Laine was born as Clementina Dinah Campbell in the London suburb of Southall to a black Jamaican father and English mother who sent her to singing and dancing lessons at an early age. She attended the Board School in Featherstone Road, until recently Featherstone Primary School. She worked as an apprentice hairdresser, librarian and for a pawnbroker, got married in 1947 (divorced 1957) to George Langridge, a roof tiler, and had a son, Stuart. She did not take up singing professionally until her mid-twenties, however. She auditioned successfully for a band led by musician John Dankworth (1927–2010), with which she performed until 1958, when she and Dankworth married; he died on February 6, 2010. They had two children: Alec Dankworth and Jacqui Dankworth, both also internationally successful musicians.
She then began her career as a singer and actress. She played the lead in a new play at London’s Royal Court Theatre, home of the new wave of playwrights of the 1950s such as John Osborne and Harold Pinter. This led to other stage performances such as the musical Valmouth in 1959, the play A Time to Laugh (with Robert Morley and Ruth Gordon) in 1962, Boots With Strawbwerry Jam with John Neville, actor/artistic director of The Nottingham Playhouse, music by John Dankworth, book Benny Green, directed by the late Wendy Toye in 1968 and eventually to her show-stopping Julie in Wendy Toye’s production of Show Boat at the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1971.
Cleo Laine and John Danworth, “It Don’t Mean A Thing” recorded 2008, Northsea
During this period she had two major recording successes. You’ll Answer to Me reached the British Top 10 while Laine was ‘prima donna’ in the 1961 Edinburgh Festival production of Kurt Weill‘s opera/ballet The Seven Deadly Sins. In 1964 her Shakespeare and All that Jazz album with Dankworth received widespread critical acclaim.
Laine’s international activities began in 1972, with a successful first tour of Australia. Shortly afterwards, her career in the United States was launched with a concert at New York‘s Lincoln Center, followed in 1973 by the first of many Carnegie Hall appearances. Coast-to-coast tours of the U.S. and Canada soon followed, and with them a succession of record albums and television appearances, including The Muppet Show in 1977. This led, after several nominations, to her first Grammy award, in recognition of the live recording of her 1983 Carnegie concert.
Other important recordings during that time were duet albums with Ray Charles (Porgy and Bess) and Mel Tormé (see Nothing Without You), as well as Arnold Schoenberg‘s Pierrot Lunaire, which won Laine a classical Grammy nomination.
Laine’s relationship with the musical theatre, started in Britain, continued in the United States with starring performances in Sondheim‘s A Little Night Music and The Merry Widow (Michigan Opera). In 1980 Cleo Laine starred in Colette, a new musical by John Dankworth. The show originally opened at The Stables Theatre, Wavendon in 1979 and transferred to the Comedy Theatre, London in September 1980. The cast album was released on CD for the first time in 2010 by Stage Door Records. In 1985 she originated the role of Princess Puffer in the Broadway hit musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, for which she received a Tony nomination, and in 1989 she received the Los Angeles critics’ acclaim for her portrayal of the Witch in Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
In 1979 Laine was made an Officer (OBE) of the Order of the British Empire for services to music. In the 1997 New Year’s Honours list, Laine’s membership of the order was elevated to Dame Commander, and she was appointed Dame Cleo Laine DBE (the female equivalent of a knighthood).
1977 – Cleo Laine sings a medley: “It Might As Well Be Spring” and “Come Back To Me”
In May 1992 Laine appeared with Frank Sinatra for a week of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, London. She told a reporter in 2007: “I was very impressed with his singing, to me he sounded even better in those concerts than he did on the records. It was a real thrill to be part of his show.”
In the 2006 New Year Honours list, her husband John Dankworth was made a knight bachelor, becoming Sir John Dankworth. They were one of the few couples to both partners hold titles in their own right.
On October 28, 2007, Laine turned 80. She marked her birthday with a series of special concerts in the UK, including an appearance with the John Dankworth sextet at Birmingham Town Hall on December 18. She said of her milestone birthday: ” I don’t think about being 80. What would be the point? I’m limping a bit because they’ve given me a new knee, but that’s about the only difference. I don’t want to start thinking about what I should or shouldn’t be doing at my age. It’s not right.”
In 2008 John Dankworth and Cleo Laine won the prestigious Gold Award at the BBC Jazz Awards. The couple got a standing ovation for the vivacity of their performance with Guy Barker’s powerful specially-assembled big band at the finale of the award ceremony.
A New York critic wrote of Laine and Dankworth’s September 2008 engagement at Blue Note: “Dankworth’s alto sax and clarinet sound as gossamer as ever, while Laine’s voice remains a wonder of agility and plummy richness. After 57 years of dual music-making (and 50 of marriage), the Dankworths can anticipate one another’s every move; they make a stage seem as comfortable as their living room.”
I had the opportunity to see Cleo Laine and her husband, John Dankworth earlier this year at the Razz Room, in San Francisco, CA. They were phenomenal. Cleo mentioned that she was turning 83 years old. She looks more like 60 years old, but even better still, she sounds like someone half that age. Her range is still off the charts as are her beautiful interpretations. She breathes new life into songs we’ve all heard so many times -a testament to the durable nature of these wonderful songs as well as her own ability to sing them.
Source: Wikipedia, YouTube