The night of October 23, 1974, was gustily warm, barometrically nondescript. But it was supremely memorable, for the handful who were at Convocation Hall on the University of Toronto campus, as the night singer Cleo Laine was introduced to a Canadian audience. Maybe 300 were present in that 1,730-seat amphitheatre; few of them seemed to have paid. Today, with a rare mating of public acclaim and artistic excellence, Cleo Laine draws full houses wherever she goes, and the 300 who saw her first (however free the tickets) now boast about that three-year-old evening as a kind of status symbol. And well they might. A Cleo Laine performance-backed always by a four-piece group led by her husband John Dankworth—is something to remember, just as her voice, ranging from about C below middle C to F above high C, is a lifelong possession of all who hear it. In Britain (where she was born 40-some years ago to a Jamaican father and an English mother) she is known also as a brilliant actress (Ibsen, Shakespeare) as well as the showpiece of a sellout revival of KernHammerstein's Show Boat. But on this side of the Atlantic she is known solely as a singer who can leap 2Vi> octaves with unerring accuracy; sing funny, sing sad, sing lieder, jazz, opera, pop; scatsing with machine-gun rapidity and finesse or down there, in the dark beige tones, so that it’s hard to tell where Dankworth’s marvelously agile alto sax ends and his wife’s vocal melismatics begin. Critics fall over themselves trying to describe her talents, and two, at opposite ends of the earth, gave up. The London Times called her “quite simply, the best singer in the world,’’ andthe man from the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, no less simply, called her “the finest.’’
Laine first met Dankworth when she auditioned for his Big Band (one of Britain's great touring groups of the era) in 1952; he hired heras the band’s singerfor seven pounds a week, at that time about $20, and married her six years later. At every concert she introduces him as “my husband, and my best friend,” and their natural personal harmony, both on and off stage, is a sight for sore cynics. These days they spend much of their time touring North America and Maclean’s Senior Editor David Cobb caught up with them during a recent engagement in Hamilton—where as is now usual they drew full houses and standing ovations every night. The interview began in their hotel room: in one corner stood a rickety up-
Laine: Mum was a real theatre mum; I’m sorry she didn’t live to see me attain these heights
right piano whose uneven keys looked like an aerial shot of the Himalayas and which Dankworth, 50, had been using to finetune some new arrangements.
Maclean’s: Why did it take you so long to get to North America?
Laine: There are many answers to that one but the main one is that if you’re going to take on Canada and the United States you should have an agent or a manager behind you who believes in you enough to make the move work. I didn’t. Sure, I could have come over long ago and taken my chances as a “cabaret artiste”—but there are so many of them in the States, and I wasn’t prepared to sit in the corner of endless clubs waiting for someone to notice me. On the other hand, I had been preparing myself for some time: it was always at the back of my mind that I would take North America by storm.
Dankworth: So we got together again in the late Sixties—we’d been working apart for a few years and I’d broken up the Johnny Dankworth Big Band in 1963—and we organized a recital formula, anything from lieder to blues, Gershwin, Porter, a
full 20th-century repertoire. We toured with it, did well in Europe, and then we were invited to Australia in 1972. The Australians more nearly approach Americans and Canadians than the British in their responses, and I think I can say we created some kind of a furor down there. So on the way back home we stopped off in New York and I did the round of agents: seemed ridiculous to knock them out in Australia and not try to do the same over here. Incredible! Classical agents, pop agents, rock, jazz—none of them understood what we wanted to do. Concerts? We were told that anyone who wanted to do that sort of thing should have a hit film, or album, or TV show, a hit something. We had none of them, We finally got to Ron Delsener [Elton John’s promoter, among rather many others] for 20 minutes, and finally the light dawned. “Gotcha!” he said. “She’s a class act!”
Maclean’s: A ndyou were off and running? Laine: Not quite. We played Alice Tully Hall, which holds 1,000 seats. We sold only about a half and papered it to two thirds. Because we didn’t sell out, Delsener washed himself of us. But the press was there [The New York Times exclaimed that Britain had been “hoarding one of her national treasures”] and six months later we played Carnegie Hall.
Maclean’s: Since 1973 you’ve made half a dozen albums, a lot for a class act. How are they doing?
Dankworth: Nothing sensational by Elton John or Stevie Wonder standards. About
750,000 total. In Britain we would sell about 5,000 to 10,000 copies per album, so we’re moving along. You see, unless you concentrate on a recording career to the exclusion of everything else, you don’t sell—and the companies aren’t that interested in selling you. Tony Bennett, Steve Lawrence, Bob Goulet, none of them has a recording contract now.
Laine: Our 750,000 copies must have grossed four million dollars but the companies are looking for the people who’ll bring in $100 million. I can see why. Maclean’s: Often your concerts feature poems that John hasset to music—John Betjeman, W. H. Auden, Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot... How did that come about? Dankworth: It wasn’t a conscious effort to get cultural, it just happened kind of organically. Cleo sang one of the Samson Agonistes pieces on the Eliot memorial program, which gave us the idea, but the Auden song, for instance, I wrote for Annie Ross, not for Cleo at all. Only Annie never sang it. People call that sort of thing cultural: we’ve found it often means damn good entertainment, meaning that people can enjoy the poems, rather than look pofaced about them.
Maclean’s: Any trouble with the rights? Dankworth: If you can deal direct with the poets, it’s usually all right. It’s when they’re dead and not yet in the public domain that there’s trouble. Widows are terrible, especially widows of the just deceased. And we had to drop an Ogden Nash number because the publishers were so sticky. Maclean’s: It says here you've sung since the age of three. True?
Laine: Yes, thereabouts. My mum was a real theatre mum. She sent us all, my brother, sister and me, to dancing and singing classes. The other two gave it up, and my mother died seven years ago. She never saw me attain these heights!
Maclean’s: How about your father?
Laine: Dad’s a Jamaican who came over to England just before the 1914-18 war, fought in it, and married my mother after it. He never achieved what he wanted to do, which is what I’m doing. He was a very good singer and he went to auditions for many of the bands of the time, but never passed. Life wasn’t too good in the Thirties and to be black at the same time must have been even harder. I remember Dad buying a hod and practising brick humping in the garden, for speed. The faster you could hump them, the better chance of getting a job. But the Irish were coming over then and working very cheap ... I still don’t know if he got it. My father’s a terribly sensitive man and he used to be deeply hurt by any references to color. If it hadn’t been for his ultra-sensitivity he’d have got further. My mother ran a boarding house in Southall, Middlesex, and Dad would get into terrible fights with the boarders in the café, which he was supposed to run. Finally my mother would come out from the back and say, “All right, I’ll serve in the café, you stay in the back.” And then he’d get furious
Laine: If someone called me ‘Blackie’ or ‘Fuzzie’.. .well it was just a game
about that! He thought she was ashamed of him and nothing could be further from the truth.
Maclean’s: What was it like for you, growing up as the child of a mixed marriage in the Forties?
Laine: Never bothered me. In those days all that stuff was a game. If someone called me Blackie or Fuzzie, it was the same as me calling someone Skinny or Ginger or Four-Eyes. But now with the West Indians coming in in their thousands, I can see it’s not a game any more.
Maclean’s: What sort of musical influences d’J you have?
Laine: My main influences were the movies. I’d sit through all the musicals I could cram into a week—provided I had the money and could play truant from school.Watching people like Mickey Rooney, Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and anybody who sang or danced made me want to perform. Of course, later when I was with John, I avidly listened to the great jazz singers—Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Anita O’Day, and Peggy Lee but Hollywood was very, very dear to my heart. I imitated some of them at first but eventually I realized what all artists should realize—that imitation isn’t a good thing over the long run—and because I wasn’t a very good imitator, really, I achieved a style of my own.
Maclean’s: What reaction do you have when critics describe you as “simply, the best singer in the world?”
Laine: I’m flattered, of course. One can’t help feeling so, but I can’t agree. You can only say something like that for an athlete or whatever—someone who comes through the winning post. I personally don’t think you can do it with art or artistry. What it may mean is that I’m much more adventurous than other singers. I attempt to stretch myself a little more and perhaps the people who write reviews like to hear things that aren’t usually heard. Maclean’s: Why do you stretch yourself? Laine: It keeps me interested in the music. So many songs are not much of a challenge to me and when I get something that’s very challenging it’s elating. Sometimes it’s difficult and I complain, but then Johnny just tells me “to go away and learn it,” knowing of course that I’ll go into a corner and do just that.
Maclean’s: When people think of great voices they traditionally think of opera. Has that ever been an option for you?
Laine: Grand opera doesn’t hold any interest for me as yet and wouldn’t unless someone wrote something for me. I would likely have to take a year off to get my voice ready and even then I might never get it into shape to please opera buffs. I don’t have the clear, bell-like voice that the cognoscenti like to hear because of earlier problems like bronchitis, pneumonia and smoking (which I no longer do!). Maclean’s: Every year you run a music festival at your home in England. How did that get started?
Dankworth: In the late Sixties, when we were getting this recital thing started for Cleo, we were invited to all kinds of little
societies and clubs—and one of the places we played was in Northumberland, for a millionaire silk manufacturer who used to organize a music festival of his own. So we v thought, why not try one at our place? Laine: We converted the stables [of the old rectory in Wavendon, Buckinghamshire, where they live] into a small theatre, and it runs through the year. Educational courses, weekend junior participation events, and the festival early every summer, which features anything from jazz to heder to Spike Milligan and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Side-By-Side By Sondheim [a revue of Stephen Sondheim songs and collaborations, later a London and New York smash, now touring] was born there, that’s our great claim to fame. Dankworth: A superb lyricist, Sondheim. But have you noticed how it’s always the composers who get the credit? Burt Bacharach is a household name—and who knows Hal David, who writes his words? Reminds me of the time Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein overheard someone saying, “That’s Jerome Kern, he wrote 01’ Man River.” Mrs. Hammerstein interrupted: “No, he didn’t. Oscar Hammerstein wrote 01’ Man River. Mr. Kern wrote dum-dadeedah, da-dum-da-deedah ...” Maclean’s: A small point. In the old Big Band days you were known as Johnny. What happened?
Dankworth: The movies happened. In the early Sixties London was becoming the centre of the world recording-wise, and it was impossible to get musicians to go on the road with you. So rather than have a second-rate band I gave it up after 13 years—and when I started to do scores for features, among them: Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, The Servant, Darling, Morgan, the film people didn’t think Johnny sounded distinguished enough. Laine: He answers to either, really he does. Maclean’s: One of your albums last year, Born On A Friday, was produced by George Martin, surely the only widely known record producer because of all the albums he made for the Beatles. What’s the dope on that? Dankworth: He was my producer years ago, long before even the Beatles had thought of the Beatles. Produced all my early recordings. He’s an old friend.
Laine: He created your two hits. Dankworth: Well, I wouldn’t say that. Laine: Three Blind Mice?
Dankworth: Yes. Well. I had this radio show, you see, and every week we did a parody of a band playing Three Blind Mice. And George said there should be a hit there somewhere.
Laine: There you are! It was George’s idea.
Laine: George heard it. George suggested it. You played it. I leave it to Maclean’s to judge.
Maclean’s: George Martin scores six out of 10 on our sheet.
Laine: Thank you! Apart from that, George is absolutely marvelous at the
knob-twiddling, technical thing. “Notice that, John?” George would say in the control room, playing back the tapes, and John wouldn’t have, because he gets so involved he sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees. Especially in the editing side, week after week, which is when minds go absolutely ga-ga.
Maclean’s: In your new career since 1973, how do you find your audiences?
Laine: The ones in Japan gave me a bit of trouble at first. In the first half of the shows I did there 18 months ago there was almost no applause—you could feel the minds grinding round the words, assessing them, churning them up, but I didn’t feel I was getting through at all. But in the second half of the shows it was a different matter, almost as if they’d taken a language course at intermission. Canadians are more reserved than Americans,, so that when I get them to their feet it’s more of an achievement. Americans are so emotional, so quick to throw themselves into a concert that it’s almost too easy . . . Except in Las Vegas. They really sit on their hands there. Extraordinary place. The names that do well there may not be doing anything anywhere else. Wayne Newton, one of those who no longer has a contract with a record company, does 36 weeks’ work a year there, at $100,000 a week, and asks why
Dankworth: Rather than have a second-rate band I gave it up and wrote movie scores
anyone should ever expect him to leave. Maclean’s: Does it sometimes grate that the “best singer in the world” is earning considerably less than the Newtons and the Elton Johns?
Laine: In the course of any artist’s career there are points when he is underrated and overrated. And quite often the artist’s career is so short-lived that—provided they worked hard enough to get famous—then why not? I don’t worry about it. The pop record industry is big business, it’s not dealing with good music very much. Maclean’s: What does the future hold for you?
Laine: Oh, we live it day by day. People are always coming to me with scripts, musicals, and so on. Nothing at the moment sets me alight—but there’s some interesting talk in the wind about a movie, a drama with music, that I’d like to do very much. We’ll know soon, one way or the other. But I can tell you I’m glad I’m not a band singer any more.
Dankworth: Soon as she caught me, she left my band.
Laine: I didn’t catch you, you asked me to marry you. Besides, I knew if I stayed with the band I’d remain a band singer for the rest of my life. It’d have been different with Ted Heath, another British big-band leader of the postwar years: band singers were important to him, never to John. Dankworth: I treated them with the contempt most of them deserved.
Laine: The moment I decided to leave was when I heard John say, “This is a musicians’ band and always will be, never a singer’s band.”
Dankworth: Well, things changed. A bit sensitive, wouldn’t you say? Just like her father,