Born in a London suburb, Cleo showed early singing talent, which was nurtured by her Jamaican father and English mother who sent her to singing and dancing lessons. It was not, however, until she reached her mid-twenties that she applied herself seriously to singing. She auditioned successfully for a band led by musician John Dankworth, under whose banner she performed until 1958, in which year the two were married.
Then began an illustrious career as a singer and actress. In 1958 she played the lead in a new play at London's famous Royal Court Theatre, home of the new wave of playwrights of the 'fifties - Pinter, Osborne and the like. 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, and eventually to her show stopping Julie in the Wendy Toye production of "Showboat" at the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1971.
During this period she had two spectacular recording successes. "You'll Answer to Me" reached the British Top Ten at the precise time that Cleo was 'prima donna' in the 1961 Edinburgh Festival production of the Kurt Weill opera/ballet "The Seven Deadly Sins". In 1964 her "Shakespeare and All that Jazz" album received widespread critical acclaim, and to this day remains an important milestone in her identification with the more unusual aspects of a singer's repertoire.
1972 marked the start of Cleo's international activities, with a triumphant 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. This led, after several nominations, to Cleo's 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, as well as Arnold Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" which won Cleo a classical Grammy nomination.
Cleo's relationship with the musical theatre, started in Britain, continued in the United States with starring performances in "A Little Night Music" and "The Merry Widow" (Michigan Opera). 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 Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods". Los Angeles was also the scene of a Lifetime Achievement Award to Cleo by the US recording industry (1991).
In 1979 Cleo received an OBE from Her Majesty the Queen for services to music, and in the Queen's Birthday Honours List in June 1997 she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire. She has also been awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Boston's Berklee College of Music in the United States and, in the United Kingdom from Cambridge University, the University of York, the Open University and the University of Luton. In 1998 the Worshipful Company of Musicians awarded her their Silver Medal for a Lifetime Contribution to British Jazz, and the British Jazz Awards have recognised her a number of times, including with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
She lived with her husband, the late Sir John Dankworth in Wavendon, Buckinghamshire, where in 1969 they founded their first charity, The Wavendon Allmusic Plan, with the aim of helping people broaden their views about music through performance and musical education. In the converted stable block in the grounds of their home they established an arts centre that has since become internationally renowned. The Stables, Wavendon has been host to many world famous artistes, from Vladimir Ashkenazy to George Shearing, and some of today's top professional musicians and singers have benefited from its education projects in the early stages of their careers. With the aid of an Arts Council lottery grant the new Stables theatre, built adjacent to the original stable block, opened its doors in October 2000 and continues to provide performers, students and audience alike with a centre of musical excellence second to none. The organisation, administered by a board of honorary trustees that includes Dame Cleo and John Dankworth, currently produces an annual programme featuring nearly 200 concerts and 300 education sessions. Having realised their original vision, Dame Cleo and her husband decided in 1999 to set up a further charity. The Wavendon Foundation was formed with the objective of raising funds to benefit both individual young artistes in need of financial aid, and organisations seeking support for music education projects. A major activity of the trust is the annual Wavendon Garden Season (Music in the Garden), a programme of summer events staged under a purpose-built canopy in the Dankworths' garden.
The career of this unusual and superlative artist shows no sign of abating.
Cleo 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.
The term "jazz singer" embraces a very diverse number of styles from a hundred divergent backgrounds, and arguments continue unabated over the years as to what jazz singing really is.
Cleo Laine's jazz credentials include:
her appearances at the world-famous Newport festival and many other such events all over the world
her frequent seasons at New York's Blue Note Club
her numerous recordings of the jazz repertoire - Ellington, Monk, Strayhorn, Mulligan and many more
her duet albums with Ray Charles and Mel Tormé
her own recordings with famous jazzmen as guests - George Shearing, Mark Whitfield, Joe Williams, Toots Thielemans, Kenny Wheeler, Clark Terry and others
West Indian Alec Campbell came to Europe, fought in World War One and afterwards settled in England where he met and married Minnie Hitchin. The resultant offspring included one Clementine Dinah - later known as Cleo. Showing all the signs of musical talent early in life, she was sent to singing and dancing lessons. However, what progress she might have made later on was interrupted by World War Two, and an early marriage put paid to any dreams of a singing career.
However, she began doing occasional work (usually unpaid) with local bands, until she auditioned for a place in the Johnny Dankworth Seven, at that time one of Britain's best jazz groups.
She got the job, and rose quickly to prominence in Britain. Her acclaimed recording of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" was one of the first ever made of the song, and such performances quickly brought her to the top of British jazz popularity polls. (Cleo also at this time enjoyed a celebrated career in the popular music world, as well as appearing frequently as an actress, but her love of jazz and the inherent jazz dialect of her style have never stayed far from the surface for long.)
Cleo married John Dankworth in 1958, and accompanied her husband to the United States when he toured there the following year. Even thought she was not part of the musical package (merely vacationing) she did in fact sing a set at the Dankworth band's appearance at Birdland. In the audience was Ella Fitzgerald, which began a lasting friendship between the two singers, typified when over twenty years later Ella sent Cleo a bouquet of roses on the occasion of Cleo's first jazz "Grammy" victory. "Congratulations, gal" said the card "- it's about time!"
But after that first night in Birdland, Cleo's singing career in the States went on hold while she developed her craft in Britain and Europe, continuing to record prolifically. Meanwhile her reputation - and her recordings - crossed the Atlantic in ever-increasing quantity. Her 1964 album "Shakespeare and All That Jazz" received a five-star review in Down Beat magazine and her "Live at the London Palladium" album with Dankworth was amongst many others acclaimed by critics. Around this time, the London Times unequivocally pronounced her "the best singer in the world", a title Cleo herself has always modestly disclaimed.
In 1972 Cleo's first New York concert drew enthusiastic reviews. "The British ... have been hiding one of their national treasures" exclaimed John Wilson in The New York Times. The first of many appearances at Carnegie Hall followed in 1973. Another in the following year was recorded and the resulting album "Live at Carnegie Hall" became the first of several "Grammy" nominations for Cleo.
Since those early trans-Atlantic days Cleo Laine has appeared repeatedly in almost every major city in the United States. She has also made frequent world-wide tours taking in Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Bermuda, Iceland, Israel and many European countries.
Cleo's records continue to be distributed worldwide. Her 1990 "Woman to Woman" album merited "five stars out of a possible four" according to the US magazine Jazz Times. The album "Jazz" reached number five in the US jazz radio play charts, and "Nothing without You", a duet compilation with Mel Tormé, reached the Billboard Top Ten in 1992, remaining in the charts for several months.
Cleo Laine's continued activity in the world of jazz performance, and the quality and depth which those performances continue to show, make her a strong contender indeed for the world title of "a first lady of jazz".
- 1950-52 - Get Happy ESQ317 Reissued in 1985-6 (3 tracks)
- 1955 - Cleo Sings British (10") - Esquire
- 1957 - Meet Cleo Laine -
- 1957 - In Retrospect - MGM
- 1957 - She's the Tops - MGM 2354026
- 1959 - Valmouth (original cast) - Pye
- 1961 - Jazz Date (with Tubby Hayes) - Wing
- 1961 - Spotlight on Cleo -
- 1962 - All About Me - Fontana
- 196? - Cleo Laine Jazz Master Series - DRG Records MRS 502
- 1963 - Cindy-Ella (orig cast of 1962 Xmas production) - Decca
- 1963 - Beyond the Blues (American Negro Poetry) - Argo
- 1964 - Shakespeare and All that Jazz - Fontana
- 1964 - This is Cleo Laine - Shakespeare and All That Jazz - Philips
- 1966 - Woman Talk - Fontana
- 1967 - Facade (with Annie Ross) British reissue: Philips - Fontana
- 1968 - If We Lived on Top of a Mountain - Fontana
- 1968 - Soliloquy - Fontana
- 1969 - The Idol (Dankworth soundtrack w/ 2 Cleo vocals) - Fontana
- 1969 - The Unbelieveable Miss Cleo Laine - Fontana
- 1971 - Portrait - Philips
- 1972 - An Evening with Cleo Laine and the John Dankworth Quartet - Philips, Sepia
- 1972 - Feel the Warm - Philips
- 1972 - Showboat (single LP) - EMI-Columbia
- 1972 - Showboat (double LP) - EMI/Stanyan
- 1972 - This is Cleo Laine - EMI
- 1973 - I Am A Song - RCA
- 1973 - Day by Day - Stanyan
- 1974 - Live at Carnegie Hall - RCA
- 1974 - Close-Up - RCA
- 1974 - Pierrot Lunaire (Schoenberg) Ives Songs - RCA
- 1974 - A Beautiful Thing (with James Galway) - RCA
- 1974 - Easy Living (anthology of Fontana tracks) - RCA
- 1974 - Spotlight on Cleo Laine (double LP) - Philips
- 1974 - Cleo's Choice - Pye
- 1975 - Cleo's Choice (abridged issue on Quintessence Jazz) - Quintessence
- 1975 - The Unbelievable Miss Cleo Laine - Contour 6870675
- 1975 - Born on a Friday - RCA
- 1976 - Close-Up (re-issue?) - Victor
- 1976 - Live at the Wavendon Festival - BBC (Black Lion)
- 1976 - Porgy & Bess (with Ray Charles) - London
- 1976 - Return to Carnegie - RCA
- 1976 - Best Friends (with John Williams) - RCA
- 1976 - Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazz in the '70's - RCA
- 1977 - Cleo (20 Famous Show Hits) - Arcade
- 1977 - The Sly Cormorant (read by Cleo and Brian Patten) - Argo (Decca)
- 19?? - Romantic Cleo - RCA 42750
- 1978 - Showbiz Personalities of 1977 - 9279304
- 1978 - The Early Years - Pye GH653
- 1978 - Gonna Get Through - RCA
- 1978 - A Lover & His Lass - Esquire Treasure
- 1978 - Wordsongs (double LP) - RCA
- 1979 - One More Day - DRG
- 1979 - The Cleo Laine Collection (double LP) - RCA
- 1980 - Cleo's Choice (re-issue?) - Pickwick
- 1980 - Colette (original cast) - Sepia
- 1980 -Sometimes When We Touch (with James Galway) - RCA
- 1980 - The Incomparable - Black Lion BLM51006
- 1981 - One More Day - Sepia
- 1982 - Smilin' Through (with Dudley Moore) - CBS
- 1983 - Platinum Collection (double LP) - Magenta
- 1983 - Off the Record - WEA Sierra GFE DD1003
- 1984 - Let the Music Take You (w/ John Williams) - CBS
- 1985 - Cleo at Carnegie - the 10th Anniversary Concert - RCA
- 1985 - That Old Feeling - CBS
- 1985 - "Johnny Dankworth and his Orchestra,
- 1985 - The John Dankworth 7 - featuring Cleo Laine" - EMI
- 1986 - Wordsongs - Westminster
- 1986 - The Mystery of Edwin Drood - Philips
- 1986 - Unforgettable - 16 Golden Classics - Castle
- 1986 - Cleo Laine - The Essential Collection - Sierra
- 1987 - Unforgettable - PRT
- 1987 - Classic Gershwin (1 track on this CD -- Embraceable You) - CBS
- 1988 - Cleo Laine Sings Sondheim - RCA
- 1988 - Showboat (re-issue of 1972 cast album) - EMI/Stanyan
- 1988 - Cleo Laine & John Dankworth - Shakespeare and All That Jazz - Affinity
- 1989 - Woman to Woman - RCA
- 1989 - Jazz - RCA
- 1989 - Portrait of a Song Stylist - Harmony
- 1991 - Young At Heart - Castle ATJCD 5959
- 1991 - Spotlight on Cleo Laine - Phonogram 848129.2
- 1991 - Pachebel's Greatest Hits (1 track) - RCA
- 1992 - Nothing Without You (with Mel Torme) - Concord
- 1993 - On the Town (1 track)
- 1994 - I Am a Song - RCA
- 1994 - Blue and Sentimental - RCA
- 1995 - Solitude - RCA
- 1996 - Cleo's Choice - Re-issues of Nixa from 1956-58 - RPM
- 1997 - The Very Best of Cleo Laine - RCA
- 1997 - Mad About the Boy - Abracadabra
- 1998 - Ridin' High (Early Sessions) - Koch
- 1998 - Trav'lin' Light: The Johnny Mercer Songbook (1 track) - Verve
- 1998 - Let's Be Frank (1 track) - MCA
- 1998 - The Collection - Spectrum Music
- 1999 - Sondheim Tonight - Live From the Barbican (1 track) - Jay
- 1999 - The Best of Cleo Laine - Redial
- 1999 - The Silver Anniversary Concert (Carnegie Hall, Limited Edition) - Sepia
- 1999 - Christmas at the Stables
- 2001 - Quintessential Cleo - Gold Label
- 2001 - Live in Manhattan - Gold Label
- 2001 - Cleo At Her Finest - Re-issues from 70's Metro
- 2002 - Quality Time - Universal/Absolute
- 2003 - Loesser Genius - Qnote
- 2005 - Cleo at her finest - Re-issues from 70's - Metro
- 2006 - London Pride - Title song only
- 2007 - Spread a Little Happiness, Earliest Recordings and Broadcasts 1949-55 - Avid
- 2007 - I Hear Music, 4CD set celebrating 80th Birthdays - Qnote
- 2008 - Three Early L.P's & More - Avid
- 2009 - Jazz Matters - Qnote
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