Caribbean Cleo — the Amazing Cleo Laine

The acclaimed jazz singer Cleo Laine had a Jamaican father. Is that where her music comes from? Michael Church finds out

  • Cleo Laine: her big breakthrough came when she was signed up as head singer with the John Dankworth band. Photograph by Redferns
  • Cleo Laine and band. Photograph by Sefton Samuels
  • Cleo Laine married John Dankworth and they regularly work together. Photograph by Redferns
  • Cleo Laine. Photograph by Stefon Samuels
  • Photograph by Sally A Davies

Cleo Laine was 26 when she learnt that she had been born to unmarried parents. She’d never had a passport, suddenly needed one for a German tour she was doing with a band, and the surname which the passport office records threw up was her mother’s maiden name, not the surname of her father.

“I threw down the passport in front of her and asked her to explain it. And it emerged that – before they married, but after I was born – she and my father had one of their ugly rows in which he threatened to leave her, then she threatened to leave him, and to add insult to injury registered me in her maiden name.” So the infant Cleo was officially christened Clementine Hitching, not Campbell.

Clementine? Whence Cleo then? Whence Laine?

That’s an equally strange story. When she joined the Dankworth Seven, the boys in the band decided that Clementine was too cumbersome a name for the posters, so they dropped some Christian names and surnames into separate hats, and pulled out the ones by which we know her.

But this is to start our tale in the middle: let’s go back to the beginning, and to the singer’s Caribbean roots. Cleo Laine’s mother was English, a farmer’s daughter from the Wiltshire town of Swindon; her father – Alexander Sylvan Campbell – came from Jamaica.

“I knew very little about him,” says Cleo now. “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.

“He was an attractive dark brown, and his hair, which he kept cut close to his head, was black and tightly curly. He was a wonderful singer, and a dandy who never lost this Don Juan side of his personality, and he flirted well into his eighties. He was very proper – with a pinstripe suit and Anthony Eden hat, and a pipe. Everybody knew him as ‘the darkie with the pipe,’ and the word didn’t bother him at all – to him it was like being called ‘mate’.

“He didn’t think he had an accent at all: it was only later that I realised you could cut it with a knife. He was a real Victorian papa, who laid down strict standards of behaviour which I and my brother and sister had to follow. We didn’t mind – we loved him.”

So did his wife for many years, despite the rows, and despite the fact that he failed to find much work during the Depression; but the accumulated stresses drove them apart. The family moved house constantly, but most of Cleo’s childhood was spent in the West London district of Southall. And it was here that she learned the delights of getting up on stage at school, and bunking off to the cinema.

“I virtually lived in the cinema. I saw all the musicals with Astaire and Rogers. I dreamed that, given the chance, I might be up there too.” The chance came briefly when she was 12, as an extra in The Thief of Baghdad. Her job was to jump on a hefty palace guard to deflect his attention while the hero flew past on his magic carpet. But her irrepressible fits of giggles got her fired from the set.

It took a while for that unique voice, with its extraordinary range and timbre, to be discovered and developed. Cleo’s first real job, during the Second World War, was as a hairdresser’s apprentice, her second as a hat-trimmer, her third in a library, and her next in a pawnshop. She married a roof-tiler, had a son while still in her teens, yearned for a different life, and finally got divorced.

But she was dreaming of music. She had long been singing in talent contests, and once a professional bandsman noticed her and gave her a job. But the real break came when she auditioned for the blue-eyed boy of London jazz, Johnny Dankworth, and – with the approval of his entire band – was signed up as his lead singer.

She had always known she was good, though she was painfully aware of her vocal deficiencies. “I was a contralto with a very limited range. John edged me up by doing arrangements of songs in keys I’d never tried, and he gave me light and shade, and polished my technique endlessly. And the more I listened to jazz, the more I realised that one had to have the range of all the instruments possible. Whenever I listened to Annie Ross or Jimi Hendrix, I vowed to emulate them.”

She soon discovered that she could drink her fellow bandsmen under the table, and for a while she smoked to the point where it seriously hurt her voice. “The late nights and the smoke made my voice sound harsh and rasping, and I was told at one point that if I didn’t give up smoking I might end up with a voice like Tallulah Bankhead, which I certainly did not want.” She cut down on late-night cabaret work, stopped smoking, and asked managements to request their patrons not to smoke while she was performing.

After a long period of work together, Dankworth asked his lead singer to marry him; from then on her career and her life blossomed in tandem. Living in Kilburn, the couple got to know the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands, and their house became a social centre for London’s jazz-chic crowd. Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young and Dizzy Gillespie, all became friends.

Cleo launched a parallel career as an actress, at a time when black actresses were very thin on the ground in London. She had always been bothered by her hair, trying all kinds of recipes for straightening it, but now its natural bounce came in handy. “I had given up the fight and gone au naturel long before it became the fashion. All I had to do was put my head under the shower and I was ready.” She met and worked with Dudley Moore, who subsequently became a close friend. She worked with dance companies, scored a hit in Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, and starred in Showboat’s longest-ever run in history.

“But I have never wanted to go into opera. I was always drawn more to non-singers who could get the maximum meaning out of a song, than to people who had crystal-clear operatic voices. I’ve always liked to act through my songs.”

Cleo is now 67, but you’d not give her a day over 40. Her strong face is completely unlined, her movements are vigorous and decisive, and there is a coquetry in her sideways look from under those frizzed Afro locks. Her manner is businesslike, and she gives short shrift to any question she considers inept.

For 25 years, she and Dankworth have lived in the comfortable splendour of a Victorian mansion in Milton Keynes, full of books and paintings and all the clutter of two immensely full and varied lives. Two grand pianos sit at one end of the drawing room, as though interlocked. “Thank you for not smoking”, says a brass plate on the table.

This is the heart of the musical empire which she and Dankworth have steadily built up over the years. The youngster from Southall has created a hugely successful international career, a devoted public, and some of the most attractive music ever recorded, including albums made with close musical friends – Dudley Moore, John Williams, James Galway. Her trophies range from an OBE to a Grammy for the album Cleo Live at the Carnegie – The Tenth Anniversary (this earned her a dozen roses and a note – “Congratulations gal! It’s about time! – from none other than Ella Fitzgerald).

In the grounds is The Stables, the theatre she and Dankworth have established, with courses in jazz and classical music, and summer camps for children. Their son Alec is a bass player, their daughter Jacqueline is a singer and actress. Princess Margaret, who regularly invites them for sing-songs at Kensington Palace, is a long-time supporter and friend. Not for nothing are the Dankworths sometimes known as the royal family of music.

Now a grandmother, she remains immensely proud of her family, and is particularly protective of her musical son and daughter. She worries that Jacqueline, now 30, is not achieving the stardom se thinks is her due – indeed, she worries about the plight of contemporary performers in general.

She has just published her autobiography, Cleo. This atmospheric tale, which she wrote with the aid of her diaries, drawing on an uncanny gift for detailed recall, is a begulling tapestry, in which all the strands of her life are woven together. It contains much that is familiar, but also much that has been forgotten. Such as the couple’s involvement in the anti-apartheid movement, after Dankworth realised that the iniquitous South African laws would have forbidden his wife even to enter his South African hotel.

When I ask what she regards as the point of her autobiography, she thinks for a moment.

“I guess it’s a story of how an uneducated girl from a working-class family got out of that situation, very fast, through luck and talent. In a way, it’s a fairy story, which might inspire other people, spur them on. I hope so, because a lot of young people write to me, asking which way to go in the music business. And I have no idea how to advise them. I would hate to have to start my career today: half the problem is getting your product into the spotlight, but you have to do this through businessmen, not through music men. There are very few people about today who are prepared to take young talent and gradually build it up.”

Once you’ve heard Cleo Laine sing, you can never mistake her voice. Alexander Sylvan Campbell would have loved it. He might even have had strong opinions on where she got it from.

Cleo and Dankworth still ceaselessly tour the globe. But she’s never been back to Jamaica. “Something’s always got in the way. And I can’t abide taking holidays. I only travel to work.”

It’s about time Cleo worked a shift or two in the place her father came from, and whose music must, somewhere deep down, have helped to shape her. Any offers out there?


Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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