The first lady of jazz
At 83 years old, Cleo Laine is still a giant among jazz singers, holding audiences in the palm of her hand. She talks to Ciara Dwyer of taking the New York subway, setting off airport metal detectors and the loss of her beloved husband John
DAME Cleo Laine sits in an armchair in her home near Milton Keynes and gazes at me with her magnificent green eyes. The 83-year-old jazz singer still has her tight Afro curls, the full lips and those unmistakable high cheekbones.
There is an air of serenity about her. She tilts her head and looks at me with an inquisitive expression, like a cat sizing me up. Before we begin the interview, I tell her that I have been a fan of hers for many years. In my excitement, I babble away. She smiles graciously. She knows what it's like to be the adoring one.
Many years ago, Cleo saw Groucho Marx backstage at an event. She had been a big fan but suddenly, in his presence, her mind went to mush. "Mr Marx, may I ... may I shake your hand?" she said. The comedian replied, "Lady, you can shake any part of me you like."
Today, I am the bumbling fool but it's hard not to be in awe of this woman. Famous for her four-octave range and her dynamic singing style, she is equally loved for her lively personality. Her mother was English and her father Jamaican, and so growing up in Southall, London, she was always that little bit different. She describes herself as "a Heinz bean -- 57 varieties."
Her father found it hard to get a job and often he would go to Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park to give Londoners a piece of his mind. At other times, he would sing his heart out busking on the streets. Her mother was a feisty lady who kept a boarding house and was very into her music when she went to her Methodist church. How could Cleo ever be ordinary?
Outspoken, eccentric and earthy, she has always brought an impish sense of fun to her performances. When she sings the song Peel Me a Grape, she tells audiences how she loves the words. With a glint in her eye, she sounds like she is talking about much more than grapes.
Many years ago, while in New York, she wanted to experience a journey on the subway. A friend advised her against it, as it was back in the days when the city was a dangerous place. Cleo was warned not to wear good jewellery and that if she saw anyone eyeing her strangely, she should pick her nose.
"And I did," she tells me, laughing at the memory.
You cannot talk of Cleo Laine without mentioning her late husband, the jazz composer, saxophonist and clarinetist John Dankworth. Although Cleo had her solo career too, they often performed together and John worked on arrangements especially for her.
Two years ago, they performed in the National Concert Hall. When she walked on stage and started to sing Without a Song, he blew into his saxophone and, like a flower, bloomed in her presence. On stage, their love for each other was blatant. John would smile at her before beginning another saxophone riff, while she would join him with her scat singing.
They first met in 1951, when she auditioned for his band. By then she was married to George, a roof-tiler, and had a son, Stuart, so she wasn't looking for love. She had worked in a pawn shop and a shoe-repair shop but becoming a singer was her big dream.
"I auditioned for John and he said he'd have me as his next girl singer but because the band was a co-op, he asked me to sing with them that night. He wanted a cheap singer but he ended up with an expensive wife."
Her marriage to George had come to an end. "I outgrew him," she says. Cleo and John married in 1958. They have two children -- Alec ( a jazz bassist and composer) and Jacqui, a jazz singer.
"It was a two-year relationship before we got married. I always say if he had been a plumber I probably wouldn't have dug him at all. It was a marriage of musical minds but there were other things, like
the fact that he was pretty good-looking and he was a very kind man. That was a big element in his make-up. He was a brilliant man and as the years went on, I realised how brilliant he was. I can say, hand on heart, with no exaggeration, that he was a genius musically and the writing that he did just before he died, well, anybody who can write like that when he's virtually on his deathbed... It was quite remarkable writing. He taught me everything I know about jazz singing."
John died last February in a hospital in London. He had been sick for some time. (For many years he had suffered from lymphedema. As a result of this, his legs were restless and at night, Cleo says it was like being in bed with a dishwasher.) When he was hospitalised, Cleo and her daughter Jacqui had been in to see him daily but on this particular day, they were rehearsing for a special show to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Stables, the venue which Cleo and John founded. It had been arranged that an ambulance would bring John down to appear at the show.
"We were rehearsing, expecting him to come down at any moment in the ambulance," says Cleo. "Then we got the phone call from the hospital to say we should get down there as quickly as possible. By the time we got there he had died. So that was quite disturbing and emotionally upsetting for both Jacqui and myself."
Cleo went back to The Stables and told the musicians of his death. A decision had to be made about the concert that night. Would the show go on? Hours later, Cleo took to the stage and performed. At the very end of the evening, she told the audience that John had passed away.
I ask her if she had been her usual effervescent self during the show and she admits that she probably was, although she was a little shaky doing one or two of the songs.
"I had to sing a song called I'm Glad There Is You and that was quite emotional," she says. "And then there were other things like Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day. It was from the Shakespeare and All That Jazz album. It was a very big album in our lives and in our career.
"In a way it was difficult and in another way it was easy, in that all those people had been told it was a sold-out concert. So it seemed to me that if they came with all that goodwill in their hearts, and all those musicians ... I don't know if I felt I couldn't let them down, any more than John would have done. If the boot had been on the other foot, he would have carried on."
And that is what she has been doing ever since. Cleo Laine will perform at the National Concert Hall on New Year's Eve with Jacqui.
When I ask if it will be particularly difficult for her to sing on New Year's Eve, as she shared her first kiss with John on that date, she talks about how she is trying to think of something brilliant for that night. Being a professional, she will get on with the show and dazzle us.
"I can be miserable before going on stage. I'm a human being, you know."
A busy woman, she is just back from the States, where she did a series of concerts and also visited her son from her first marriage, Stuart. He is a graphic designer but now he has MS and his wife is his full-time carer.
"Not easy," says Cleo.
But still, her comic spirit is indomitable. She had a knee-replacement operation, and then when recovering, she tripped over a suitcase. She had to go to hospital and had nine screws put in her knee. Now she beeps when she goes through the scanning machines at airports.
"They don't believe that it's not a gun. They put me in a glass case and I tell them I was screwed nine times in the middle of the night."
When she arrived home from the States, she plunged into publicity work before her appearance at the London Jazz Festival. Not leaving time to recover from jet lag meant that she got a chest infection and lost her voice. Days before her concert, she was mute and writing notes.
"When this happened in the past, when John was alive, he used to enjoy those moments. He would say, 'Oh, what joy'. And then I'd write something like 'f**k off'"
There was always much mirth in their marriage, but Cleo had a temper too. One time she exploded and pulled a painting off the wall and put John's head through it.
"Just as well it wasn't a valuable painting," she says, ever practical.
And then there was the time straight after the birth of their first baby that she felt that John wasn't pulling his weight. She roared at him.
"I've just given birth to a baby."
He replied: "I've just given birth to a band."
"The musicians would say, 'Here we go again'. We were known as 'the bickering couple' but it was never serious."
It is obvious that love and humour were always there.
Sometimes she finds herself about to ask him something and then she realises he is not there. But work and music have kept her sane.
"I call it Dr Stage. You can go on feeling like death warmed up and the stage dispenses with it all. You drop 20 years in half an hour. It's better than having surgery. But Dr Stage can only go so far. It just pulls me together for the performance and that's about it. After that you're on your own because people support you for a while but they can't keep supporting you forever and ever, so you are on your own. You have to fight your inner battles, all by yourself.
"I'm still having lousy days and lousy nights. Mainly, I can't sleep, but there you are."
Our time is up. She is off to Ronnie Scott's jazz club and she has to put her make-up on.
"At one time, it took me half an hour to put my face on but now it takes a couple of hours."
I tell her that the length of time is a mere trifle. Isn't it better that she's still at it?
"I'm still putting it on," she says.
There's that glint in her eye again. With that fighting spirit, Cleo Laine will survive. There's nothing like this dame.
Cleo Laine and her daughter Jacqui Dankworth join the RTE Concert Orchestra and Mark Nightingale for a special New Year's Eve celebration at the National Concert Hall, on December 31 at 10pm. For more information, call (01) 417 0000 or see www.rte.ie/concertorchestra or www.nch.ie