Released 55 years ago this fall, it vaulted a little-known British pop vocalist to instant world fame. And now, at 85, Petula Clark is still touring, and still wowing audiences with ‘Downtown’.
In late summer of 1964 song writer Tony Hatch walked from is hotel in New York’s Central Park down to Broadway and Times Square. At the time he was one of music’s hottest writers of pop hits, having scored big with groups like the The Searchers (Sugar and Spice), and some other, lesser-known songs recorded by the Drifters.
Earlier that year he had been contacted by record producer Alan Freeman to work with an obscure British vocalist named Petula Clark, who had, in Freeman’s words, everything necessary to be a star…except a hit record.
Hatch found himself mesmerized by the sights and sounds of Broadway and Times Square, and the atmosphere, he later remembered, caused him to put pen to paper when he got back to his room and scratch out the notes to a song that matched – exactly – the atmosphere of being in downtown New York.
Hatch liked his song so well that his first impulse was to offer it to another English artist, Julie Grant, who was having great success with a pair of records she’d recorded earlier in the year. Grant turned him down.
Learning that Clark was in Paris, Hatch crossed the ocean and within a few days found her in her apartment. Presenting her four songs for consideration to record, Hatch remembered, “She was not enthusiastic about any of them, and asked me if I was working on anything new of my own writing.” He sat down at the piano and played the tune of his Broadway and Times Square inspiration as Clark made a pot of tea in her kitchen.
She listened, hummed along as he played, and said, “That’s what I want to record. Get it finished, put a good lyric in it and get a great arrangement. It may not be a hit, but at least it’s something we’ll be proud to record. What are you calling it?”
“Downtown“, perhaps,” said Hatch.
The song was scheduled to record six weeks later, but Hatch had trouble with finding that ‘great’ arrangement. The trick was to make a giant orchestra sound more like rock band as he mixed and matched musicians and individuals to get the sound he liked. Finally, on October 16, Clark stepped into the studio and on the third take made history. Downtown was on its way to being the biggest popular hit in the world by the following summer.
Downtown was released by Warner Brothers in December, just six weeks after it was recorded, but it labored on the US charts for several weeks because the Christmas season was a terrible time to release a record. But by March, and a Clark appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, it had made its way from #5 to #1.
The song made her an instant world-wide sensation, and launched a string of fifteen consecutive hits, including Don’t Sleep In The Subway, This Is My Song, A Sign Of The Times, I know A Place, The Other Man’s Grass, and American Boys.
Remarkably, Petula Clark is still touring, still performing, today at age 85. Her voice is as strong as ever.
And Tony Hatch? He, too, is still living, in England, and still writing.
But writing nothing like what he wrote from that stroll to Broadway and Times Square, 55 years ago this month. Downtown made Petula Clark a multi-millionaire with sales approaching $10 million dollars, and five million individual units.
It still stands today as the second-most popular single release of all-time.