Petula Clark, 85, is a Grammy-winning British singer-songwriter and actress whose 22 U.S. hits include “Downtown,” “My Love” and “I Know a Place.” Her new album is “Living for Today” (BMG). She spoke with
Before my American hits in the ’60s, before my popularity in France in the late ’50s and before my British records and movies in the late ’40s and ’50s, there was Wales. I was sent there to live with my grandparents in 1941, when I was 7. It would be the most memorable year of my life.
My family lived in Epsom, England, about 15 miles southwest of London. My dad, Leslie, was handsome and had wanted to be an actor. My mother, Doris, was very pretty and musical but not very social.
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Both of my parents were nurses at our local hospital. When Britain entered World War II in 1939 my father went into the Army.
We lived in an ordinary little semidetached house and lived an ordinary life—except we were being bombed all the time by Germany. Most of my schoolwork then was done in air-raid shelters.
My sister, Barbara, and I shared a room. She was four years younger than me, and we were quite different. Barbara was far more sensible. I had a ridiculous imagination.
I saw spooky things all the time and must have seemed slightly mad. I’d walk down the street in the pouring rain singing with my coat wide open. I was living a life in my head.
Singing came naturally to me. I listened to the radio and records from time to time. There was always music going on somewhere.
I sang only once in a local choir. I thought the music sounded boring, so I sang in harmony. Afterward, I was scolded and rapped over the knuckles. Then they threw me out of the choir.
Lots of children I knew had an equally peculiar childhood. We lived with the constant fear of bombings, hurried evacuations and the sudden tragic deaths of neighbors we had seen just hours earlier.
During the Blitz bombings in 1941, my mother sent Barbara and me to her parents’ house in Abercanaid, in the south of Wales.
My grandparents were very poor. Their stone house didn’t have running water or electricity, and the toilet was at the end of a long, thin garden.
My grandfather was still coal mining, and my grandmother cooked on an open fire. They both spoke Welsh, and soon so did I.
Wales was a rustic place and so different from England. There was something enchanted and bewitching about it. I felt free to get lost in my imagination.
Not far from my grandparents’ house, I could cross a stream and go into the woods and climb the green hills. The surrounding countryside was a spiritual place, and I loved singing while wandering alone.
The first time I performed in front of an audience was in a chapel in nearby Pentrebach, across the River Taff. I sang solo in Welsh.
By 1942, British defenses had improved and the intensive German bombing of London subsided. My sister and I rejoined our mother in Epsom.
Not long after we returned, I went to the Criterion Theatre in London’s Piccadilly Circus. The theater was deep underground, so it was really a glorified air-raid shelter.
The BBC was putting on a radio broadcast for the armed forces. I was among 20 children waiting to go on the air to send messages to relatives in uniform.
During the rehearsal, Piccadilly Circus was bombed. When the shaking stopped, a producer asked if someone would like to sing, to bring the atmosphere down.
I raised my hand, so up on stage I went. They fetched a wooden box so I could reach the mic, and I sang “Mighty Lak’ a Rose.”
Faces lighted up in the control booth. They asked me to sing two more songs. That was the start of my career. The BBC invited me back to sing some 500 times. I also began performing live for the troops.
In 1944, while appearing at London’s Royal Albert Hall, I was discovered by a British movie director. He cast me in the film, “Medal for the General,” which led to a string of movie roles.
After the war, my family moved to a house just outside London, in Surbiton. It was a little nicer. Early on, my dad could do no wrong in my eyes. Eventually he became my manager and our relationship became more stern and business-like. I didn’t know my mother that well. She was shy and retiring, and she didn’t want to have anything to do with show business. My sister got along with her much better.
Throughout the late ’40s and ’50s, I recorded for EMI, Decca and Pye. In 1957, I performed in Paris, singing in French. I became a sensation there.
A turning point for me came in the early 1960s, when I saw
sing. Her performance helped me understand how to use love, pain and compassion when performing and not be afraid to let that out.
began working with me in the early ’60s. One day he played me a song on the piano that he had just written. I told him if he could write lyrics as good as his melody, I would record it. When he returned with words, he called the song “Downtown.”
I have no idea when or why my father changed my name from Sally to Petula. I’d like to go back to Sally now, but it is a bit late for a change.
Today, my husband,
and I live in Geneva, Switzerland. We’ve lived there for about 40 years. We used to have a house, but we sold it several years ago and moved to a lovely two-bedroom apartment.
We have views of the Alps on one side and Lake Geneva on the other. The light is fantastic. My favorite space is our bedroom. It is quiet, and I have all of my own things around me. I also can see Mont Blanc.
I don’t have anything to remind me of my time in Wales except my Welshness. It is something deep inside of me. Being Welsh means having a sense of music and magic. And a little mischief, too.