Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memoir by Singer Cleo Laine: Footnotes

(Reflection on CLEO, the autobiography of singer Cleo Laine, published 1995, and on her music and career).

I met singer Cleo Laine one time, a meeting that didn't make it into her autobiography, even as a footnote. But she is more than a footnote in my life. Since she modestly omits from her life story all discussion of the artistry that makes her important to mine, I'm adding some footnotes to her book.

1973 - "The New York Carnegie Hall concert was the first of all the other highlights I was to encounter in America. ...It was a one-of-a-kind peak...." (p.256) On the recommendation of my teacher Frank Boggs, I risked six dollars on the live LP recording of that concert. I started with side two, to hear "Send in the Clowns" by my hero Stephen Sondheim. I was disappointed. Her voice seemed breathy, sometimes raspy. The accompaniment wasn't faithful to Sondheim's original. I sighed, and turned the LP over to see if there was anything to like. Then, each track was a revelation: folk song "I Know Where I'm Going" sung a cappella, a swinging waltz version of Carol King's bland "Music" that -- unlike the original -- built in excitement. For the first time I heard and appreciated scat singing, as Cleo spanned four octaves in a single line. Then there was a forgettable pop ballad made beautiful by Cleo's smokey vocal timbre and dynamics. This was followed by rude blues in a rough - hewn voice, and a spectacular novelty number "Control Yourself." By the time I got back to "Send in the Clowns," I had converted. Now I appreciated the understated singing, especially now that I knew how much vocal power she was keeping under the hood. Now I appreciated the arrangement for opening up the song to less restrained emotion. From that time on, I sought out jazz interpretations of songs I knew well. Oh, yes: the next track was "Riding High" by Cole Porter, and I'd found a new composer to love.

1974 - recording of Pierrot Lunaire and Songs by Charles Ives (p. 332) - Cleo mentions this in her discography without comment. I was ready for some good old modernist dissonance and drama, but this shocked me. Schoenberg's twelve-tone song cycle in "sprechstimme" (sp? "speak song") made me radically uncomfortable. I waited for the eerie introduction and morbid poetry to end and the music to begin, in vain: the din just continued thirty minutes and stopped. Ives's songs, on the other hand, opened me up to the ideas of disjointed rhythm and disconnected tonality. I determined to understand this stuff, and I've pursued it through books and recordings, learning to love some of it. Also began to appreciate eclecticism in an artist.

1976 - "Ray [Charles] and I got on with each other right away. The atmosphere in the studio was one of joy bordering on love, for the music and for the artistry of all concerned" (p. 261). The two - LP recording of songs from PORGY AND BESS alternated between big band arrangements with strings and pieces that Ray Charles accompanied on key board with a small ensemble. In one fell swoop, I learned to love Ray, Gershwin, and the opera. That same year, Cleo recorded her "return to Carnegie," which included a Sondheim medley, but also a lovely piece by Noel Coward, "London Pride," introducing me to another composer and personality to love.

1977 - "But two productions have gone from the Stables [a summer camp for the arts run by Cleo and her husband John Dankworth] to the West End: Colette... and Side by Side by Sondheim." (p.318) Thanks again to Frank Boggs, I saw the original cast of SxSxS in NY (1977) and met Sondheim after the show. Two years later, I missed seeing Cleo in Colette, which opened the week that I left England during a wonderful summer as a literature student at New College, Oxford. While shopping in London that summer, I found Cleo and JD's recording "Wordsongs," a collection of art songs from poetry by Shakespeare, Eliot, and others. I also had the piano music from which I learned something about jazz riffs and arranging. (I've since reviewed the recording of Colette.)

1985 - "That Old Feeling." Cleo's recording, evidently made to fill up time while husband JD was on tour with the London Pops Orchestra, is extremely beautiful: with a friend at the piano, Cleo recorded songs in her own living room. I had prized her four octaves and thrilling scat singing. But here were standards, performed without ornament or improv, made intimate and credible. A new ideal!

1988 - Cleo Sings Sondheim - a dream come true. 'Nuff said.

1989 - A stray dog entered my home when I opened the door to my carport. She took over the house from the two males who lived there, my Yellow Lab Churchill and me. This puppy howled and whined with a four octave range. Her voice and her regal bearing led me to name her Cleo. (My lovely dog Cleo died painfully but with merciful suddenness of some undetermined internal problem, after a long and happy life, in 2003.)

ca. 1990 - Cleo doesn't mention a tour that brought her close to Washington DC at a time when I was chaperoning eighth graders there. Thanks to my friend Leesha Faulkner, her eighth grader son Buck Cooper and I were able to arrange to leave the school group to hear Cleo. (I forget if I drove a rented car, or if we rode in a taxi.) Leesha also had roses delivered to Cleo's dressing room, which was our "in" to go back to meet the lady herself. Here's what I saw in that brief encounter:

The dressing room was drab and crowded with other well - wishers. Cleo and husband John Dankworth were both tiny people, around 5'2". They were both obviously exhausted but up to giving each visitor some personal time. I got to say "thank you" for all the above, and to mention my puppy Cleo. Most interesting to me was an envelope I saw, on which the list of songs for the evening had been penciled in. I got the sense that Cleo and JD were keeping themselves fresh by changing up their repertoire, and that they saw themselves as teachers and sponsors for the young band members. During the concert, these two had made a point of introducing the members of their small combo, and of including numbers written and / or arranged by these young musicians. One arrangement was a premier, I recall.

I've seen Cleo and Dankworth two times since then at Spivey Hall south of Atlanta. One concert was memorable for Cleo's medley of songs that her father sang, including "Tea for Two" in a very slow tempo that made it deliciously sensuous. I'm afraid the other concert displayed Cleo's age. She nearly lost her footing on her high heels, she had some trouble adjusting her eyes to the spotlight, and her voice gave out on the encore -- as she quickly gestured to her husband to hit the note on his sax.

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