Liz Smith: To Lulu, With Love

HOW DO you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume/It isn’t easy but I’ll try.If you wanted the sky, I would write across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand feet high — to sir, with love.”

This is British singer Lulu’s poignant declaration of gratitude to Sidney Poitier in the 1966 movie, “To Sir, With Love.” It not only helped the film to become a huge hit (those were the days a theme song could do that!) but it propelled 16-year-old Lulu, already something of a sensation in England to worldwide prominence.

But Lulu never really capitalized on her American success — in America. In the UK, she had her own TV show, she has topped the British charts in every decade, has written hits for the likes of Tina Turner, and worked with everybody from Johnny Cash, to Jimi Hendrix to Elton John, Sting, David Bowie and Paul McCartney. She is, with no exaggeration, an iconic figure to her countrymen — The Queen of Soul.

But over here? “Not so much, not at all!” Lulu herself laughs. “Maybe somebody might remember ‘To Sir With Love,’ but otherwise, I am pretty much an unknown quantity in America.”

I spoke to the singer over the phone, just a few days before her New York concert debut at B.B. King’s Blues Club. It happens on February 16th.

She called from Connecticut, which surprised me.

“Oh, I know,” Lulu said, “It would have been much more exotic to write that you spoke with me from London! But I’m here rehearsing, and preparing for the launch of my skin care line on QVC. Let’s just pretend Connecticut is an exotic spot, shall we?”

I asked if Lulu, so associated — in the U.S. — for one gigantic hit, ever wearies of being associated with it, singing the song?

“Well, let me answer two ways. For one thing, we were poor in Glasgow. I mean, poor. We didn’t have a bathroom, we had a toilet. I had to bathe at the sink. I’m not telling you this for an ‘awwww’ reaction. But that’s how it was. And my family was very attracted to all things American — movies, music.

We never listened to British music. America was the land of hope and glory. So, when I had my first hit in England, ‘Shout,’ it was astonishing. And, by the way, nobody thought I’d last. They all said, ‘Oh, my God, all that screaming and yelling, she’ll be gone soon.’ And of course, I was singing American soul-style.

“And then came ‘To Sir With Love.’ I was acting and I had this huge song. It was overwhelming. I was so grateful. Then I had a TV series, at sixteen, seventeen. I only associate that song with good things — with finally having a bathroom!” She laughed again. Lulu has a wickedly infectious laugh, almost a cackle. It is hard to resist breaking up when she does.

She continued: “But over the years, though I never resent the song, I do try to sing it differently. I know I will at B.B. King’s. I told them, ‘Please don’t expect me to do it like it I did when I was a teenager, I’ll kill myself!” (Lulu performed a stunning version of “To Sir With Love” — arranged by Barry Manilow — on “American Idol” several seasons back.)

BUT SHE never yearned to bring her fame overseas? “I don’t know. I was happy in England. I would never have left my family. Things happen for a reason. I certainly can’t complain. I am a household name in England though that is embarrassing to say. It was fate. And now it’s fate that has finally brought me here, and I love the fact that it is at B.B. King’s club. He is one of my idols.”

Why, I asked, are so many British singers, so many women, from Dusty Springfield to Amy Winehouse, attracted to jazzy, bluesy, soulful R&B?

“People have asked me that, one way or another, over the years, and I never give a satisfactory answer. I don’t know. To me, music is like, ‘take me to church!’ It’s transforming. It can make you cry or laugh or jump up and dance. Maybe R&B is more ‘real’ to me — the biggest church of all.

“Or maybe it was just because I hated all British music, up until the Beatles. I just wouldn’t listen, it was awful.” She laughs again, ‘Terrible to say, isn’t it?”

LULU IS no longer the voluptuous round-faced teen of her “To Sir With Love” era. She has matured into a sleek, gorgeous woman who looks a good decade or two younger than her years. That skin-care line must work!

“I never, ever refer to myself as ‘old.’ But I am getting older, as we all do. And it’s important to keep yourself looking and feeling well as long as you can. We’re living longer, our possibilities are improved, in life and our professions.

Although I have to say, I don’t work as hard on my body as I once did. I have friends who work out everyday. Please! I make sure I’m able to stretch and move, but, enough. I don’t want to ‘feel the burn.’

But Lulu might be ready to feel a hotter fire from her career. She is not signed to a current record label, which is a pity. But she admits, “Look, a lot of people encourage me. Elton is always saying, when you’re ready, we’ll do an album.

“And when I said I was going to be doing intimate clubs, everybody said, ‘Great! Do it!’ So, if it all goes well, you never know, I might be recording on a label again.

“I’m happy, I’m thrilled. If it gets better than this, well — I guess it’ll be like that first bathroom I had!”

Call 1-800-745-3000 to see a legend at work at B.B. King’s on February 16th.

This column originally appeared on on 2/13/13

One Response so far.

  1. avatar Hellster says:

    Wow! I, too, was born in Glasgow, not long after Lulu, in a tenement room-and-kitchen with a toilet in the stairwell, which was shared by all the families on that floor. In fact, Lulu (birth name: Marie McDonald Laurie, I do believe) was always mentioned proudly as a distant cousin; and if you could see my photo, you’d see the resemblance. When I hear her in interviews and she impersonates her Glasgow mother’s accent, it tickles me no end! Sounds just like my mother and aunties. And despite Lulu’s fame and talent, she comes across as good-natured, intelligent, humorous and down-to-earth–just like a “wee Glesca wummin!” Thanks, Liz, for featuring my beautiful, talented cuzzie!