Cleo Laine, jazz singer, was born in London. From an early age she showed an interest in singing, encouraged by her Jamaican father, and British mother, who sent her to singing and dancing lessons. Laine began singing professionally in the late 1940s but it was her association (from 1951) with the hugely successful British band, led by the acclaimed clarinettist, John Dankworth, that made her nationally famous. Laine toured extensively with the band throughout the 1950s and, after marrying Dankworth in 1958, strengthened her bond, both personally and professionally, with the jazz world. Together the Dankworths have toured the world performing sold-out concerts to enthusiastic audiences. Their children, Alec and Jacqui, followed them into the world of music, hence the title ‘The British Royal Family of Jazz’.
In addition to her concert appearances, and recording career, Laine has carved a niche as an actress. She made her dramatic debut in 1958 at the Royal Court Theatre in Flesh to a Tiger, written by the Jamaican dramatist Barry Reckord, and directed by Tony Richardson. Since that time, in-between jazz concerts, Cleo has returned to her stage career and has spanned both serious drama and musicals. Her theatrical credits include Sandy Wilson’s Valmouth, Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Euripides’ The Trojan Women, John Dankworth’s Colette, Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. In London’s West End she co-starred with Elisabeth Welch in Cindy-Ella (1962) and gave a critically acclaimed performance as Julie in a revival of the classic musical Show Boat (1971). For The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1985) on Broadway she was nominated for a Tony, the stage equivalent of an Oscar. Since the 1950s Cleo has made numerous television appearances including the award-winning Freedom Road – Songs of Negro Protest (1964) with Cy Grant, Cindy-Ella (1966) with Elisabeth Welch, Cleo and John (1972), Heart and Soul (1977) with Ray Charles, The Muppet Show (1978), A Harmony in Music (1980) with James Galway, Cleo Sings Sondheim (1988) and Last of the Blonde Bombshells (2000) with Judi Dench.
Laine has appeared as a singer in several films including 6. 5. Special (1958) and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), and contributed to the soundtracks of Joseph Losey’s The Criminal (1960) and The Servant (1963). ‘All Gone’, the moody theme song of the latter, was written by Harold Pinter (who also wrote the film’s script) and memorably performed by Laine in various atmospheric John Dankworth arrangements, possibly the first use of a song lyric as part of a script. In 1977 Laine and Dankworth were named Show Business Personalities of the Year by the Variety Club of Great Britain. After finding success America in the 1970s, in 1985 Laine finally received a coveted Grammy award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for the third in her series of ‘live’ Carnegie Hall albums, all recorded at the famous New York auditorium. To date, she is the only British singer to win in the jazz category. Ella Fitzgerald, whom Laine had befriended some years before on an American tour, celebrated the occasion by sending Laine two dozen roses with a card reading ‘Congratulations, gal - and about time too!’
In 1979 Laine was honoured by Queen Elizabeth II with an OBE and in 1997 she was created a Dame of the British Empire. In 2002 the British Jazz Awards honoured her with their Life Achievement Award. Reviewing her appearance at London’s Talk of the Town in 1975, James Green claimed ‘I came here wondering whether Cleo Laine was the best woman singer in Britain and left certain of that and wondering if she is the best in the world. She is brilliant in a superstar hour, studded with class. We have always respected her as a jazz singer but with this programme she becomes a national asset. Her voice is a musical instrument which she uses with virtuosity taking in quiet ballads, jazz, scat, blues and good old swingers.”