A Twistin' Rendez-Vous on Vogue Records
by Don Charles Hampton
With releases in recent years by April March, Zoë Avril and the duo of sisters known as Les Nubians, American music lovers are once again being exposed to French-language Pop records. Should such acts manage to gain mainstream popularity, they will open a commercial door that has long been closed to francophone product. Despite persistent attempts over the years by French stars like Mirielle Mathieu, Plastic Bertrand; Vanessa Paradis and Patricia Klass to break through on American radio, the impact of French songs stateside has always been limited to anomalies like the 1963 chart-topper "Dominique" by the late Soeur Sourire, and cult followings for French artists like Edith Piaf (along with her critically-acclaimed background singers, Les Compagnons de La Chanson), Françoise Hardy, Claudine Longet and Jacques Brel.
Most Americans would be surprised to know that some of the finest French Pop they've missed hearing was cut by an artist whose name is not at all unfamiliar to them. That name is Petula Clark. Between the years 1961 and 1964, Petula Clark became one of France's top recording stars. During this time period, she cut eight successful albums for the French market and placed ten French-language singles in the Top Ten; four of those made the number one spot. Her French output was different from her later work in English in that she concentrated on novelty numbers (usually translations of American hits) and songs written especially for her by French composers. Most significantly, Petula began recording Rock 'n' Roll songs for the French market. Aside from some inconsequential stabs she made at the genre during the late 1950s ("Fibbin'", "Ever Been In Love" and a cover of the Shepherd Sisters hit "Alone"), these were her first true Rock records. They set the stage for "Downtown" and the other up tempo smashes she recorded in English after 1964. However, they were a far cry from conventional rockers, as you'll see.
Longtime fans of Petula Clark know that her career spans over 60 years. She was a star in the United Kingdom decades before anyone in America had ever heard of her. During World War II, she first became famous as a child actress in movies such as Vice Versa, London Town, and Here Come The Huggetts, and as a USO-style singer for the British Armed Forces. In 1946, she was the first British celebrity to star in her own TV show. She made her first commercial recordings in 1949 for UK Columbia. In 1950, she signed with the independent Polygon (later called Pye/Nixa) label and by 1958, she had a half-dozen British hit singles under her belt.
In these years prior to "Downtown", she had already established herself as a strong and versatile singer. Her repertoire at this time ranged from frothy orchestra ballads like "Suddenly There's A Valley" to jazzy workouts the caliber of "Slumming On Park Avenue" to lilting children's novelties such as "Christopher Robin At Buckingham Palace". While she was undeniably popular, Petula couldn't really be considered a major singing star during this period. She'd yet to score a #1 hit, and years might pass between one chart record and another. The end of the '50s seemed to signal the end of her recording career; not one of the five singles she issued in 1959 came close to making noise in the UK. With hits drying up at home, Petula crossed the English Channel to court a public who would hopefully be more appreciative of her efforts.
Petula's record company, Pye/Nixa, was sister label to renowned Vogue Records in France. Founded in 1947 by a businessman, a journalist and a Jazz musician, Vogue was originally conceived as a Jazz label. During its first decade, it amassed a catalog of masters by such Jazz legends as Django Reinhardt, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton and Erroll Garner. Vogue's first major star was the expatriate American clarinetist Sidney Bechet. By the late '50s, Vogue had expanded into the Pop field, and established branch offices in Belgium, Germany, Italy and Scandinavia, as well as linking up with Pye/Nixa in the UK. Vogue's CEO, Léon Cabat, felt strongly that Petula Clark was a potential hitmaker for the French market. Toward the end of 1957, in the hope of persuading her to record special material for him, Cabat invited Petula to Paris and arranged for her to appear on France's most popular radio show, "Musicorama".
Initially, Petula turned down his invitation. "At that time, I didn't like Paris," she later told biographer Andrea Kon. "I thought it was a dirty, smelly place! I didn't speak a word of French, and if I had to perform abroad, it was about the last place on Earth I would have chosen." The only way he could convince her to come was by promising to take her on a shopping spree! Petula would get much more out of this would-be shopping trip than she could ever imagine.
A few days later, the 26-year-old singer walked onto the stage of the Olympia Music Hall, from which "Musicorama" was broadcast. The French audience gasped audibly, for they'd never seen anything like her before. Her hair had recently been dyed bright orange for a film role, and she had chosen to wear what she thought was a très chic hot pink dress shaped like two giant lampshades. She was also suffering from a bad head cold, which obscured her vocals. Certain that she had lain a colossal egg that night, Petula was instead stunned by a standing ovation after singing "Alone", "With Your Love", "Memories Are Made Of This" and her latest single, "With All My Heart". She was perceived as a cute and funny novelty act by the French, who were accustomed to morbidly serious singers like Edith Piaf. They were charmed by her ebullient and girlish stage manner, especially when she impulsively hugged her musical conductor for that evening, Raymonde Legrand (father of Michel Legrand, who'd later pen songs for her). In concert reviews the following day, critics heaped praise on her performance; they nicknamed her "the English Bon-Bon", proclaimed her a musical Jerry Lewis, and predicted future success for her in France. That same day, Léon Cabat signed Petula to a Vogue contract and set about making the critics' predictions come true. Within weeks, he had Petula Clark A Musicorama, a ten-inch vinyl compilation of her British hits for sale in Parisian record stores. The best, however, was yet to come.
In December, the first of many Petula Clark French EP singles appeared. All would feature sultry photos of the singer on a shiny cardboard picture sleeve (needless to say, a collector's dream). Four song EP singles were the standard in France until the early 1970s, so Petula spent a lot of time in the studio (specifically, London's IPC Studios) tracking French-language songs for release. She did so with the help of her British producers, Michael Barclay and Alan Freeman, arrangers Peter Knight and Bill Shepherd, and Vogue's top promotion man Claude Wolff, who helped with French pronunciation and song selection. In 1998, Petula explained to interviewer Jim Pierson her technique for recording in French: "I would have a producer or an assistant actually recite the lyrics for me, and then I would write them down the way I heard them. The important thing was that it should come out sounding right . . . as I got more experienced with it, I was actually able to read the (French lyrics) pretty well as is." "Allô Mon Coeur", a romantic duet with Parisian heartthrob Claude Robin, introduced the English Bon-Bon to French record buyers. The other three songs on this maiden vinyl outing were "Papayer", a catchy cha-cha number; a Gallic take on the much-recorded number "Whatever Lola Wants" from the Broadway musical Damn Yankees; and "Histoire D'Un Amour", a song of Spanish origin that fairly reeked of histrionics à la Xavier Cugat. Ironically, this latter cut became her first French hit, charting at #5.
Her second EP, Java Pour Petula, was highlighted by a French translation of her 1958 British hit "Baby Lover", a truly absurd West Indian dance number that's the epitome of camp; "Tango De L'Esquimau" ("Tango With An Eskimo"), a hilarious novelty song originally popularized by UK star Alma Cogan; and the rather unsavory title track, which finds Pet portraying a naive tourist who meets up with a horny French cab driver ("Java" indeed)! This last song stormed French radio's Top Five hit list after she presented it in her first French-language concert at the Alhambra Theater. Petula also struck gold with her third EP, 1959's Prends Mon Coeur. Although it didn't chart as high as "Java Pour Petula", Petula's swingin' version of Elvis Presley's "A Fool Such As I" (first heard in a 1953 Country version by Hank Snow) outsold the Presley version in France. It prompted the marketing of a French-language album of the same title. This ten-inch gem, depicting Petula in sailor stripes on the cover, is one of her rarest releases; it mixes highlights from her French EPs with failed British singles like "Saint-Tropez", "Adonis" and "Dear Daddy". In 2001, this treasure was reissued as part of a limited-edition CD box set, with most tracks presented in dazzling, first-time stereo mixes.
While Pet's French product sold well during the late '50s, she was still feeling her way stylistically. She had yet to prove to the French public that she was anything more than an imported novelty act. However, Prends Mon Coeur signaled changes on the horizon, and the material she was cutting at this time lay the foundation for the enormous success she'd enjoy in the early '60s. That success coincided with a pronounced move toward Rhythm and Blues.
By now, songwriter, producer and arranger Tony Hatch had become a member of Petula's production team. In 1963, he would assume total supervision over her recorded output. 1960 was a fairly quiet year for Petula in terms of recording activity, as she concentrated on touring the French provinces with singer/songwriter Alexander "Sacha" Distel. She surely must've had second thoughts about pursuing a Francophone career when she found herself playing such unlikely venues as carnivals and bullfights; while performing, she had to avoid stepping in puddles of fresh blood that unfortunate bulls (and sometimes, bullfighters) had left in the ring! Culture shock notwithstanding, she persevered, and in 1961, the English Bon-Bon leapt from the candy box and began to create waves that were felt on both sides of the English Channel. Early that year, Alan Freeman brought her English translations of two German ballads which he believed would revive her flagging British chart fortunes. "Sailor" and "Romeo" did nothing less than that, bouncing into New Musical Express' Top Ten listings within a matter of weeks. What's more, "Sailor" became her first-ever #1 single in England.
Hearing these recordings prior to release, Léon Cabat eagerly commissioned French versions. He seemed particularly impressed with the yodeling background vocals and goose-stepping rhythms of "Romeo". His instructions to Freeman and Hatch were to "recreate the sound of the English versions exactly." French record buyers responded to the record with even more enthusiasm than their British counterparts had, and "Roméo" (new lyrics by Jean Broussolle) topped the charts that winter. "Marin", the French version of "Sailor" (also sporting a fresh Broussolle lyric) was hardly ignored, though. Not only did it go Top Ten, the imported English version charted in the UK Top Twenty! Although pregnant with her first child, Petula promoted the living daylights out of this record, even filming an early music video called a Scopitone to generate more interest. Amid all the excitement, one of her French waxings from 1960, "La Joie D'Aimer" belatedly reached the Top Twenty. Lampshade fashion sense notwithstanding, Petula Clark was now accepted in France as a legitimate balladeer.
Little did the French suspect that she was about to change her style. Cuts from recent EPs hinted at what was coming: Jangly, danceable remakes of Lawrence Welk's "Calcutta", The Drifters' "Save The Last Dance For Me" (a Top Three smash for her), and Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl", as well as a decidedly up tempo French original, "Les Gens Diront". In the closing months of 1961, Pet executed a sharp stylistic left turn that caught everyone by surprise.
Taking note of the Chubby Checker-inspired Twist craze that was sweeping Europe, Claude Wolff suggested that Petula's next EP be dance-oriented. Lyricist Georges Aber presented her with a French translation of Lee Dorsey's then-current hit "Ya Ya", which arranger Peter Knight revamped by kicking the laid-back R & B tempo into overdrive. Pet attacked the French lyric with gusto, coming as close as she could manage to laying down a gritty Blues vocal. Rounding out the EP was a dance version of Ricky Nelson's "Hello, Mary Lou" (rechristened "Bye Bye Mon Amour" by Jean Broussolle) and a jazzy finger-popper called "Parce Que C'Est Bon". Petula herself took pen to paper and, in collaboration with lyricist Alain Gaunay, crafted "Je Chante Doucement", a twistable version of, believe it or not, "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic"!!! It isn't clear what the commercial prospects would've been had an artist pushing thirty issued such an odd assortment of tunes in the United States; however, it proved to be just what the doctor ordered as far as French teenagers were concerned. "Ya Ya Twist" took Paris by storm in the Spring of 1962, topping the charts and triggering massive fits of spinal gyration not only in France, but throughout Europe and all the French territories. Pye Records saw fit to issue the untranslated recording in England, where it became a major hit as well. To everyone's surprise, "Je Chante Doucement" garnered almost as much French airplay. On the strength of these tracks, the English Bon-Bon was renamed "La Pétulante" (the Vivacious One) and crowned "Queen Of The Twist". Her first French twelve-inch album, the Alan Freeman-produced Rendez-Vous Avec Petula became one of 1962's fastest selling platters. In addition to "Ya Ya Twist" and "Je Chante Doucement", it included "Roméo", "Calendar Girl" and a soon-to-be new dance favorite, "Si C'Est Oui, C'Est Oui". This latter track was another of Pet's compositions (lyrics by Pierre Delanoé), and a far more inspired effort than the "Battle Hymn" rip-off.
In the winter of 1962-63, Petula surprised the public again by abruptly switching back to ballads. "Chariot", a Paul Mauriat tune sung with operatic fervor against a sea of strings, brought Petula her third French chart-topper. Later popularized by Little Peggy March as "I Will Follow Him", it was an even bigger continental smash than "Ya Ya Twist" had been, selling over a million copies. The Chariot album, thought by some to be Petula's finest French collection, included two more chartbusting ballads, "Coeur Blessé" (a cover of Kris Jensen's torch classic "Torture") and "Les Beaux Jours" (a Gallic revamping of Nat King Cole's "Ramblin' Rose"). Twist fans weren't left wanting, however, as it also contained "Claquez Vos Doigts" (known stateside as Joe Henderson's Pop/R & B smash "Snap Your Fingers") and a rockin' redux of Leadbelly's "Cottonfields" ("L'Enfant Do). Novelty lovers couldn't get enough of "Les Colimaçons", a song that waxed poetic over the delectability of frogs and snails. Also popular was a new pair of Petula Clark originals: The frenzied floor-shaker "Dans Le Train De Nuit" and "Darling Chéri", a sensuous slow Twist number co-written with Tony Hatch. Pet's increasing number of musical compositions boasted lyrics by noted French wordsmiths like Jacques Plante, Pierre Delanoé, Georges Aber, Maurice Vidalin, and Hubert Ballay.
Champagne corks popped when she was awarded one of 1962's Grand Prix du Disque, a French Grammy award, but that triumph only symbolized one aspect of her European success. Now that she was a regular fixture in French Billboard's Top Ten listings, she turned her attention to recordings customized for Germany, Italy and Spain. The German and Italian-language versions of "Chariot" were smashes in their respective countries, and despite its French title, Pet's polka-styled recording of "Monsieur" was Germany's Top Disc for the year 1962.
While Pet spent a good deal of time touring outside of France in 1963 and '64, she didn't neglect releasing more best-selling French EPs. She scored a major double-sided dance hit "Je Me Sens Bien Auprès De Toi" (first heard as "Dance On", an instrumental by British group The Shadows) backed with "Elle Est Finie, La Belle Histoire" ("This Is Goodbye", yet another self-penned tune). Tony Hatch's discovery of Jackie DeShannon's failed 1963 single "Needles And Pins" resulted in Pet's covering the song as "La Nuit N'En Finit Plus"; she cut the number several months before The Searchers got hold of it, and it remains one of her finest Rock recordings. She also cut into a certain Ms. Warwick's international record sales by tracking French vocals to Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Anyone Who Had A Heart" ("Ceux Qui Ont Un Coeur"), covered Lesley Gore's "She's A Fool" ("Entre Nous, Il Est Fou") and pulled off a not-inconsiderable feat by successfully interpreting "Hello, Dolly" as a Dixieland Rock record! Petula adored Louis Armstrong's original hit rendition, and she was thrilled at Léon Cabat's suggestion that she cover it. In 2002, she boasted that her version appeared "well before the film with Barbra Streisand, in which she interpreted ("Dolly") . . . it's a gay, charming song in a traditional Jazz style, and I had a lot of fun with it at the recording session." Pet's 1964 waxing of the title song from Jerry Herman's Broadway smash became her Tenth consecutive Top Ten single in France.
Another radio favorite from 1964 was "O! O! Shériff", a quite salacious Wild West novelty penned especially for her by Serge Gainsbourg. France's musical "bad boy" wrote several hits for La Pétulante. "I loved his work before it was fashionable to do so," she said in 2001. "The first time I met him, it was in (my) Paris apartment. We drank some tea, and he timidly played me some songs on the piano. I was completely enchanted!" Enchanted also describes the French public's feeling for Petula Clark at this time. By now, Pet was being voted France's favorite female vocalist in polls sponsored by popular magazines like Le Parisien, Jeunesse-Cinema, Puis en Octubre and L'Est Republican. The country had embraced her so completely, "I was actually beginning to feel French," she'd later recall. "I had shed my flouncy English clothes, and had begun to dress the simpler, more sophisticated French way . . . I was starting to speak the language, and enjoy the food. (I was) imbibing, in fact, the whole atmosphere of the place."
By alternating novelty-oriented up tempo songs with melodramatic ballads, Petula and her handlers hit upon a formula that dominated French popular music for nearly four years. In December 1964, she hosted her first music special on French television, "Show-Petula". It was the year's highest-rated variety telecast. Her popularity in France was matched in French-speaking Canada, where she enjoyed additional hits like "Pardon Pour Notre Amour", her own "Prends Garde A Toi" and "Plaza De Toros" (a vocal version of Herb Alpert's "The Lonely Bull"). Even The Beatles' arrival on the international scene couldn't break her stride; Pet's charmingly coy rendition of "Please Please Me" ("Tu Perds Ton Temps") fit right in with the R & B-oriented material she'd already become known for.
By January of 1965, French fans had their pick of two-dozen EP releases, including a collection of Christmas songs (Petula Clark Chante Noël) and an all-instrumental EP of motion picture soundtrack music from the film A Couteaux Tirés, composed in its entirety by Petula. Seven French-language Petula Clark LPs were also available for purchase. The latest was a double album, conducted by Peter Knight and personally produced by Léon Cabat in collaboration with Tony Hatch; it featured La Pétulante's interpretations of standards popularized by Piaf, Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet and other French superstars. Clark's earnest versions of "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup", "Clopin-Clopant", "Vous Qui Passez" and "Petite Fleur" were culled for EP release. The album was wistfully titled Hello, Paris! but in reality, Petula was about to say "Hello, America".
French chart placings for her EPs remained high through 1967, but inevitably dropped off as Petula again began to concentrate on English-language recordings. Of course, this was due to the tremendous success of "Downtown" in the United States and other English-speaking territories (the song was also a #6 French hit in its Georges Aber translation, "Dans Le Temps"). From this point on, Pet's French-language chart records tended to be Gallic versions of her American and British hits. There were notable exceptions, though, like "La Dernière Valse", a 1968 remake of Englebert Humperdinck's "The Last Waltz"; "Un Jeune Homme Bien", her sassy 1966 take on The Kinks' hit "Well-Respected Man"; and a 1965 live recording of a ballad composed by Jacques Brel ("Un Enfant") to celebrate the birth of her second child. However, Petula's second biggest French single after "Chariot" proved to be 1967's "C'Est Ma Chanson", the French version of her worldwide blockbuster "This Is My Song".
Pet's Vogue contract expired in 1972. Among her final recordings for the label was a stunning French reading of "I Don't Know How To Love Him" from the Broadway-bound musical Jesus Christ Superstar (her English rendition was a minor hit in the United Kingdom). Her last hit on Vogue was 1970's autobiographical "C'Est Le Refrain De Ma Vie"("The Song Of My Life"), an old-fashioned waltz featuring a truly Wagnerian orchestra arrangement by Johnny Arthey. She continued to sporadically release new French singles and studio albums well into the 1980s (and returned to France's Top Twenty with "Sauve-Moi" in 1977), but was never able to equal her early '60s success in France. Not that she really needed to, having sold over 60 million records worldwide by then!
Personally and professionally, Petula Clark's years in Paris were arguably the most important of her entire career. During that time, she proved herself a singer/songwriter with consistent commercial appeal (by 1964, she was writing fully half the songs on her album releases), and was effectively teamed with Tony Hatch, whose arranging and production skills became a key factor in spreading her fame around the world. It's also worth noting that Paris was the place where Petula first began sporting the mod miniskirts that made her an over-thirty sex symbol in the mid-60s! Perhaps most important of all, she found her husband in Paris: None other than Claude Wolff, Vogue's promotion chief. Forty-five years, three children, two grandchildren and many dozens of hits later, The Wolffs are still together; mixing business with pleasure seems to be the secret of their longevity, as Claude has served as Pet's manager since shortly after her début in France.
French language releases by Petula Clark are among the most coveted items in her vast catalogue. Original copies can be pricey, but all of her Vogue singles and albums are now available in an attractively packaged and affordable import CD series on the BMG/Anthology's label. For a good career overview, the Pop Culture Cantina recommends a pair of superlative import double CD sets: Sequel Records' Petula Clark En Vogue and Lion-Soleil's Mes Plus Grands Succès. Pet's complete German, French and Italian recordings are also back in circulation, courtesy Bear Family Records and their fine International Collection box set. These (stereo!!!) compilations are a good investment, and not just for nostalgia buffs. Once you've heard La Pétulante camping it up on The French version of "Baby Lover", rapping en français midway through "Parce Que C'Est Bon", rocking out to "La Nuit N'En Finit Plus" or delivering "Coeur Blessé" with trembling voice, you'll agree that there's even more to recommend her talents than classic English-language Pop singles like "Downtown".
A longer version of this article appeared in the November 2000 issue of Discoveries Magazine.
French translations by Don Charles Hampton.
Merci beaucoup à Richard Harries.