As of Sunday night, December 17, 2017, there’s a new artist who tops the list of oldest performers I’ve seen in concert. She takes over from Neil Diamond, who at 76 was the oldest singer I’d seen perform live at a concert in Chicago this past May.
Here’s the updated story of the new champ.
While most of my fellow Pittsburgh Steelers fans were watching our team nearly dominate – but still lose to – the hated New England Patriots in a game that likely determined the path to the Super Bowl for this year’s AFC Playoffs, I was at a small venue in St. Charles, IL, shamelessly voiding my man-card (just for the night, that is) and singing along to songs I’ve been singing for decades, only this time with the artist standing about 30 feet in front of me!
The artist was British singing royalty Petula Clark, CBE, the ‘60s legend whose career dates further back than that and whose most recent album has a copyright date from this year.
Petula Clark, owner of more than a dozen top-40 hits in the 1960s, including two number one classics, “Downtown” and “My Love,” both released before I was born (although I was embryonic by the time “My Love” charted).
Pet Clark, the performer who – on a night when the music world was mourning the death of fellow octogenarian Keely Smith, an 89-year-old pop and jazz singer that had died less than 24 hours earlier – was on stage at the 900-seat Arcada Theatre recalling long-ago stories, shimmying and at one point even rapping to tunes from her own seven-decade-long career.
Put simply, Petula Clark still swings! And let there be no doubt, she’s not too keen on dwelling on the past either. Her newest album, Living For Today, features her unique and surprisingly contemporary takes on songs new and old…and that album got a fair amount of treatment during this show.
On the album’s title track, she vocalized her fatigue over politicians making bad decisions and even rapped a couple of lines during the song’s bridge. Surprisingly, it didn’t come across as novelty to hear this white, 85-year-old British singer seriously rapping about the state of things today.
Other songs had a modern feel to them as well. The song “From Now On,” which she had earlier recorded in 2016, came on like an ‘80s power rocker (ok, maybe that’s not so modern), with her five backing band members providing ample instrumentation to complement Clark’s only slightly diminished, but highly suitable and still very good vocals.
She performed no less than a half-dozen tracks from the new album, although admittedly several of them were covers of older songs, albeit with more modern takes.
For instance, her take on Steve Winwood’s “While You See A Chance” had an eerie, experimental, new-age feel to it. Awash with synth accompaniment, the song was slowed to a ballad from Winwood’s original, giving it a unique, latter-day Pet Clark signature.
With her hips swaying in time and her frizzy white-blond hair teased and tousled, she sang Peggy Lee’s 1958 smash “Fever,” also on the new album, in which she delivered on her earlier promise to Lee that if she ever performed it, the song would have all the sass of the original, which Pet amply displayed during this night’s performance.
But the song choices weren’t all fun and folly.
Her take on the Beatles’ classic “Blackbird,” also on the new album and which Clark introduced as “a very important song,” had all the beauty and poignancy the tune called for, with chirping bird sound effects added in for good measure. Paul McCartney surely would have been happy to hear Clark’s version of his composition, which has now taken on the legend of having been inspired by the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
For equal McCartney/Lennon peace-and-love representation, she then turned to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which Clark introduced by recalling one of the infamous bed-ins for peace that Lennon and wife Yoko Ono staged in 1969, this one in Montreal. Clark happened to be at the hotel where they were being filmed and, after visiting with Lennon and Ono, wound up on the recording of the infamous protest song, “Give Peace A Chance.”
Clark herself has credibility when it comes to taking a stand for equality and peace. She made history back in the turbulent late 1960s as part of American TV’s first interracial embrace (yes that was a big deal then) when she and black singer Harry Belafonte sang “On The Path To Glory,” an anti-war song she composed. Their interlocked arms drew fire from the show’s sponsors and when Clark was asked to record a different take of the performance with her and Belafonte standing apart from one another, she refused and the show aired as originally filmed.
At the time, Clark certainly had the kind of pull that afforded her such veto rights. She was at one point the top female star of the 1960s British Invasion of American rock and roll.
Admittedly, it was the hits from that era that I and likely many others in attendance came to hear. Of the night’s 21 selections, accounting for medleys, about half were Pet Clark top-40 hits of the ‘60s, including her last top-10 American hit, the Charlie Chaplin-composed “This is My Song.” She sang part of that one in French, showing off her well-known multilingual skills and playfully recalling the frustration of her English-speaking fans when she sang in French, and vice-versa.
There were also the Tony Hatch-composed biggies: “Downtown,” “I Know A Place,” “Don’t Sleep In The Subway” and “My Love,” which she reimagined as a Nashville country song, much to the amusement of her audience. (Btw, Hatch also contributed a new song, “The Rainbow,” to Clark’s latest album.)
Sung live and without the backing of a full orchestra, the earlier numbers didn’t have all the bombast and 1960s swing of the original recordings, but they served this crowd of septuagenarians (going by average age here) – and me – very well.
People don’t know this, but Petula and I actually have a connection that bears mentioning here. It’s a connection between Sunday night’s show and a hip-hop concert I attended nearly a decade ago.
It was during one of those classic song performances on Sunday that my excitement caused me to raise my arm to get a better video of Clark with my phone’s camera, apparently obscuring a fan’s view behind me and prompting him to reach and pull my arm down – without asking for my permission or without saying “excuse me,” which frustrated me a bit. I obliged and kept the arm down, fully intending to address the matter of his bold rudeness afterwards (no violence, but simply reminding him that we say “excuse me” before we engage someone physically that way).
But before I acted, I recalled another time in the distant past when I was on a date (going to see a Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige concert in Atlantic City In 2008; yes my musical tastes are that wide-ranging, thank you) and I was frustrated about the traffic. I was venting to my date about it and, in an attempt to calm me, she flatly said, “why don’t you just put on that Petula Clark CD you have tucked over there in the car door pouch? That’ll calm you down.”
(Ok, maybe my man-card might have been in question then, too.)
Fast-forward to now and the end of last night’s Pet Clark concert, as I turned to give the death stare to the guy who’d been so bold as to move my arm, I decided it wasn’t worth it to lecture him. The man was probably 25 years my senior, plus we had just seen Petula Clark, the singer who has always had a calming effect on me.
Not long after leaving the venue, I proceeded to go back “Downtown,” to my waiting home where I could forget all my troubles and forget all my cares, as Petula had sung so effectively just hours before.
Thanks Pet Clark! If anyone out there believes by default that 85-year-young singers don’t still have it, they clearly haven’t seen her perform!
Petula Clark setlist; December 17, 2017 (Arcada Theatre, St. Charles, IL):
- You And I/ Meant To Be
- Don’t Sleep On The Subway
- Fever (Peggy Lee)
- Look To The Rainbow
- How Are Things In Glocca Mora?
- My Love (country version)
- From Now On
- Blackbird (McCartney)
- Imagine (Lennon)
- With One Look
- Who Am I?/Colour My World
- This Is My Song (Charlie Chaplin)
- Living For Today
- I Know A Place/The Sign Of the Times
- While You See A Chance (Steve Winwood)
- I Could Never Live Without Your Love