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Petula Clark Looks Back on 'One of the Pinnacles' of Her Career

Petula Clark
Tony Russell/Redferns/Getty Images

Petula Clark performs at the Royal Albert Hall in London on Feb. 14, 1974.

In 1964, Petula Clark was an international star, famous in Europe but unknown in the U.S. Signed to the Vogue label in France and Pye in the U.K., she recorded a song written by Tony Hatch, and Warner Bros. picked it up for America. "Downtown" debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1964 and spent two weeks at No. 1 in January 1965. She followed it with another No. 1, "My Love," and four additional top 10 songs. She had a total of 22 chart entries between 1964 and 1982.

A decade after the U.S. debut of "Downtown," Clark was on stage at London's venerated Royal Albert Hall for a Valentine's Day concert, a memorable evening of song that has not been heard in full again since that day in 1974. That changes this month with the release of a lovingly-compiled set through the auspices of the Switzerland-based United Music Foundation, an organization with a mission to preserve, enhance and spotlight endangered musical recording heritage, and, when financially possible, to make those recordings available to the public. Profits from sales will be used to continue the preservation and restoration of other historically important recordings.

A Valentine's Day Concert at the Royal Albert Hall is the foundation's third release, following deluxe packages by American jazz soloist Sidney Bechet and French chanteuse Nicole Croisille. "Just like the foundation's first two Collector's Editions, I conceived Petula Clark's A Valentine's Day Concert at the Royal Albert Hall from start to finish," the foundation's project manager, David Hadzis, tells Billboard. "This has always been my favorite Petula concert recording, and when her son Patrick told me he felt the same, the idea of a project stayed in the back of my mind until I was able to find an opportunity to release it."

Hadzis first located the tapes from the 1974 concert in the mid '90s in the PolyGram U.K. vaults. "Around 1996, [Clark's husband] Claude Wolff asked me to assist him as he had a licensing request from PolyGram U.S. to re-release all five of Petula's original Polydor albums. Live in London, the abridged album version of this [Royal Albert Hall] concert recording, was one of them. A few years later, I learned that all of Petula's Polydor tapes had been transferred to the PolyGram U.S. vaults. I was only able to retrieve them about 10 years ago at Claude Wolff's request. In 2016, I preserved these tapes for the United Music Foundation, along with those of her two other Royal Albert Hall concerts, on the occasion of UNESCO's annual celebration of the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage.

"Despite all the research I had done, there was no trace of the original multi-track masters of this 1974 concert, so I assume they have been destroyed, which was common at the time, especially when recording studios closed down. The only tapes I eventually found and retrieved were the 15ips album production masters containing only 14 tracks (and badly encoded Dolby A), and a set of 7.5ips rough mix tapes containing all 33 tracks along with unedited speech and applause. Although both tape sets had been mixed by John Timperley at Chappell Studios in London, they did not sound the same. They had speed and phase discrepancies, which took me quite some time to restore. There were even worse issues such as dropouts, hiss, clicks, plops, distortion, crackles, unstable phase and all sorts of ambient noises which I did my best to get rid of. A very heavy restoration and editing process took place, involving quite a lot of miracle-making thanks to modern technology."

Once Clark and Wolff signed off on a physical release of the concert, Hadzis worked closely with the artist on all of the packaging details. "Petula shared her creative ideas with me. Thanks to her, we used Michel Colombier's handwritten score of 'My Funny Valentine,' which she had performed that night, as the yellow background of a few pages, as well as images of her pearls and her pocket mirror. She also allowed us to use her signature – so recognizable that it's almost like a logo. We reproduced it in hot-stamped gold on the album cover. Petula really wanted to make this artwork as personal as possible."

Billboard contacted the legendary singer at her home in Geneva to ask her about the 2020 release of her 1974 concert.

What were your initial thoughts when you first heard about this project? Of all the countless live performances you have done, what place does this particular concert hold in your heart?

I had already done concerts in this iconic venue, and each time was memorable for me. But the 1974 show seemed to have a closer tie to me personally in the choice of songs – and the way of doing them. I was lucky to have some of my favorite people by my side – Yvonne Littlewood, the talented TV director from the BBC, and Frank Owens, who had been musical director and a brilliant pianist with me for many years. He brought with him a truly great rhythm section from New York, and of course that amazing orchestra was made up of some of our very best British musicians.

You have appeared at the Royal Albert Hall many times, both before and after this concert. What is it like to be a performer on that famous stage?

If you walk out on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall when it's empty – it is overwhelming. This hall was built in honor of Prince Albert by Queen Victoria. It is huge – round with no pillars, and unbelievably grand. It holds 6,000 people, and I love it! Much has been done over the years to improve the acoustics, but it still has a great soul. I've been lucky to have had many highlights in my life, and singing in the Royal Albert Hall, in my hometown, is without a doubt one of the pinnacles.

What do you recall about the preparation for this particular show, including putting together the set list?

It wasn't easy. Frank was in New York; Peter Knight, the great English arranger, was very busy in London; Michel Colombier was in Paris and I was mostly in Geneva, but flitting around, trying to get us all going and getting it done in time for the 14th of February. We only just made it.

For years, many people thought the opening number was "I Can See Clearly Now," because of the song order on the MGM/Polydor release, where they could not include new recordings of songs from your previous label. Why did you open with "Color My World"?

"Color My World" seemed a good choice. It has the right message, people like it and of course Frank "beefed it up" a bit as only he can.

What do you remember about the audience that night?

Oh well! It was a sort of "love-in." Performing is really, for me, a communion, a kind of two-way traffic between me and the audience. The Royal Albert Hall is renowned for this.

Two of the songs you performed that night, "London Is London" and "You and I" are from Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Your acting career includes that film and Finian's Rainbow, as well as the stage musicals Blood Brothers and Sunset Boulevard. If you had to rank all of the things you have done – including performing live, recording, touring, appearing on TV variety series and specials—where would you place acting?

Acting is very important. It's as if every song is like a small play, some more simple than others but there are always images in my head.

I love the uptempo version of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" and I'm not sure I've ever heard it sung that way before. Was there any discussion about performing it this way?

Frank did this arrangement, and we worked on it together. I love the way he drives it along. We just wanted to rock and have fun with it.

When you listen to the CD, with 21st century sound technology applied to a 1974 recording, what are your thoughts?

This recording is quite unique, everything is live. David Hadzis improved the tech quality, but basically, there are no "tricks." I've recorded a lot recently in tiny but well-equipped studios and enjoyed it. But there is no way you can replicate the sound of a real orchestra in a huge venue with an atmosphere as live and dense as this one.

You were already an international star when "Downtown" was released. What was it like to have that initial success in America?

When I recorded "Downtown" with Tony Hatch in London, we knew it was a pretty good record. We could never have imagined the impact it was to have worldwide and particularly in the U.S. It was exciting and totally unexpected.

Since "Downtown" is on this album, I have to ask – any idea of how many times you have sung "Downtown" live? Do you ever change it up? Do you ever tire of singing it? Could you ever do a live performance and not sing it?

I have no idea how many times I've sung "Downtown." I still enjoy singing it, and all the other great Tony Hatch songs. I love Frank's take on it here. I think there would be a mini-riot if I didn't sing it.