High notes that soar like a kite, seductive, sonorous low notes and a mid range that is so warm and clear. A voice that can scat with the loosest, tightest jazz combo or bring a Stephen Sondheim character to life. Without wanting to sound hyperbolic, Cleo Laine is one of the most talented singers that this country has ever produced.
Jazz buffs will, of course, know her best from her enduring musical (and romantic) partnership with the late, great saxophonist/clarinettist/composer John Dankworth, which lasted from the 1950s until his death in 2010. But her career is as varied as it is long, and she is the only woman to have been nominated for Grammy Awards in jazz, classical and pop categories. Read on to find out more about this fascinating, legendary performer.
Cleo Laine was born to an English mother and a Jamaican father in Uxbridge and grew up in London’s Southall area. Although she took singing and dancing lessons as a child, it wasn’t until she was a 25-year-old wife and mother that she decided to have a crack at making a career in music. Before that she had a stint as an apprentice hairdresser and worked in a library and at a pawnbroker.
Laine was still married to her first husband when she decided to audition for the Johnny Dankworth Big Band. She stood out from other singers so was invited back that same evening to perform a couple of numbers. When the rest of the band said they loved her, Laine was hired. But Dankworth claimed that at the time he was too obsessed with music to notice his new bandmate’s beauty. After Laine’s first marriage came to end, she and Dankworth began to pay more attention to each other. They shared their first kiss while they were on stage at midnight on new year’s eve, with 150 people watching. Ironically there were just two witnesses at their wedding in 1958.
Laine’s given name is Clementina Dinah Campbell. When she started performing with the Dankworth Group the boys in the band decided that was a bit cumbersome so they put a collection of first names in one hat and surnames in another. She pulled out the names Cleo and Laine.
Earlier in their careers, Dankworth predicted that he and Laine would keep playing together until they were ‘rotting vegetables’. He died on February 6 2010, which was the 40th anniversary of the couple opening their venue, The Stables, and 52 years since they wed. Famously, Laine went ahead with the gig scheduled for that evening and only announced Dankworth’s passing to the audience at the very end of the show.
Enjoy the sheer showmanship of their performance together in this witty number inspired by, of all people, Mozart.
Blues legend Ray Charles collaborated with Laine on a recording of the Gershwins’ opera Porgy and Bess. It was released in 1976 to great reviews – although the record is now something of a rarity. Frank Sinatra invited Laine to open for him when he played a week of shows at Royal Albert Hall in 1992. It was an experience Laine recalls fondly, telling an interviewer: ‘He was quite wonderful. He came into my dressing room before we started and he said, “Well, are you ready for this?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, I’m not.”’
Eclectic collaborations are a feature of her career, with Laine collaborating with the likes of Duke Ellington, flautist James Galway and guitarist John Williams. She has recorded over 100 albums to date.
Yes, that one, from The Muppet Show. Laine was a special guest in the second series, in 1978.
The episode also saw her scat with Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Orchestra and performed the Bread hit ‘If’ with guest puppeteer Bruce Schwartz choreographing a puppet couple.
Laine, as you’ll have noted by now, has never been afraid to try out different kinds of music, but even so her decision to record Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, based on a series of 21 poems written by a Belgian and translated into German, was an unexpected career move. The recording, with the Nash Ensemble, is reportedly the bestselling Pierrot Lunaire of all time with Laine joking that this down to the fact that many people bought it thinking it would be a pop album.
Laine has starred in musical theatre in the West End and on Broadway, receiving a Tony nomination for her role in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Among the parts she has played are the Witch in Into the Woods and Julie in Show Boat. She cemented her connection to the art form with her 1988 recording Cleo Laine sings Sondheim, which featured this glorious version of ‘Not While I’m Around’.
Laine believes that her natural voice covers three octaves but that with practice she was able to reach some incredibly high notes (the G above high C, in fact). Writing in 1978, a critic for the Washington Post said her voice could ‘dip effortlessly into smoky lows and then reach through the stratosphere for perfectly pitched highs. And she can hold most notes at either end long enough for you to get a cup of coffee’. Now that her 91st birthday approaches this October, the top notes aren’t all there – but her gorgeous middle range is, along with her inimitable stage presence.
Having spent 60 years working as an entertainer, Laine has racked up a fair few awards. Most recently it was revealed she is to receive Jazz FM’s lifetime achievement award and she was made a dame in 1997 (her official title is Dame Cleo Laine, Lady Dankworth) and she has a string of honorary doctorates. When she won the Grammy Award for best jazz vocal by a female in 1985, Ella Fitzgerald sent her a telegram saying ‘Congratulations gal, it’s about time’ along with two dozen red roses.
An Audience with Dame Cleo Laine takes place at Royal Festival Hall on Friday 18 May, as part of our (B)old festival.