Petula Clark, recognized by many as the greatest female singing sensation of the 1960s, graced the stage of Toronto's Hummingbird Centre, Sunday November 6, 2005. This is the second time this writer has had the great pleasure of being entertained live by this lady of song.
Growing up as a child star in war-time Britain, singing on the B.B.C. and entertaining the home front and weary WW ll GI's alike, helped develop Ms. Clark's fine sense of timing and totally relaxed presence on stage. This is a talent that allowed this huge audience at the Hummingbird Centre to keep all eyes and ears transfixed, while Petula sang song after endearing song, as if everyone in the audience was being sung to them alone. Such was the intimate nature of Petula's performance, which lasted two and a half-hours with a short intermission in between. However, it seemed to go by much too fast. Petula's visits to Toronto are far too infrequent for this writer, as they are for many in attendance who I spoke to this very special evening of song and mirth.
Actor/singer Don Francks was in the audience this night, close to the stage - and seemed totally mesmerized by Ms. Clark's performance. Sometime during this evening's entertainment, Francks joined Petula on stage to sing their hit "Old Devil Moon". They originally sang this number together in the 1968 movie Finian's Rainbow which co-starred the inimitable Fred Astaire. The audience was enthralled by this rare pairing of Petula and Francks, and no wonder - their charismatic performance, albeit short, was electrifyingly terrific! Petula also mentioned to the audience that Astaire while on the movie set in '68 enthused (bragged) to others then, "I danced with her!"
Petula's long-time friend and booking agent/publicist Gino Empry, was in the audience this night, and had hosted a private party for Petula a few nights earlier when she first arrived in Toronto. This writer had the great privilege and enjoyment in attending this party. I also had a friendly conversation with Petula for about 10 minutes that night. Shortly after this engrossing conversation ended, Empry and Petula left the party which was still going strong, to attend singer Don Francks' performance with his jazz quartet Don Francks & Friends at the refurbished and historic 1860s pub, the Dominon On Queen, in east central Toronto's very Victorian 'Cabbagetown' area. (There's a chapter in the late Mr. Empry's autobiography I Belong To The Stars, devoted to Petula Clark and singer Tony Bennett). http://www.ginoempry.com/
From what Francks told this writer shortly afterwards, Petula asked to sing a song at this venue with him, but he felt her voice should be saved for the Hummingbird concert a few nights later. I might hazard to disagree, since any performer who's been successfully enjoying being in front of an audience as much as Petula has for the past 60 years since she was a child star on radio, would have been in her glory singing a number in a small, cozy venue.
For many artists who play huge venues, a small club atmosphere is a rare and enjoyable experience like the times when the Rolling Stones do a surprise concert at clubs like Toronto's Phoenix Concert Theatre or Horseshoe Tavern, as they've done a few times in recent years. This also brings to mind decades ago conversations with former Alice Cooper bassist Prakash John (recently Blues Angels with blues harp player Jerome Godboo), who told me then that he preferred small venues like Toronto's then-Jarvis House and Piccadilly Tube, sitting in with friends in band Sweet Blindness, "Where I can actually hear myself without a monitor -- and experience the audience close-up", as he put it way back then.
The Hummingbird concert featured many of Petula's best-loved '60s hits, including "My Love", the ever-popular "Downtown" and "Don't Sleep In the Subway", sung with zest by her, and applauded with enthusiasm by her fans. She also sang a heartwarming version of the romantic ballad, "Twelfth of Never".
Part way through, Petula treated the audience to a new song she recently composed. It's romantic air and beautiful harmonies, conjured memories of songs associated in style with those of the late Luther Vandross or other romantic balladeers. This song enchanted and delighted Petula's fans, whose applause reflected their appreciation of this new Petula Clark original. In fact two young ladies in their early 20s told this writer after the show, they really loved this concert, and were going to do a google search on Petula's name afterwards to learn and enjoy all they could about Petula and her music. They said they never heard her before, and added, "Tell her she just made two brand new fans!" This enthusiastic comment says a lot about Petula's longevity and appeal for over six decades as an entertainer.
Orchestra leader, Kenny Clayton played the intro on grand piano to both of Petula's heartwarming sets this evening, which began with an otherworldly, angelic interpretation of "Downtown", and followed with some engrossing blues and jazz interpretations by Clayton soloing on the ivories. The orchestra backing Petula this night, are members of the Toronto Symphony. The guitarist occasionally wailed some imaginative solos, as did the bassist, drummer and an awesome horn section -- adding to the strength of Ms. Clark's outstanding performance.
Petula interspersed her music numbers with ribald jokes, including one about Sophia Loren's 'assets'. This humorous anecdote lead into a Charles 'Charlie' Chaplin number, "This Is My Song", made famous by Petula, and from Loren's '50s movie classic Countess From Hong Kong. Petula also shared endearing memories of being entertained by the great Charlie Chaplin - recalling dancing around the 'Little Tramp's' home in Switzerland, while listening to some of his unforgettable romantic compositions, he played on piano for her, like "Smile (When Your Heart Is Breaking)". Petula sang this beautiful Chaplin song, while accompanying herself on grand piano, backed by this incredible orchestra. When she sang "One Look", from Sunset Boulevard, she was wearing the cape of Norma Desmond, the character she portrayed in Sunset B on Broadway. At one point, she recited a poem she wrote, that mentioned "the magic is in you," which is sort of 'magical' in itself, like an E. Nesbit story for children.
Other favorites Petula sang this night included the romantic and beautifully harmonious Trini Lopez hit from the 1960s, "Call Me", as well as some delightful songs in French she added to her vast repertoire while living in France for several years. She also sang a magnificent version of The Searchers' classic '60s hit, "Needles & Pins", in French.
The finale of this absolutely mesmerizing evening had Petula cheered back for an encore with the rousing "My Love". While her fans' ecstatic applause was still being heard, Petula was presented with a huge bouquet of roses. She graciously accepted them like the humble star she is with thanks to her fans, and handshakes with many of them, before she left the stage. Added to this were the indelibly happy memories Petula left in the hearts of her fans, some of who have eagerly attended her performances for decades.
This evening ended with a relaxed meeting of Petula with some of her fans, where she found time to talk to them and reminisce. Empry and Francks were also there sharing some of this 'star' light. As was singer Steve 'Doc' Holliday, who has Docville Western Town -- a tribute to wild-west heroes Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp; (on hwy 115 , on the way to Peterborough from Toronto). It's one of those quaint tourist places that are a rare treat to visit and drift back into, like a comic book or old movie from childhood.
Such also was the magic of this thrilling Petula Clark concert for this writer and many others. It was as if we had the chance to drift back and enjoy some of the magic we remember from Petula Clark in the '60s in her fabulous singing; as well as her captivating stage presence and superb orchestra this night at Toronto's Hummingbird Centre in November 2005.