Cleo Laine’s voice was a familiar sound in my formative years. Us of a certain vintage simply grew up with her and her husband, saxophonist Johnny Dankworth, as a feature of many a light entertainment programme from the 60s to the 90s. Her remarkable three octave vocal range was definitely once heard, never forgotten.
She was born Clementine Dinah Bullock in Uxbridge Middlesex in October 1927. Dad was Alexander, a Jamaican building labourer and mum was Minnie, the daughter of a farmer from Wiltshire.
Cleo – ‘I knew very little about him, except that he left Jamaica after a violent row with his father when he was 15, and that he came to Europe with a doctor. But he was such a storyteller that one couldn’t believe everything he said. He fought with the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War, then came home and met my mother.’
Young Clementine grew up in Southall, West London and attended dancing and singing lessons very early on. She also had a massive love of the cinema. Upon leaving school, her work life was a succession of jobs; from a hat trimmer to librarian.
She married in 1946 and had a son Stuart. She sung in many talent shows and gradually found work in that field, though semi pro at first. While applying for a passport in 1953 for a forthcoming tour in Europe, she discovered the unmarried status of her parents at the time of her birth, though they subsequently tied the knot later.
She was divorced by 1957 and then auditioned for the Dankworth Seven, led by top saxophonist Johnny Dankworth. He was a founder member of ‘Club 11’ in 1948, which for two years was the unofficial home of British Be-Bop and therefore, one of the leading lights of the jazz scene in the UK. She got the gig and picked up a new name in Cleo Laine, with both names picked out of a hat in a lucky dip.
She also caught the eye of her guvnor and they were married in 1958, going on to have two children, Alec and Jacqui, both of whom have followed in the musical footsteps of their parents. Alec is world renowned on the double bass and his sister as a top line vocalist.
Johnny and Cleo’s home in Kilburn, soon became the social centre of all things jazz when the US legends hit town, with Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald, among many others, regular visitors and soon to become firm friends.
Along with the singing, Cleo also acted on stage in a parallel career, including work at revolutionary The Royal Court Theatre in 1958, and that continued alongside her fast rising singing career.
She had a top ten hit in 1961 with ‘You’ll Answer to Me’ and then sang the title track ‘The Thieving Boy’ for the Joseph Losey film ‘The Criminal’ in 1962. One album from a massive body of work that caught my ears was ‘Shakespeare and all That Jazz’ on the Fontana label – check out the track ‘The Compleat Works’ (sic) on that.
In 1970, the couple opened the Stables Theatre, which backed on to their Victorian mansion, in Wavendon, Milton Keynes. As well as a home for the performing arts, The Stables was an educational facility and charity. Nearly 50 concerts were given there in that first year.
Cleo and Johnny also continued to tour extensively, separately and together, and she became as well known in America as here in the UK, performing at the Newport jazz Festival and the Blue Note Club in New York. Australia was another popular destination for her.
She worked with The Muppets in 1977 and picked up a Grammy in 1983.
Her work in musical theatre continued, including appearing in Sondheim’s ‘A Little Night Music’ and she supported Frank Sinatra for his week performing at the Albert Hall in 1992.
Cleo was awarded an OBE in 1979, a Dame Commander in 1997 and she became Dame Cleo in 2006, when Johnny was knighted in the same year.
Sadly, Sir John died in 2010, just hours before a 40th anniversary concert at The Stables. Ever the trouper, Cleo insisted the show go on and she herself sang that evening, announcing her husband’s loss at the end of the performance.
A couple of years back; we were invited to screen our Tubby Hayes documentary at The Stables. I was especially delighted with that, because one of the early Tubby pieces of vinyl I actually owned was ‘Jazz Date’ from 1961, which featured Cleo and Tubby live at The London Palladium.
My wife Lou and I were looked after very nicely on the night and we settled in at the theatre for the screening. Just as it was about to start, Cleo, now in a wheelchair, was wheeled in to also watch the film, which made a special evening even better.
Simply a lovely moment.
The Mumper of SE5
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