Laine, Cleo (Contemporary Musicians)
Cleo Laine has been called England's finest jazz singer. Since she began her career in the early 1950s, she has expanded her artistic horizons and proven her versatility. The award-winning songstress has played with jazz bands, acted on London's West End, sung in operas as well as Broadway musicals, appeared on television and in movies, mastered vocals on everything from twentieth-century art songs to pop music, and performed at venues across the world. But Laine's commitment to music is not limited to performing. In 1969 she and her husband, bandleader John Dankworth, founded a non-profit organization called the Wavendon All-Music-Plan at their home in Wavendon, England. This educational organization is dedicated to teaching all styles and types of music, and Laine has lectured and offered voice instruction there.
Laine was born Clementina Dinah Campbell in 1927. She grew up surrounded by music. Her father, Alexander Campbell, was a street singer who liked opera; her brother listened to jazz. She loved musicals and fell under the spell of movie stars Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, and Ethel Waters. Realizing young Clementina's artistic potential, her mother, Minnie, insisted she take piano, voice, and dance lessonsespite the family's poor financial circumstances. While still a youngster, Clementina Campbell announced that she would become a performer.
Because of the unusual quality of her voiceusky and smokey rather than light and clearhe budding singer was not an instant sensation. She endured many disappointments and rejections while auditioning as a teenager, but finally, when she was 24, she found success at a tryout for a spot in saxophonist Johnny Dankworth's jazz band, the Johnny Dankworth Seven. He was looking for a unique sound and liked what he heard from her. She told the Washington Post: "John said that when he heard me, I didn't sound like anyone else who was singing at the time." He gave her the job, she took the stage name Cleo Laine, and they became a hit. For several years they played gigs in cafes and nightclubs all over England and Europe, and in 1958 Dankworth and Laine were married. That same year, Gramophone magazine reportedly labeled Laine the best European jazz singer, praising her for the same unique sound and style that had caused her problems at auditions just a few years earlier.
Not satisfied singing only jazz, after several years with the Dankworth band Laine decided to broaden her repertory. In 1958 she started acting in plays and went on to become a successful actress. She continued to sing pop and jazz with the Dankworth group and began cutting solo records and experimenting with diverse musical styles. In 1961 she appeared in composer Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins, substituting for German singer Lotte Lenya at the last minute; four years later she narrated French composer Francis-Jean-Marcel Poulenc's Babar, the Little Elephant.
Laine began including classical art songs in her concerts in 1966, when she sang the lieder of Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner alongside the tunes of jazz pianist Fats Waller. In 1974 she performed the song cycle Pierrot Luniare by serialist composer Arnold Schoenberg, and fifteen years later she sang the part of God in English composer Benjamin Britten's children's opera Noye's Fludde.
Laine first appeared in the United States in 1972 at Alice Tully Hall in New York's Lincoln Center. Since the singer was largely unknown to American audiences, the concert was not well attended. Laine did, however, receive rave reviews: a New York Times critic accused England of having hoarded its "national treasure." The singer returned to packed houses in the United States the following year and has toured the States every year since. Laine has also toured Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Iceland, Hong Kong, and Israel.
Laine is known for her musical versatility: her live recordings of concerts with Dankworth are pure jazz; 1984's That Old Feeling contains slow, romantic pop-style ballads; and the album Woman to Woman features songs by popular female singers and songwriters like Melissa Manchester and Joni Mitchell. In addition, Laine has recorded several musical soundtracks, among them Jerome Kern's Show Boat, in which she performed during a run on London's West End, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in which she starred on Broadway.
Many of Laine's projects have scaled the divide between "high art" and "pop culture." She has recorded sonnets by William Shakespeare set to music by jazz composers like Dankworth and Duke Ellington. For her album Sometimes When We Touch, a collaboration with classical flutist James Galway, she put words to classical melodies by European composers such as Erik Satie and Johann Pachelbel. She even recorded a jazz version of George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess with singer-pianist Ray Charles.
Critics have lauded Laine's masterful balance of emotion and technical virtuosity. According to the London Sunday Times, for instance, her rendition of the song "Bill" in London's 1971 revival of Show Boat held the audience spellbound. But Laine is equally well known for her phenomenal vocal range and flexibility. Performing with her bandleader-saxophonist husband Dankworth, she sings anything his sax can playo matter how high or low, slow or fast, smooth or disjunct. Still, some critics claim that her voicehile admittedly brilliant ill-suited to some of the stage projects she has taken on. Michael Margolin, for example, felt that she was miscast in the 1984 production of The Merry Widow. "The voice, though wonderful, is wrong," he asserted in Opera.
Nonetheless, Laine has earned distinction in a variety of musical genres. In the mid-1970s, she became the first female vocalist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in both the classical and pop categories, and she won a Grammy for best jazz vocalist in 1985. Laine's eclectic approach, vocal virtuosity, and dramatic flare have earned her accolades from many music critics, including Derek Jewel of the Sunday Times, who dubbed her "quite simply the best singer in the world."
A Lover and His Lass, Esquire, 1955.
She's the Tops, MGM, 1957.
Cleo's Choice, Nixa, 1957.
Show Boat, Stanyan, 1972.
Cleo Laine. Live at Carnegie Hall, RCA, 1973.
(With Ray Charles) Porgy and Bess, RCA, 1976.
Wordsongs, Verve, 1978.
(With James Galway) Sometimes When We Touch, RCA, 1980.
Smilin' Through, RCA, 1982.
Let the Music Take You, CBS, 1983.
That ad Feeling, CBS, 1984.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Polydor, 1986.
Cleo Sings Sondheim, RCA, 1988.
Woman to Woman, RCA, 1989.
Cleo Laine: Jazz, RCA, 1991.
(With Dudley Moore) Sailin' Through, RCA, 1992.
(With Mel Tormé) Nothing Without You, Concord Jazz, 1992. Cleo's Choice, GNP/Crescendo, 1993.
Cleo at the Carnegie: The Tenth Anniversary Concert.
Cleo Laine: The Platinum Collection.
Collier, Graham, Cleo and John: A Biography of the Dankworths, Quartet, 1976.
Feather, Leonard, Encyclopedia of Jazz, Da Capo, 1976.
Crescendo, Volume 28, Number 4, 1991.
Down Beat, December 1974; April 1985; January 1993.
Guardian, June 3, 1974.
Music Teacher, February 1982.
New York Times, September 24, 1972; June 28, 1990.
Opera, August 1985; November 1990.
People, October 23, 1989; October 5, 1992.
Sunday Times (London), May 9, 1971.
Times (London), July 30, 1971.
Variety, January 4, 1989; December 13, 1989; March 14, 1990.
Washington Post, July 23, 1983.