Petula Clark reflects on her lifetime in showbusiness and her equally fascinating life behind the scenes.
A true survivor, Petula has enjoyed a venerable career that has spanned over seven decades. Along the way she has worked with many of the great performers of our time. Here she recalls meeting the legendary John Lennon of Beatles fame, the time she met Elvis Presley with dear friend Karen Carpenter, and working with dancer extraordinaire Fred Astaire…
I met John Lennon in Montreal when I was performing there. I was doing a bilingual show in a theatre and it was not the best moment for me. It was as if the audience were cut in two, when I sang in English the French weren’t happy and when I sang in French the English weren’t happy and it was a very traumatic time. I knew that John Lennon was in town; he and Yoko Ono were getting a lot of publicity due to the bed-ins they were doing for peace. I thought that I had to talk to somebody about this problem who has nothing to do with me and so I strolled over to John’s hotel late one night after my show.
‘He told somebody in the press that I was his favourite female singer’
I arrived at Queen Elizabeth Hotel, I got past security, I walked up to his room and there John and Yoko were in bed, just sitting there may I say, looking very angelic both of them. We talked and I told him my story and he told me to just completely ignore the reaction that I had at the show. He said it in more explicit words than that, but it was just what I needed to hear and so I thanked him. We then went next door to the living room and met other people, I had a glass of wine and the the atmosphere was very relaxed, there was music playing and several microphones around and I thought “why not? It’s John Lennon’s living room”, in fact we were being recorded and I sang on ‘Give Peace A Chance’, so I’m on the record and that was my first meeting with John. I met him a couple of times after that and he told somebody in the press that I was his favourite female singer.
I met Elvis with Karen Carpenter, neither of us had ever met him before. We went so see him perform at a show at the Hilton in Las Vegas, we were both in the audience and were introduced to him afterwards. He was on great form and then we were invited back to his dressing room and, well, he was flirting quite overtly with us. I think you could say that he had plans for the rest of the evening that included us both. Karen was very naieve and I was like a big sister to her at the time and so I made up some story saying that Karen had something to do in the morning, but Karen said “well what do I have to do in the morning?’ She really wasn’t getting it at all! But in the end I got us out of there and that really amused Elvis and when I saw him again after that we both had a good laugh about it.
‘I think you could say that he had plans for the rest of the evening that included us both’
I was doing Sunset Boulevard in Memphis in this really beautiful theatre. After every show the whole cast would go to a club to get our dose of rythm and blues. Anyway, I had been that afternoon to Graceland which I’d never done before and I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it but I really was. That night we did Sunset Boulevard and afterwards went along to one of these blues clubs and they were playing ‘Hound Dog’ and it was great. They asked me to come up and the music was still going, I’d never sung ‘Hound Dog’ in my life but I got up and sung it for about 20 minutes, it was a very strange feeling, the whole place was jumping and I really felt Elvis’ precense right there beside me – that was really a very strange experience. I have a great affection for Memphis and I wrote a song called ‘To Memphis’ because I have such great memories of it.
I was very nervous about meeting and working with Fred of course, and I have found with everybody well known – John Lennon, Elvis and all of the big stars that I have met over the years; I find that the really great ones are great to be with, it’s the wannabes who are not much fun at all. Fred was thrilled at meeting me and wanted to know all about my life – he loved pop music and we spent a lot of time together traveling when we were doing the location filming for Finian’s Rainbow, we were out in the countryside around San Francisco and we used to sing. He and Francis Ford Coppola, who was a young, unknown director at the time, he used to love to sing too. I would get Fred to sing some of his songs and he would get me to sing mine and then we’d sing together and what I learned from him was that it’s all about hard work. He was a perfectionist and would spend the weekends in the studio so that he could rehearse – he never took anything for granted and I always admired that and found it very interesting.
‘I would get Fred to sing some of his songs and he would get me to sing mine and then we’d sing together. I learned from him that it’s all about hard work’
Professionally, the person in the business who’s had the biggest impact on me is probably record producer Quincy Jones. However, quite often it’s not somebody in showbusiness who will make an impact on me, it could be somebody that I meet in the street who will stop me and say something to me and that will suddenly make me go ‘wow’, that was unexpected.