Lulu, Singer and Co-Star of ‘To Sir With Love,’ Remembers Sidney Poitier, and Working With David Bowie

The legendary Scottish singer Lulu has had a career that’s spanned six decades and is still, as she says, “smashing it onstage.” But she is most associated with a song and a film that she made when she was a teenager: the 1967 Sidney Poitier-starring classic “To Sir, With Love.” The film depicted Poitier as a British Guyanese teacher at a tough East London school and the ensuing racial issues, and featured Lulu not just as a student in his class but also singing the title song to him in a pivotal scene at the end.

Though just 18 at the time, Lulu (real name: Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie) was already a major pop star in Swinging London-era Britain, with a powerhouse voice that got her discovered at the age of 15. She was steered to top chart success by Marion Massey, one of the first female managers in the business (and mother of current Arista Records CEO David Massey), enjoying a string of British chart hits through the 1960s — and a U.S. No. 1 with “To Sir, With Love.”

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While her chart successes cooled toward the end of the ‘60s, she had variety shows on British television — where she featured artists like Jimi Hendrix — was married to Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees, and had a mid-‘70s chart comeback under the aegis of David Bowie, who produced her 1974 cover of his song “The Man Who Sold the World,” which hit No. 3 on the U.K. charts and was a Top 10 hit across Europe; of course the song, which Bowie originally released in 1970, became globally known when covered by Nirvana in 1993. Along the way she’s sung a James Bond theme — “The Man With the Golden Gun” — had hit singles with Elton John, Bobby Womack and a British chart-topper with Take That; had one of her compositions covered by Tina Turner (“I Don’t Wanna Fight”), and much more. She sings the title track for the animated feature “My Old School,” which premieres virtually at Sundance this week.

Now 73, Lulu’s fascinating history is detailed at length in her two autobiographies, but she was kind enough to spend a half hour over Zoom with Variety from London talking about Poitier, who passed away last week, and Bowie, who died five years ago Monday. But the conversation was not maudlin in the slightest: She’s Lulu, after all, and there are casual mentions of going to a Bowie concert with Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe and having dinner with Tom Jones, and words cannot come close to conveying how inviting and infectious her laughter is — it’s like a joking elbow-to-the-ribs over Transatlantic Zoom.

When did you first meet Sidney Poitier? You were very young when you made the film.

I’d had quite a few hit records and I was definitely living in Lulu-land — I thought I was the bee’s knees until I got there, and realized I was in the presence of somebody very special. I was terrified! His reputation quite clearly preceded him, and when you come into contact with an energy like that… the word that jumps to the front of my mind is dignity — he exuded dignity. His carriage was rather regal, and he was very tall – I’m only five feet, so you had to sort of crane your neck to speak to him. And I was kind of afraid because the other kids in the film all came from acting school and I was a singer and had never acted a day in my life, so it was all very daunting.

Sidney didn’t make a big noise and hang out with the kids. I think in every character, as an actor — this is just my opinion, because I have studied acting since then — you have to find in yourself the part of you that is in the character, you have to remember experiences in your life that help you relate to it. So I’m certain that every part he chose to play was very carefully thought out. It’s how he wanted to live his life: as a good human being, and if he was going to portray a character he wanted it to be one that would show that human beings can uplift themselves. And he made that film happen: He chose who would be in it and was very much a part of choosing the script and getting it made — and it only cost about £600,000 and it made something like £22 million. He was a teacher for me in the film, and in every film I ever saw him in.

In what other ways?

Because of the way he presented himself and behaved, and his temperament was very thoughtful and kind. That whole thing about him doing charity work and keeping it quiet, is sooooo Sidney.

I read that he didn’t want to do “Porgy and Bess” because he thought the role was demeaning, but he was basically forced into it by a powerful producer.

There you go. It’s hard to find the right words to describe him and what he did for me — now that he’s gone, I have some sadness about not having spent enough time with him, not having really showed him my gratitude as a young performer. He gave me one of the biggest chances of my career and my life and I’m very grateful to him for that experience.

When I was doing it, I didn’t really know, not really, what it meant. And I think the fact that it was his biggest-grossing film shows that the point, the message, the theme about overcoming racism and prejudice, came through. I didn’t really get [how important it was] until down the line, after the film was considered a classic. So many people have said that as soon as they hear his name, they think of the song. I have some sadness with that, it’s bittersweet.

Do you feel the film made a difference, culturally?

I think it helped, and it still helps because it’s on celluloid — I don’t know if you say that anymore, do people still say “celluloid”? (laughter) But it’s there forever. And that film could not have been made in America at the time, and the message he gave with it — that we are all the same, it’s all about love and education. And the song is there forever, too — it certainly made a difference for me. I never liked British music when I was young, not until the Beatles — I only liked Black American music, and suddenly Black American musicians were calling me “Sister Lulu.”

Were you asked about those larger issues at the time?

In interviews? No, not really, not the way you would talk about it today. But there was no question: In the film, I sang that song to him with total sincerity — the message was clear, and it’s still clear.

Did you keep in touch with him?

Yes, not enough; it was sporadic. But there’s no doubt it was a bond that I now see was forged very early on. There was a show here called “This Is Your Life” and they did an episode about me; he couldn’t be in London to film it but he sent a beautiful video. And when he came here later for some promotion, he wanted to meet my son, and I went to his 75th birthday at Quincy [Jones’] house and all the great actors were there paying homage. He would always get in touch.

I’d like to ask you about Bowie. You recorded “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Watch That Man,” which was the 1974 single; a song called “Dodo” that’s unreleased but easy to find on the internet; and a version of “Can You Hear Me,” which Bowie later recorded for “Young Americans,” that ironically no one has heard! Were there any more?

That was it. I’ve never even heard “Can You Hear Me,” although years ago I bumped into him and [his wife] Iman at a theater in London and he said, “You know, I’ve still got that song” — oh wait, actually it was when he did a BBC concert here and I went along with Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe —

As you do…

(Laughing) We’re not like the best of friends, but I used to see her quite a bit and we went to the concert together — anyway Bowie said, “I’ve got that song, I have to get it to you,” and he never did!

How did you first meet and end up working together?

I met him when he and I were both on tour [in 1973] — different tours, but we were in Sheffield [on the same night] and in the same hotel. I was sitting near the lobby with the director of my television series that I used to do on the BBC [“It’s Lulu”]. He was very famous, his name was John Ammonds and he had a sort of army-type mustache [mimes very straight horizontal mustache as her voice takes on an upper-class British accent] and he smoked a pipe.

And in walks Bowie, ashen like this wall [gestures at white wall behind her], bright orange hair — not even red, it was orange — a lot of eye makeup, obviously from the night before, red plastic boots and this multicolored outfit, looking like he’d just arrived from space. You just couldn’t ignore him, and I went “Oh my God, it’s David Bowie!” And John Ammonds goes “Who? Who?”

Anyway, we go up to David and he says “You’ve gotta see the show!” so I went, I think he sent a car for me, and … I just couldn’t get over it. I was already a fan, my brother and I had bought “Hunky Dory” and we were crazy for it. He said, “Come back after you’ve done your gig, we’ll have a party at the hotel.” There were a lot of people there and it went late into the night and very inebriated, and during the party he said to me, “I’m gonna make a fucking single with you, it’s gonna be a smash hit,” and I was like yeah yeah yeah. The next day I thought he wouldn’t even remember, but he did.

“The Man Who Sold the World” is such a strange song —

I agree!

Did he explain at all what it’s about?

No — and I didn’t care! I would have done anything. I wasn’t looking to tell him what I thought about his song, and believe me, I am very big-mouthed and forceful and ballsy and dogmatic and bossy with everybody, but at this point he was the man, and I was ready for a change. He actually said — because I was doing the Saturday night [variety] TV show with comedy and singing and dancing my head off, he said, “That image doesn’t suit that voice of yours, and I’m gonna make a fucking hit record.” I said, “We are the odd couple, there is no doubt about it!”

Was the version of “Can You Hear Me” that you recorded soulful, like his version on the “Young Americans” album?

Yeah, totally, but we didn’t finish it. He said “I’ve written this song, it’s about you and it’s for you,” I put a vocal on it, and that was it.

Did you have plans to continue after “The Man Who Sold the World” was a hit?

We were gonna do more stuff together but Bowie was into all kinds of things that I wasn’t, so I didn’t hang around. He had a bit of a scene, you know?

Can you talk about your manager, Marion, for a moment?

I owe so much to Marion, she was kind of like a mother. She met me when I was 15 years old and she thought I could do anything. “I can’t act.” “Yes you can.” “Can I? Can I dance and be on a TV series?” “You can do anything.” Her brother Tony actually discovered me — he was young, he said, “I can’t manage this little girl, you come and see her!” She was a very good influence on me and believed in me so much. I think that I have had the career that I’ve had, not entirely because of Marion, but because of how she guided me at the start, for sure. If I had been with a bunch of young, cool guys running an agency [she does double-guns hand gestures] who were out all night at the clubs, I might have ended up like Janis Joplin, you know? Obviously, I am a very strong character myself, but I always say I have angels on my shoulders and she was the most incredible manager for me, the most incredible guide. I loved her deeply and I’m very lucky to have had her in my life.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I love what I do and I hope I keep doing it until the day I die. I hope I drop off after a gig — “Oh that was good,” bump! I was having dinner with Tom Jones the other night and he said, “I saw you on New Year’s Eve and my god, that voice is still there!” And I’m still smashing it onstage and I’m still here to talk about it.

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