@ the Royal Festival Hall
21 November 2009
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Born in a London suburb, Cleo Laine 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 Laine 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 Laine’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 Lane’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.
Laine’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 Laine 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
She lives with her husband, 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 Laine 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, a programme of summer events
staged under a purpose-built canopy in the Dankworths' garden.
Cleo Laine continues to tour the world with her artistry,
and this trend shows no sign of abating. Neither does the career
of this unusual and superlative artist.