By Steve James
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Petula Clark likes to think of herself as the Beatles' big sister.
After all, the singer's biggest hit "Downtown" personified the 1960's "British Invasion" of America just as much as John, Paul, George and Ringo, or the more grungy Rolling Stones.
"The Beatles were fairly reassuring, apart from their funny haircuts, but the Stones and everything else was pretty aggressive," she said of the '60's sea-change in pop music.
"I was reassuring to parents," she told Reuters. "I was little bit older and I wasn't singing protest songs!
"I was sort of like the big sister. I think that was what my image was."
Indeed, her image was the very model of '60's Swinging London -- with a short bob of blonde hair and psychedelic mini skirts.
When "Downtown" hit No 1 in 1964, Clark, already 32 years-old, a mother of two, and a successful singer in France, was thrust into a career-changing maelstrom by a call from the Ed Sullivan show -- then the top variety show on U.S. television.
"I did a show in Paris on Saturday night, then got on a flight to New York," she said. "I arrived in time for dress rehearsals on Sunday. I hadn't rehearsed with the band and I came out in a little black dress, no makeup and the dress rehearsal was in front of an audience and the band was playing 'Downtown' too fast!
"The place went wild and it was my first contact with a New York audience. That was the beginning of my love story with New York," she said of the city where two of her grandchildren live.
In her 80th year now, Clark's career has taken a long and winding road back to the Big Apple for a two-week show starting on Tuesday at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, a Park Avenue cabaret spot that is strictly midtown, not downtown.
"I haven't done cabaret for...I can't remember the last time I did it," she said. "I did the Empire Room at the Waldorf just before it closed." For the record, Clark played the Empire Room twice, in 1969 and 1976.
Clark, a two-time Grammy winner with 15 Top 40 U.S. hits, still plays concert halls in Europe and North America. She also appeared on the big screen in "Goodbye, Mr Chips" and "Finian's Rainbow" (opposite Fred Astaire), but she is probably best-known to younger audiences as the fading Hollywood star, Norma Desmond, in the musical "Sunset Boulevard."
Of the switch to an intimate setting at Feinstein's, she laughed: "I don't actually have a cabaret act. I will do songs that people probably expect me to sing, and I think I'll do something from 'Sunset.'
"Most of the songs I will do are connected to me in one way or another," like 'Downtown,' 'Don't Sleep in the Subway,' or 'I Know a Place.'"
Clark will include a song for which she wrote the lyrics, "Starting all Over." "I wrote it after 9-11 and it was my way of expressing my anger and my grief," she said. "I don't always do it in my act, but I feel it would be appropriate here."
LITTLE GIRL WITH ANGELIC VOICE
Coincidentally, Clark's singing career grew out of another period of terror and violence -- World War Two and the Nazi bombing of London where she was born.
A little girl with an angelic voice she inherited from her mother's Welsh family, Clark was captured on microphone during a BBC radio broadcast for British troops.
She ended up touring England, just like her contemporary Julie Andrews, entertaining troops. After the war, she signed with the Rank Organization and pursued a film career, "I wanted to be Ingrid Bergman," she vamped.
But it was her voice that was most in demand and it was one song, by British writer Tony Hatch, that made the difference.
"Tony had come to Paris to talk about a new French (recording) session. I had a huge French career, and I was perfectly happy with that.
"Tony said 'You really should be recording again in English.'
"I said 'OK, if the right song comes along.' He said 'I just finished writing this tune, called Downtown' and I said 'Why don't you play it for me and I went into the kitchen to make some tea.
"He played it on the piano and I said 'That is one great tune. If you can write a lyric up to the standard of the tune, I'll do it.'
"Two weeks later, we were in London, making the record, I think we did three takes, live of course, and we used the second one. It changed my life."
Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard" changed it again and gave Clark the opportunity to act -- as well as sing.
"I did it over a year in the West End (London), I think I've played it more than anyone else," she said. "Glenn Close said to me 'Don't even think of playing this more than eight months, you will go mad!'
"I hadn't wanted to play the role because I didn't like the character -- living in the past. But after I had been playing her for about eight months I started to love her.
"And when I finished playing her here in the States, I missed her," said Clark.
(Reporting By Steve James; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)