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CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD

English singer Petula Clark is back 'Downtown'

Classic Hollywood: The performer, whose '60s classics included 'Downtown,' recalls meeting John Lennon, Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire. She'll be appearing Monday at the Grammy Museum.

By Susan King, Los Angeles Times

6:30 PM CST, November 17, 2013

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After nearly seven decades in the business, several Grammys and countless hit records in the 1960s such as "Downtown" and "I Know a Place," Petula Clark believes she's "beginning to get the hang" of singing.

"I tell you what, I get more enjoyment out of it now," said Clark, who turned 81 on Friday. "I am singing better now. This is just a bit of luck. I don't do anything for it. I don't warm up. I just go out and sing."

The British singer recently returned from a tour of her homeland performing her classics, as well as tunes from her new CD, "Lost in You." And she's heading for Australia next year.

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But first, she'll be making a rare public appearance in Los Angeles at the Grammy Museum on Monday night. The sold-out "Evening With Petula Clark" will feature the singer performing new and old tunes accompanied by her musical director on the piano, and doing a Q&A with the museum's executive director, Bob Santelli. There also will be various clips from her long career.

"I hope they are not going to be too ancient," she said, laughing, over the phone from her vacation home in Megève, France, not far from her residence in Geneva, Switzerland.

Her new disc features some of Clark's own compositions, as well as a cover of "Downtown," which, she said, is "a very different take on it."

Clark also covers John Lennon's "Imagine," because, she said, she had a great rapport with the late Beatle. Clark met Lennon when he and Yoko Ono were staging a bed-in for peace at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal in 1969.

Clark was in Montreal at the time performing in concert. Because she had recorded songs in French before she hit the top of the charts in the 1960s in England and the U.S, she decided to do a bilingual concert. But the audience wasn't happy. "When I was singing in English, the French weren't pleased. When I sang in French, the English weren't pleased."

Though she didn't know Lennon, Clark thought he might have some advice on how to deal with the Montreal audiences.

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"I went over to his hotel, and the concierge recognized me," she said. "I just went in, and they were sitting in bed. John was so sweet and funny and totally got the problem. He put it in perspective."

He also invited her to go into the living room and have a glass of wine.

"There were one or two people I knew and a few I didn't," she said. "There was this music going on. I didn't realize at the time they were recording. We all started singing along with the music — it was 'Give Peace a Chance.' So I just happen to be on the record. I think Timothy Leary was on it and one of the Smothers Brothers."

Clark began singing and acting professionally as a child in the 1940s, appearing in several films, including 1952's "The Promoter" with Alec Guinness. With her recording success, Hollywood beckoned. She starred in two musical movies — 1968's "Finian's Rainbow" with Fred Astaire and 1969's "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" opposite Peter O'Toole. (A very young Francis Ford Coppola directed "Finian's Rainbow," and George Lucas was his assistant.)

Astaire, she added, was a perfectionist. So much so that he stayed at Warner Bros. on the weekends with his choreographer Hermes Pan to work on dance numbers.

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"It was near the end of his career as a dancer," said Clark. "He wanted it to be as good as he could be. He was funny. He loved pop music. We would sing together. Making that movie was one of the most joyful moments in my life."

Clark also had a great time with comedy legend Charlie Chaplin. She had scored a huge hit with his tune "This Is My Song," from his final film, 1967's "A Countess From Hong Kong."

Chaplin was so delighted with her interpretation of the romantic ballad that he asked to meet her.

"He lived not very far from us in Switzerland," recalled Clark. "I was thrilled to meet Charlie. He was sweet, lovely, funny and very English."

The two had a "wonderful" afternoon together. "We had some really good tea, I must say. He was so thrilled with the success of the song. It sort of turned into a party. His children came in. I played the piano, and they were dancing around the living room."

susan.king@latimes.com

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