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Lulu: the grunge years

The ”To Sir With Love” singer is back in the limelight thanks to some modern takes on her hit song

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In 1967, America’s teenage girls were lip-synching just one song into their hairbrushes: Lulu’s ”To Sir With Love.” A red-haired Scottish teen herself back then, Lulu ignited a million hot-for-teacher fantasies belting out the soulful pop ballad in the film of the same name (Sidney Poitier was the Sir of the title). Thanks to Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe’s singing it at President Clinton’s inauguration, and the grungier live Soul Asylum version for an upcoming MTV Unplugged, both the song and the mod bird who sang it have a second generation of fans.

”Its popularity is very strange, isn’t it?” muses Lulu, now 44 and living in London. ”I worked with Gloria Estefan two weeks ago, and one of her musicians said, ‘That song is part of American history.’ When I made the film, I thought I was ugly, I thought I couldn’t act. I thought I was an absolute walking disaster. Then I was forced to look at myself though the eyes of the American people. They didn’t think I was so terrible.”

And we still don’t, judging by how swiftly her new disco hit, ”Independence,” is climbing Billboard’s dance chart. The album of the same title may be her first recording since 1982’s U.K.-only Take Me to Your Heart, but don’t think she hasn’t kept busy. She married and divorced Bee Gee Maurice Gibb (who cowrote one of the songs on Independence), then raised a son, Jordan, now 15, with second husband John Frieda (they’re separated). Because of Jordan, she says, touring was out of the question until this year: ”I was feeling tremendous guilt about traveling. I became much more retrospective — I mean introspective.” But hardly reclusive, since she did manage to host one of Britain’s top variety shows for the BBC from 1967 to 1980, and to amass one of the heftiest fortunes in Britain through wise investments (a reputed 9.7 million — roughly $15 million).

Not to say she has forgotten her hardscrabble Glasgow roots. ”My musical style is still soulful, leaning toward R&B. Ray Charles is my idol,” says Lulu (born Marie McDonald Laurie). ”I’m Scottish, you know. You look at the land — gray, purple, green — and it reflects the people. My heart is in the deeper stuff.”