
Certainly her standing with the young [white] critics emerging from the San Francisco and Detroit Bay Areas was not helped by the fact that she was at least ten years older than everybody else but that she looked and dressed more like Julie Andrews than Grace Slick!
(And I digress here: few historians have pointed out that, excepting Slick and Joplin, there were almost no female icons that presented themselves to their fans in a manner that did not rely on Carnaby Street or a runway somewhere in New York or Paris.)
Nonetheless, for those of us record buyers not hung up on the ‘purity of the blues’ and other critic-pushed nonsense, she made one great record after another. Hell, even her albums were superior to almost any other pop singer of the era. Oddly, her LPs did not sell anywhere near as well as her singles, which, given the market for white pop singers at the time, is surprising.
While most of her hits were penned by others, Clark did write many songs, usually with Hatch. Perhaps their greatest success as a songwriting team was achieved by another artist: in 1965, she wrote and recorded You’re The One as the final track for her upcoming album. That no one saw this as a potentially HUGE worldwide smash is mind-boggling in hindsight.
“We were making yet another LP, and that’s like twelve-thirteen songs. [Tony had] written twelve and he said, ‘Listen, I haven’t got a number thirteen in me at all. Write something.’ And I said, ‘Okay. I’ll try.’ And I wrote the melody of You’re The One and he wrote the lyric.” You’re The One was issued as a single in other countries, reaching the Top 10 in France and Australia. Germany issued the single in stereo (above).
Of course, there was a mitigating factor in its being shelved as a possible single: the record company had her next few singles selected and slotted for release. The situation was somewhat remedied (at least for the songwriting team) to a degree when a vocal group called the Vogues did a version of the song that mirrored Clark’s arrangement. You’re The One was a huge hit, peaking at #4 on Billboard and reaching #7 on Cash Box. (Oddly, in hindsight, it sounds like a doo-wop take on the Turtles.)
For this post, I have included a link to a video of Pet singing You’re The One live (although the band and orchestra track may have been pre-recorded). Live she is better than most of today’s singers lip-synching to their records!
The title of this piece is a question that I posed: “Was Petula Clark the Best Female Pop Singer of the ’60s?” Why, yes, I do believe that she was! Although my vote for the best all-around female pop artist (singer, songwriter, guitar player) might be Jackie DeShannon.
By 1967, Ms. Clark had hipped up her image: while Twiggy received all the attention for the short ‘do, Petula was the one who always seemed to me to capture the Swinging London image best. Here she has the near-pixie cut and the poorboy cap that was in vogue at the time. The sunflowers could be an intentional nod to the emerging Flower Power scene or just happenstance. Anyway, I wanted to end this brief piece with this lovely image of this lovely lady.
PS: Due to Mike Jones’s comments below, I checked on The Big T.N.T. Show on YouTube and that is where the video above was taken. Needless to say, I have been watching the movie for the past few hours. And I have to say that Petula Clark had to follow the Byrds who were about to top the US charts for the second time with Turn! Turn! Turn! If anything, Clark blows my fave group away with You’re The One . . .