Cleo Laine, quite simply the best singer in the world

British writer, broadcaster and music critic Derek Jewell made this declaration about jazz vocalist Cleo Laine. Looking over her illustrious and varied 60 year career it’s easy to see why he might say such a thing.

Dame Cleo and her husband Sir John Dankworth (1927 – 2010) form the backbone of the UK jazz history. He as the instrumentalist, bandleader, composer and arranger, she as the beautiful diva-esque jazz vocalist with a chocolate rich, contralto voice that could soar to high flute-like G6s. In addition to her incredible range, Dame Cleo’s vocal style crosses many boundaries; she is the only female nominated for Grammy Awards in the jazz, pop and classical categories.

Back in 2010, not long after her husband had died, Dame Cleo told The Telegraph newspaper: “I want to keep on going – unless my voice develops a wobble – for as long as people want to hear me sing. But losing Johnny has been a cruel blow.” Not surprising, given the pair had performed together for over 50 years. Such long-term partnerships are rare in marriage, let alone in music. On being questioned as to how they made it work Dame Cleo stated, “Nothing got in the way of the music”

Born Clementina Dinah Bullock to a mixed race unmarried couple, Dame Cleo grew up in Southall, London. At 14 she left school, working a variety of day jobs while singing in clubs in the evening and auditioning when possible. Most bands didn’t know what to do with her voice, as at this time in the UK the popular female vocal sound was more in the lighter soprano range. However, in 1951 she finally succeeded in auditioning for Dankworth’s jazz band. He said of the audition: “I’d seen about a hundred girl singers that day. They all wanted to look and sound like Doris Day. Cleo was different. She had that deep sound, and she was obviously a natural. Anything she hears she can learn, and then make something of her own with it.”

After negotiating a £7 per week wage – Dankworth had offered her £6 – and acquiring a new name, Dame Cleo set off singing seven nights a week, and into a partnership that would last for 59 years, taking her from that fateful audition at the 51 Club to concert halls around the world.

Dame Cleo believed that one of the reasons she gained recognition as quickly as she did was due to her contralto “singing down to my boots” voice. She claims that she started out with a very limited range, around an octave, but was forced to develop her top end as Dankworth would write pieces for her that went beyond her usual range. When she complained that she wouldn’t be able to reach the high notes he responded with, “Go away an practice, you’ll get it”. So she did!

Partners on stage and in life Cleo Laine and John Dankworth

Not a reader, Dame Cleo had to work very hard to learn Dankworth’s precise and sometimes experimental compositions and arrangements. As a solo artist, she worked with musicians such as Ray Charles and Mel Tormé. She also took on classical repertoire collaborating with musicians such as James Galway, Nigel Kennedy, Julian Lloyd Webber and John Williams., even recording an album of Schoenberg’s atonal song cycle Pierrot Lunaire. All of which she had to learn by ear.

Not satisfied with just singing Dame Cleo also took to the stage acting in Flesh to a Tiger, Valmouth  Time to Laugh and Showboat, Into The Woods and receiving a Tony nomination for the Broadway hit musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In May this year Dame Cleo celebrated her 90th year at the Royal Festival Hall in An Audience With Dame Cleo Laine. Between songs, she and her daughter, Jacqui Dankworth, also a singer and actress, spoke about Dame Cleo’s life and career. Even at 90, Dame Cleo demonstrated she still has command over her voice and the song, delivering her trademark interpretive melodies and lyrics on standards such as Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive, I Thought About You and Tea for Two.

Receiving A Lifetime Achievement Award at  The Jazz FM Awards,  April 2018.

iSing was fortunate to speak to Dame Cleo.

What is it about singing that you enjoy? 

I just like it, I always have done. I have been singing from a very early age. My father used to sing the latest hit records, like Bing Crosby. I liked Bing Crosby’s voice. It was a very natural thing for me to start singing.

Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne were your vocal inspirations. Why did these women inspire you?

Ella was able to do things with her voice and ad-libbing that I had never heard before. That is what I first liked. Lena Horne was good-looking, of course! She kept herself together all the time and had a great presence when she sang. All three of them inspired me, but I never tried to directly copy them – they were way out beyond where I thought I was – they felt out of reach to me at the time.

At what point did you decide to pursue singing as a career?

I don’t think I made that decision – it was made for me!  I went to audition for John Dankworth’s band because I wanted a job, and it all went from there. Then John himself was the biggest influence on my singing. He had a very clear idea of what he wanted me to do – he would say “if you can’t do it, go ahead and learn how to do it”.

What were the biggest challenges at the start of your career?

I would think to myself, “I hope to goodness I will be able to do this!”. I always had general confidence, but I could be a little bit “tippy toey” and not absolutely sure of myself. I really had to be sure that I knew what I was doing – so I practised!

What were the pros and cons of working with your husband, Sir John Dankworth?

Everything was good about it, I loved him. He challenged me and would tell me to just keep on working on something until I got it. He knew my voice better than I did.

Did anyone give you any good advice?

No, for the most part, I had to figure it all out myself, although John helped me a lot. His advice was “keep practising”.

Did you follow any physical or vocal regime?

No, I never did.

What was your proudest career moment?

Getting the job with John’s band!

What was your funniest moment on stage?

Walking on and not knowing a word I was going to sing.  So I “ooo shooby doobied”.  Eventually I “oooo shooby doobied” over to John and “ooh shooby dooed ‘can you help me with this?’.” He said “no!”.

Do you have any favourite songs that you love to sing?

No, there are too many great ones. The other day Jacqui and I were listening to Mel Tormé, who I think is a marvellous singer, and several other singers of that period, wonderful singers, and they all had wonderful limitless beauty in their voices. It completely carried me away.

Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring singers?

Learn how to sing, and keep practising!

iSing founder Line, is passionate about creating a place where singers can gain knowledge, skills, advice and support. Something she wishes she had when she first started. In her private practice she helps pro and semipro singers, artists and voice teachers with their voice, performance, mindset and teacher training. Her speciality areas include Performing Arts Medicine, anatomy, health, technique and mindset. She pulls on a wide range of qualifications, experiences and interests to assist her clients to build and develop the knowledge and skills they require for their craft. She is a member of the BVA, PAVA, PAMA, is an MU she.grows.X mentor and Education Section committee member and Advisor to Vocology In Practice, and a BAST singing teacher trainer.