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Petula Clark talks about the enduring magic of ‘Downtown,’ her first U.S. tour and more

Petula Clark needs no reminder of her recent 85th birthday.

"Oh, please," she sighed. "I haven't celebrated my birthday for many, many years. The problem is, sometimes I think, Ah, I've got away with that! Then suddenly, there are people singing Happy Birthday to me. About two years ago in Geneva, I thought I'd gotten away with it, and I was singing at an arena, and 20,000 people f—ing broke into Happy Birthday. I thought, Uh-oh. And then they wheeled the biggest birthday cake I'd seen in my life."

C'mon, though — Clark is definitely worth celebrating, right? Especially considering the British vocal icon behind all-time city-life anthem Downtown is, in her ninth decade, in the middle of what she says is her first full U.S. tour ever.

She's done Vegas, played plenty of one-off concerts, and has even performed in Tampa Bay in touring productions of Sunset Boulevard and Blood Brothers. But her two shows Dec. 12 at Largo's Central Park Performing Arts are part of an exceedingly rare extended roadshow.

"You must remember that I was living in Europe when Downtown happened," Clark said. "I was living in Geneva, Switzerland, and married with two small children, and a huge career going on in Europe. I was very, very busy already. And then when all the hits happened over here, they were saying, 'You've got to come here, you've got to come to the States.' It was very exciting, let's face it. But there was no way that I could go out on a tour."

She's even got a tour bus with a sleeper cabin, which she describes with wide-eyed wonder.

"I did a U.K. tour just a few months ago, but of course, the distance in the U.K. are nothing like the distances here," she said. "But I love it. I love touring with the musicians, the crew. It's like a big family, and you get to see the countryside. I really enjoy it."

Clark was just 9 when she made her radio debut during World War II, launching a successful career as a child performer, sort of like England's answer to Shirley Temple, starring in films and scoring a string of multilingual hits across Europe. Americans probably didn't realize it, but by the time Downtown debuted in 1964, Clark had already been through a couple of career cycles in her native country, and was spending more time singing in French, Italian and German.

But the song, a loving and lived-in ode to the hustle and bustle of a neon city like New York, was an instant smash around the world. It set in place a fruitful partnership between Clark and writer-producer Tony Hatch that included My Love, Round Every Corner, I Know a Place, A Sign of the Times, Don't Sleep on the Subway, I Couldn't Live Without Your Love and many others.

She has recorded hundreds of songs and sold nearly 70 million records and, remains a curious interpreter of music. In 2013 she covered Gnarls Barkley's Crazy; when this tour is over, she'll jet up to Montreal to finish up her first-ever record of French Canadian music. She's even become a songwriter herself — her latest album, the appropriately titled Living For Today, even includes a collaboration with Hatch.

But Downtown was and still is her "monster," Clark said. Though it was written and performed by Brits, it feels sweeping and theatrical, like a whole chapter of the Great American Songbook. It has been sampled, remixed and reinvented countless times over, including more than once by Clark herself.

"It's just one of those tunes that just goes on and on and on," she said. "I don't have to do anything. It's just there. And it was a hit all over the world, so there are many countries where they don't really understand the lyrics, but that tune, that phrase, is just there. It's just an amazing piece of writing on Tony's behalf."

Like many of Clark's '60s recordings, Downtown was backed by a group of all-star session musicians, including a young Jimmy Page. Clark always paid great attention to the talent around her in studio, from British guitar gods Page and John McLaughlin to American legends like Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew.

"Session musicians are so important; they're the guys who make it happen," he said. "They're just the people who created that sound."

Her own instrument, her bold and enunciative voice, hasn't really diminished with time; in fact, she said, "I think it's probably more powerful now." Most of her old hits, she still sings in their original key — and she does so without much of a vocal warm-up, something she says she's never really needed.

"I feel as if I'm still learning how to do it," she said of singing live. "Every time I go out on stage, I'm a little bit nervous, which I think is a sign of good health, actually, like a dog having a wet nose. I think it's important to have that little tingle of nerves before you go on stage."

Even at age 85. Not that you need to remind her.

— Jay Cridlin

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