When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown…
When Petula Clark first sang those words by Tony Hatch back in 1964, it’s highly doubtful that she – or anybody else – could have predicted the COVID-19 crisis which we’re all currently experiencing. But the warm, inviting, and reassuring sentiment has never seemed more relevant than it does today. Thanks to the herculean efforts of the United Music Foundation, it’s now possible to travel with the timeless Ms. Clark not just downtown, but away from these social-distancing days and back to February 14, 1974 at London’s Royal Albert Hall. On that evening, Petula headlined a dazzling concert which remains among the highlights of a career that’s still going strong; in fact, up until COVID-19 closed the West End’s theatres, Clark was delighting audiences eight times a week in the musical Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward Theatre, less than 2.5 miles away from the Royal Albert Hall.
A Valentine’s Day Concert at the Royal Albert Hall is the name of the United Music Foundation’s deluxe 2-CD premiere of this complete concert. The show was aired on the BBC that year in two parts, and a severely truncated version was released on Polydor in 1974 as the Live in London album. Due to contractual restrictions, that original LP included none of Clark’s big hits. Not only are they restored to the setlist here, but this 33-track release reveals the concert as an exciting overview of a diverse career that had, by that point, spanned thirty years.
The artist’s roots with the Royal Albert Hall ran deep. By the time she was sixteen, Petula had already played the landmark venue four times in front of such esteemed personages as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. While remaining current and eschewing nostalgia, Clark vividly channeled her personal history that winter’s night in 1974 – three decades after she first charmed British audiences during World War II, two decades following her first U.K. hits “The Little Shoemaker” and “Majorca,” and one decade since her U.S. British Invasion breakthrough with “Downtown.” All of those aspects of her career were on thrilling display as she embraced the international fame that also saw her become a major French-language star.
Electricity was clearly in the air beginning with the brash, confident opening salvo of Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent’s “Colour My World.” The 1966 hit segued into a bright rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” just one of the many contemporary pop and soul tunes Clark would perform that night in her own inimitable fashion. She melded a conversational, sensitive rendition of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s melancholy “Alone Again (Naturally)” with his rocking plea to “Get Down.” Tom Evans and Pete Ham’s aching “Without You” (then a recent hit for Harry Nilsson) inspired a dramatic vocal from Petula; the soaring ballad would have been fresh in her mind as she recorded it for her Come on Home album released not long after the Albert Hall show. Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” (incorporating snippets of “Blue Skies” and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”), Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel’s “Killing Me Softly with His Song” (also recorded for Come on Home), and an uptempo, funky reinterpretation of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” all represented Petula’s dips into the future standard songbook.
Petula has enjoyed a long association with the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, having performed over 20 of their songs on records, in concert, and on television over the years. Her wonderfully passionate take on “What the World Needs Now Is Love” (which closes the first CD of this set) is as powerful today as it was in 1974.
Petula naturally made room for a selection of her enduring Tony Hatch classics (with and without his partner and wife Jackie Trent), weaving the joyful “Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” “The Other Man’s Grass Is Always Greener,” “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love,” and “I Know a Place” through the evening. Hatch’s paean to the power of “Music,” from the 1965 Downtown album, was imaginatively reinvented by arranger Peter Knight as a tour de force for Petula and the full orchestra impressively led by pianist-conductor Frank Owens and Clark’s touring band including Ted Irwin on guitar, Kirk Hamilton on bass, and Roy Markowitz on drums. Background singers Kay Garner and Sue and Sunny added luster to the big, expansive sound.
Clark’s success as a chanteuse wasn’t overlooked at the Albert Hall; she offered a few lines of “This Is My Song” in French as well as Francis Lai’s haunting theme to the film Love Story. In addition to the movie themes, Petula detoured to Broadway for the showstopping Jesus Christ Superstar medley which she recorded in 1971. In years to come, she would deliver an acclaimed star turn as Norma Desmond in JCS composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage adaptation of Sunset Boulevard.
Best of all may well be the London Medley which received its one and only performance that night at the Albert Hall. Using Leslie Bricusse’s song “London Is London” from the movie musical Goodbye Mr. Chips (in which Clark starred) as its starting point, Petula saluted the capital of her home country with music hall flair on Noel Coward’s “London Pride,” David Heneker and Monty Norman’s bouncy “Portobello Road,” and the lovely standard “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” The Mr. Chips score was also tapped for the beautifully bittersweet “You and I.” A second medley crafted especially for the Albert Hall concert, built around the Carpenters’ wistful “Yesterday Once More,” found the singer in tongue-in-cheek fashion as she merrily jumped from genre to genre with “G.I. Jive,” “Mona Lisa,” a twangy “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and the appropriately smoky “The Man That Got Away.”
Naturally, the perennially cheerful and groovy “Downtown” was saved for the evening’s climactic portion, presented in a medley with another U.S. chart-topper, Hatch’s buoyant “My Love.” Petula updated the arrangements of these two sixties favorites, with the playoff of the former anticipating the flavor of Van McCoy’s “The Hustle” (which hadn’t even been recorded yet). For her encore, Clark accompanied herself on piano for Leon Russell’s moving “A Song for You.” Though still accompanied by the orchestra, at that moment Clark made the 5,000+-seat venue as intimate as a small cabaret.
This limited, numbered release of 2,000 units has been overseen and mastered for from the original tapes by David Hadzis of United Music Foundation. Sound quality throughout is exemplary. The discs are housed in an attractive, oversized hardcover book of 40 pages. Alan Jackson’s comprehensive essay features Petula’s own memories of the evening (and her generous tributes to the musicians and behind the scenes personnel), along with fascinating nuts-and-bolts details about the concert. Track-by-track notes are also provided for each song performed, and a “Who’s Who” of talent have provided new appreciations including Tony Hatch, Burt Bacharach, Stevie Wonder, Richard Carpenter, Leslie Bricusse, and the late Francis Lai. The package is lavishly illustrated with photography of the concert and rare memorabilia.
The top ticket price for the concert was £3.30 (with the “cheap seats” at a mere 75p). While the times have certainly changed, the magic of Petula Clark most definitely hasn’t. The lovingly-produced release of A Valentine’s Day Concert at the Royal Albert Hall is a fitting tribute to an international treasure. It’s available now for order at the link below.
Petula Clark, A Valentine’s Day Concert at the Royal Albert Hall (United Music Foundation 7640160390301, 2020)
- Fanfare and Announcement/Colour My World
- You Are the Sunshine of My Life
- Don’t Sleep in the Subway
Gilbert O’Sullivan Medley
- Alone Again (Naturally)
- Get Down
- London Is London
- London Pride
- Portobello Road
- A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square
- London Is London (Reprise)
- You and I
- The Other Man’s Grass Is Always Greener
- Without You
- This Is My Song
- What the World Needs Now Is Love
- I Can See Clearly Now
- Killing Me Softly with His Song
- I Know a Place
- My Funny Valentine
Yesterday Once More Medley
- Yesterday Once More
- I. Jive
- Mona Lisa
- Your Cheatin’ Heart
- The Man That Got Away
- Yesterday Once More (Reprise)
- I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love
- Une Histoire d’Amour (Love Story)
- You’ve Got a Friend
- I Don’t Know How to Love Him/Superstar
- My Love
- A Song for You
All tracks recorded February 14, 1974 at Royal Albert Hall, London