Cleo Laine was born Clementina Dinah Campbell in Southall, Middlesex, to Alexander Campbell, a black Jamaican father, and his wife, Minnie (née Bullock), a white English mother, from Swindon, Wiltshire. Laine’s mother sent her for 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, married in 1947 (divorced 1957) to George Langridge, a roof tiler, and had a son, Stuart.
Laine did not take up singing professionally until her mid-twenties. She auditioned successfully for a band led by musician John Dankworth (1927–2010), with which she performed until 1958, when she married Dankworth in secret at Hampstead Register Office. The only witnesses were the couple’s friend, pianist Ken Moule, and his arranger,David Lindup. The couple had two children, Alex and Jacqui, both successful musicians.
Laine 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 Strawberry Jam (with John Neville) 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
1960s – 1970s: Recording and performing success
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 Festivalproduction of Kurt Weill’s opera/ballet The Seven Deadly Sins, directed and choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan. 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.
She has collaborated with many well-known classical musicians including James Galway, Nigel Kennedy, Julian Lloyd Webber and John Williams.
Other important recordings during that time were duet albums with Ray Charles (Porgy and Bess) as well as Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which won Laine a classical Grammy nomination.
1980s – 1990s: Broadway and a Grammy
Laine’s relationship with the musical theatre started in Britain and continued in the United States with starring performances in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and The Merry Widow (Michigan Opera). In 1980 she starred in Colette, a new musical by Dankworth. The show originally opened at The Stables Theatre, Wavendon in 1979 and transferred to the Comedy Theatre, London in September 1980. 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 of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to music.
In 1983 Laine won the Grammy Award – Best Female Jazz Vocalist, for Cleo at Carnegie: The 10th Anniversary Concert.
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.”
Laine recorded more albums, including one with another jazz legend Mel Tormé (Nothing Without You). In 1991 she recorded the 12-track CD Jazz for the RCA label, which featured her vocals on classics such as “Lady Be Good”, “St. Louis Blues” and “The Midnight Sun”. The album also featured jazz musicians Gerry Mulligan, Clark Terry andToots Thielemans.
She also returned to Carnegie Hall during the late 1990s to mark 25 years since her hit record Cleo – Live At Carnegie. Her performance was recorded and released as Cleo Laine – Live In Manhattan.
2000s: Recognition and honours
By the late 1990s, Laine became regarded as one of the top jazz vocalists of all time – in the same league as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. Her concerts sold out across the globe, usually supported by Dankwoth with his band, orchestra or smaller group. Her usual band included John Horler(piano), Alec Dankworth (bass), Allan Ganley (drums) and Mark Nightingale (trombone).
Laine’s autobiography, Cleo, was published in September 1994 by Simon & Schuster. Her second book, You Can Sing If You Want To, was published by Victor Gollancz in October 1997.
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 equivalent of a knighthood for women).
In the 2006 New Year’s Honours list, her husband was made a knight bachelor, becoming Sir John Dankworth. They were one of the few couples where both partners held their titles in their own right and the only couple in jazz to be thus recognised.
On 28 October 2007, Laine turned 80. She marked her birthday with a series of special concerts in the United Kingdom, including an appearance with the John Dankworth Sextet at Birmingham Town Hall on 18 December 2007. 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.”
To celebrate the 80th birthdays of both Laine and Dankworth, Union Square Music released the four disc box set I Hear Music – the most comprehensive and lovingly produced examination of their careers ever assembled: Disc 1: Early Days (1944–56), Disc 2: John, Big Band and The Movies (1956–74), Disc 3: Focus On Cleo (1955–91), Disc 4: A Family Affair (including recordings made with their children, Alec and Jacqui, from 1982 to 2005).
In 2008, Dankworth and Laine won the Gold Award at the BBC Jazz Awards. The couple got a standing ovation for their performance with Guy Barker’s 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.”
In 2010, Laine and her husband appeared in an episode of the cult CBeebies children’s show ZingZillas. The episode was called ‘ScatZilla!’.