How We Met: Dame Cleo Laine & Sir John Dankworth

'He had a boyish quality and an outrageous sense of humour. Oh, and a very lovely bottom'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Dame Cleo Laine, 80, was born Clementine Campbell in 1927. She started singing professionally in her twenties after an audition with the jazz musician John Dankworth. Her distinctive voice, which spans four octaves, has won her a raft of awards. She lives in Buckinghamshire with Dankworth, who she married in 1958

My ambition was always to sing. But in the early days when nobody would employ me, jazz had never entered my mind – I would have said "Yes, thank you" to anyone who wanted to give me a job.

I used to sing at local dances in Southall, where I grew up, and was paid the union rate, which wouldn't even have bought me a dress. I was becoming extremely frustrated when my manager told me the only band looking for a singer was led by a man called John Dankworth.

I arrived at the 51 Club, where John was rehearsing with the pianist Bill Le Sage. I don't think my manager thought I had a chance – I wasn't a glamorous singer and nobody thought I had enough experience. I can't remember what I said – this was back in 1951 – but I know I sang "Orange Colored Sky". They seemed to be reasonably impressed and invited me back to perform with the rest of the band that evening – probably so they could get a cheap singer for the night. I went and sang, but nobody was particularly interested – it wasn't like a star-is-born moment. But back in the pub, which doubled as their office, they offered me the job. I was gobsmacked.

It certainly wasn't love at first sight between Johnny and me. I was married when I met him and didn't have an eye for him immediately. And he had girlfriends floating about. But little did he know my marriage was on the rocks, and that I was getting attracted to him. He was very thin and looked a bit like Frank Sinatra. He had a boyish quality and an outrageous sense of humour. Oh, and a very lovely bottom.

By 1957, I'd decided to leave the band to do some acting. I'd hoped our relationship would develop into something more thana love affair but had almost given up when, while I was filming in Manchester, John called me and asked, "Will you marry me?" It was frantically romantic and of course I said "Yes" straight away. We had a simple wedding the next year in a registry office.

We've been married for almost 50 years now. We have always been great friends and I think the humour has kept us together – any problem can be wiped out with a single joke – and while John's now 80, he still often acts like a five-year-old. Then there's the music. John is a genius: he can arrange, play, and write for anybody. And although I've worked without him, it was John who lifted me out of where I probably would have ended up – the musical doldrums – and pulled me into stardom.

Sir John Dankworth, 80, is a classically trained clarinettist, who joined London's Royal Academy of Music aged 17. He turned to jazz in the 1950s, performing with his band, the Dankworth Seven. Named Musician of the Year in 1949, he excels as a composer and penned works including the Avengers theme tune

There was nothing showbiz or flashy when I first met Cleo, or Clementine as she was then. She was rather reserved in her attire and when she came for an audition, I asked what key she wanted to sing in. She said that she didn't know. Then she started singing. Bill, our manager and pianist, and I couldn't believe what we were hearing. We'd searched long and hard for a singer, and even turned down some big names, but Cleo was just what we'd been looking for – there was a quality and pace to her voice, as well as something that fitted with the youthful experiments we were doing.

But we were a co-operative – Bill and I had no authority – so we invited Cleo back that evening to sing with all the band members. In the intermission I joined her in the band-room. Jimmy Deuchar, a very dour Scottish trumpeter, who was not given to going overboard, was there. I said, "Well, do you think she's got something?" He looked at me with a sour face and said, "I think she's got everything." The others only had to nod and Cleo was hired.

The first thing we did was to decide Clementine Campbell was not going to sit well on any billboard, so we put first and second names in a hat and picked out two. I'd heard of an obscure American blues singer called Cleo Brown, so I took Cleo as short for Clementine, and Laine came out as the surname – so that was that.

I was a single man at the time but at a New Year's Eve concert we did at an American Air Force base, we kissed and I soon realised it was lasting longer than everybody else's. That's when it started, and when her divorce papers came through, I proposed. We got married at Hampstead Registry Office. I didn't tell my parents and my mother read about it in Melody Maker. I was scared about what she would say, but they both loved Cleo.

We've had our separate careers but I'm happiest when performing with her – the confidence we feel emanates from the security we get from being together. We'll wait until we're rotten vegetables before we bow out. We don't know how far away it might be, but that will be the signal to stop, and not before.

Dame Cleo Laine and Sir John Dankworth will be celebrating their 80th birthdays with the London Symphony Orchestra on 27 February at the Barbican Centre, London EC2 (020 7638 8891). Their new record 'I Hear Music' is out now on Union Square