Petula Clark was just six-years-old when she first sang on air, during an imprompu BBC radio performance carried out during a World War Two bombing raid on Piccadilly.
Seven decades and 68 million record sales later, she is currently celebrating the recent release of her new album, Lost In You, and looking forward to her forthcoming tour.
Talking about her album, she said: “We recorded it in a tiny studio at the bottom of the producer John Williams’ garden, which looked, from the outside, like a Wendy house, with windows and flowers and birds, and you walk in and, of course, you are in a state-of-the-art studio.
“But it actually has windows so the vocal mic was in front of a window and I could sing while looking at the garden and birds and bees and cats chasing the birds and all of that kind of thing. It was a very unusual set up, in other words.
“It was great and I found myself working with young writers. There were new songs coming into the studio all the time and some I really loved, some I liked less. It was very organic.”
Among the songs included is a cover of John Lennon’s Imagine, which brought back fond memories of Petula’s friendship with the former Beatle. Petula was among the stars who recorded the classic Give Peace A Chance, in John’s Montreal hotel room.
She said: “There was a group of people in there, some of them I knew, and there was a very simple tune playing in the background and somebody gave us a lyric sheet and it was very simple and easy to sing. We were all singing along and we had a glass of wine, it was a group of friends. Little did I know we were being recorded and it was Give Peace A Chance.”
Also on her album is a new version of Petula’s most famous hit, Downtown. She said: “The first time I heard Downtown, Tony Hatch, who wrote it, played it on piano at my apartment in Paris. I had a huge career going in France.
“We had a tea break and he said, ‘you know you really should be recording again in English.’ I said, ‘yes, but I have to find the right song’. He said, ‘well I have started to write a song but haven’t finished it yet’. I said, ‘what is it called’ and he said ‘it is called Downtown’. I said, ‘why don’t you play it for me?’ The first time I heard Downtown it was being played by Tony on the piano while I was making a cup of tea in the kitchen.
“I knew it was a great tune, the lyric wasn’t finished and a couple of weeks later we went into the studio in London and did three takes, live, and used the second take. We knew we had made a good record, but we didn’t know we had made a monster record.”
Petula’s career began, by chance, when she was six-years-old. She recalled: “The Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly, which is still there, was used by the BBC because it was underground. It was really like a glorified air-raid shelter, with sand-bags and the whole thing.
“They used to do a show there called It’s All Yours and it was done for the troops serving in the war. And it was for children whose dads or brothers or cousins were serving overseas, and they could go along and send a message. I was going to send a message to my uncle.
“Right in the middle of rehearsals there was a huge air raid, even underground the place was shaking and a lot of kids were scared. So they stopped rehearsal and the producer asked if someone could come up and sing a song. Nobody else volunteered so I got up and I sang. I sang into the microphone and they heard me in the control room and they said, ‘would you like to sing as well as to send your message?’ because they had decided I had a very good voice. Of course I said ‘yes’, so that was the first time I was heard on the air and it went from there. There was a huge reaction and that was the beginning of my career.”
She was even dubbed Britain’s Shirley Temple. She said: “That was just a press thing. I wasn’t anything like her. She was a huge world star and I didn’t have dimples, I was a skinny little girl, but I was singing for the troops.”
An Evening With Petula Clark takes place on October 10 at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate.