Cleve’s Place

Legendary Birmingham jazz musician Cleve Eaton takes his place in history.

By Lee Shook

Photo by Michael Sheehan

It’s rare to come across a musician whose mastery of their instrument is so fluid, effortless and profoundly intuitive that it seems like the instrument itself is just a natural extension of their body, subliminally communicating through sound a language so instinctual that it appears to emanate directly from their soul. It’s even rarer still to find a musician in your hometown who has been operating professionally at that level for over six decades. And yet that’s exactly what happens every time local jazz legend Cleve Eaton picks up his well-worn upright bass in front of an audience and begins to play. A pillar of the local music scene for 44 years now, Eaton has rightly earned his place among the most prestigious names from Alabama’s rich musical history, bringing a level of gravitas to any group he plays with, whether it be at a local venue or concert halls around the world. Reverently known as “Basie’s bassist” through his Grammy Award-winning work with the Count Basie Orchestra, whose handiwork can be found on over 100 recordings, Eaton’s esteemed career has seen him perform, record and collaborate with a veritable who’s who in modern jazz and popular music, having worked alongside everyone from Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan, to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Minnie Riperton, The Temptations, and bluesman Bobby Rush, among countless others. Having served as a producer, composer, arranger, publisher, record label owner and nightclub impresario, there are few facets of the modern music industry that he hasn’t been a part of, lending his immaculate playing and ear to a wide variety of styles and genres across the 20th and 21st centuries. A true Birmingham treasure, Eaton’s presence and impact on the Magic City music scene is both immense and immeasurable, having provided an international spotlight on the deep roots of jazz here in town, placing his contributions to its evolving story alongside the likes of other hometown heroes like Erskine Hawkins and Sun Ra.

Born in Fairfield in 1939 and raised in a highly musical household helmed by his mother and two sisters— all of whom were classically trained pianists who helped encourage and shape his burgeoning musical interests— Eaton was a prodigious talent from a very early age, taking up piano, saxophone, trumpet and eventually tuba, before being introduced to his instrument of choice with string bass starting in high school. Having discovered the unwieldy musical vehicle under the tutelage of band teacher John Springer at Fairfield Industrial High School, Eaton would soon find himself playing with local singer Leon “Lucky” Davis at the age of 15— a job scored through his cousin and fellow Birmingham jazz luminary Frank “Doc” Adams— before winning a full music scholarship to Tennessee A&I State University for tuba, where he would hone his skills as both a bass player and multi-instrumentalist before launching into the realm of professional touring musician after graduation in 1960. Returning to Birmingham for a day to visit his family following his graduation ceremony, he quickly left home for Chicago, where he would get his first big break playing with Ike Cole— brother of the legendary Nat “King” Cole— who had seen him play at the Sutherland Lounge jazz club during a Monday night jam session upon first arriving in the city and was immediately impressed with his skills and wondered if he was available.

“I graduated on a Friday, Saturday I stayed home with my family, Sunday I was in my car headed for the Sutherland Hotel where the jam session was at,” Eaton remembers, “And Monday I was at the jam session playing and Nat King Cole’s brother was there. And he asked me, ‘Man, you ain’t doing nothing?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Do you want to go on the road with me?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ So we left Wednesday. So I left that quick for the tour. Between Friday and Wednesday I was on the road.”

Memorabilia on the mantle at Cleve’s home.

Touring with Cole for the next year-and-a-half, he would soon find himself in the company of some of jazz’s most influential figures of the era, playing with trumpeter Donald Byrd and saxophonist Pepper Adams in a quintet featuring a young Herbie Hancock, whom— according to Eaton— he would perform the very first live version of the distinguished musician’s “Watermelon Man” with prior to its official recording in 1962. Quickly making a name for himself as a highly sought after collaborator in one of the most competitive jazz scenes in America during the early-to-mid-1960s through his work with people like pianist Larry Novak, whom he would regularly work with over the next five years at hot Chicago clubs like the London House, it was during this time that he would also take up another one of his other lifelong passions, becoming a music teacher in the city’s public school system, mentoring inner city youth during the day while playing gigs at night and on weekends. Subsidizing his income composing advertising jingles, working as a session musician, and as a staff bassist at radio station WGN, in 1966 Eaton would get what would become the biggest break of his early career after being called to join renowned keyboardist Ramsey Lewis in the wildly popular Ramsey Lewis Trio, whom he would record and perform with for the next 10 years following the departure of Isaac “Red” Holt and Eldee Young from Lewis’ original trailblazing three piece.

A Chicago native and fixture on the local jazz scene since 1956, Lewis had already established himself as a breakthrough crossover artist prior to Eaton’s joining the group with 1965’s hit song and Grammy Award-winning album The In Crowd, providing the young bassist with what would amount to a veritable springboard into the world of popular music and non-stop national and international touring. Joined by phenomenally talented drummer Maurice White— who would subsequently leave the group in 1970 to launch Earth, Wind & Fire— the newly-minted trio wasted no time in proving their worth, quickly recording another hit album with 1966’s Wade in the Water, which would provide Lewis with his second gold hit in two years in the form of the LP’s monster title track, as well as a follow-up Grammy for “Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance – Vocal or Instrumental” for “Hold It Right There.” Operating under Chess Records’ jazz-based subsidiary label, Cadet, the group would embark on a remarkable three year run together, mining a wide swathe of popular songs of the day— including everything from jazz standards and movie themes, to soul/R&B, Motown, world music, and even rock songs— as well as some of Cleve’s own original compositions, all rendered as inventive instrumentals with Ramsey’s unique keyboard work painting colorful and percussive vignettes over the top of Eaton and White’s broad rhythmic palette. Playing to both white and black audiences around the world, the band’s most popular tunes would often prove to be their funkiest, showcasing their upbeat tempos and soul jazz swing as dance party DNA for those inclined to cut a rug, making them a force to be reckoned with in both the live setting as well as around record players and radio stations across the country. Occasionally aided by the lush string and horn arrangements of producer Charles Stepney and Cadet’s house arranger and composer Richard Evans— a fellow Birmingham native born in the Magic City the same year as Eaton, whom he would also record with as part of The Soulful Strings ensemble— the group had few equals in the world of popular mainstream jazz of the time, making them a highly influential outfit and commercial success.

After White’s departure in 1970, Eaton would continue to work with Lewis for the next five years alongside the band’s third drummer, Morris Jennings, overseeing a gradual shift to more electric, funky and fusion-oriented work on Columbia Records through albums like 1972’s Funky Serenity (which would feature a classic Cleve bass line on “My Love For You” later lifted by Beck for his popular 1999 song “Debra” off of Midnite Vultures) and 1974’s Sun Goddess— one of the last albums Eaton would record with him, which would also go gold. With Cleve by his side, Lewis would also win his third Grammy in 1973 for “Best R&B Instrumental Performance” for the band’s rollicking remake of The McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy” (which Lewis had initially recorded with the original trio in 1965), adding yet another notch to their collective belt and establishing Eaton yet again as one of the best bassists in the business. It was also during this era that Cleve would embark on an ambitious solo career, mining deep strains of jazz-funk, smooth pop R&B, and even disco, churning out a string of highly collectible records throughout the 1970s prized by crate diggers and DJs around the world for their monster dance grooves and imaginative arrangements. Releasing his first solo LP, Half & Half, in 1973 on Gamble Records after being courted by Philadelphia International’s hit songwriting and production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff— who also helped put artists like The O-Jays and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes on the map—  Eaton would soon move to Ovation Records two years later, through their Black Jazz imprint, releasing 1975’s Plenty Good Eaton, both of which remain some of his best and most under-appreciated recordings.

It was also during this same time that Cleve would meet the greatest love of his life, Myra, after a chance encounter here in Birmingham on one of the last tours he would ever do with Lewis. Another Magic City native, Myra had actually seen Cleve perform with the trio while living in Los Angeles and Houston in the 1960s and early-1970s, but would fatefully find herself in his presence again in 1974 at Broadway Joe’s— a nightclub owned by football star Joe Namath— after being tasked with chaperoning Eaton’s two boys from his first marriage through a relative while he was home visiting his birthplace. Bringing the two boys to see their father play, she was immediately struck by the handsome and sweaty bass player tearing it up for the home crowd as she watched from the door. Introduced that night, the pair would soon find themselves in a whirlwind courtship, with Cleve flying her around the country to come see him play and visit him in Chicago. Quickly falling in love, Eaton would eventually make the decision to quit Ramsey’s group and move back to Birmingham the following year to be with his soon-to-be wife, whom he would marry in Linn Park in 1976, and her three children Tania, Kwani and Kole. The beginning of a 43-year partnership in life, music and business, the couple would work in tandem together as artist and booking agent/manager over the coming decades, creating a mutually beneficial career that continues to this day, with Myra handling all of his promotion and concerts and Cleve handling all of the music.

Having made the move back to his hometown, Eaton immediately began to immerse himself in the local music scene and connecting with fellow musicians hoping to start a new chapter in both his life and career. Hooking up with local talents like trumpeter Bo Berry, whom he still performs with to this day, he would soon form the jazz-funk group Garden of Eaton, and slowly began establishing himself again in the city he had left so many years before to chase his dreams. Releasing the album Instant Hip that same year along with the disco single “Bama Boogie Woogie,”  the group— featuring an all-Birmingham cast— would soon start regularly touring, playing select gigs around the country to appreciative audiences from California to New York. Releasing a follow-up album in 1979 under the Garden of Eaton moniker, but recorded with professional players he had hired from Chicago, called Keep Love Alive, he slowly but surely began to find his footing back in Alabama, continuing to tour with the local group and tapping into popular dance grooves of the time while also continuing to play straight ahead jazz. Mentoring many of the local players he worked with to help sharpen their skills— including popular young groups like The Soul Controllers— Eaton provided invaluable learning experiences for almost everyone he came into contact with, and in the process helped redefine the local scene.

“Anybody that plays with him, if they have open minds, they’re gonna learn something,” says Berry, “He’s been there, he’s done stuff that most people are trying to do. He already did it. He’s years ahead of the game. Everybody that knows him and everybody that’s played with him knows he’s a great musician and a great person too.” Adding, “I used to tell him all of the time when he came back and started playing, ‘I know it’s hard for you having to play, because you have to come down to a certain level from where you’ve been playing all the time and for all of your life.’ So that means he has to come down to make them work with him in order for things to work for him. I was aware of that when I first met him. You know, just talking to him and some of the music that he had that we had to play. I knew then this was a whole ‘nother thing.”

It was also in 1979 that two career-affirming events would take place in his life that would solidify his status in Birmingham music lore. Inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame that year alongside fellow local legend Sun Ra, whom he had first met and played with in Chicago in the 1960s and would perform with as a one-off duo at the award ceremony, he would also be presented with what would prove to be one of his most influential musical partnerships, getting called to join jazz icon Count Basie on the road— whom he considered to be like a “second father”— touring with both his big band ensembles, as well as smaller groups like the Kansas City 5, through Basie’s death in 1984 and continuing with the orchestra into the 1990s. Forming a deep personal and musical bond with Basie born out of mutual admiration and respect, their relationship would act as both a mentorship for Cleve as well as a vehicle for musical conversation, finding the two speaking to each other during live performances through their instruments with a nearly telepathic connection that would wow audiences around the world. Quickly becoming a favored player in Basie’s groups, Eaton was a regular fixture by his piano, playing alongside him in concert as well as on collaborations with people like the “Queen of Jazz,” Ella Fitzgerald. Helping the master pianist and composer win two Grammys for 1982’s Warm Breeze album and 1984’s 88 Basie Street, his years with the orchestra would set him apart yet again from many of his peers here in town, creating a high watermark for others to be inspired by.

“I had played 25 years with trios, and all of a sudden here I am playing with the greatest big band in the world and making a difference,” says Eaton, “Because I played it the way I wanted to play it. I didn’t play like nobody else. I played the bass the way I wanted to play it.”

Having settled back into life in the Magic City when not on tour, in 1981 Cleve and Myra would open the jazz club Cleve’s Place in Ensley— right down the road from the legendary home of Tuxedo Junction— creating what their daughter Kwani would refer to as “the Cotton Club of Birmingham,” providing the local community with a concert venue and performance space that would see the likes of big name stars like Buddy Rich, Hank Crawford and Eddie Harris play on its stage, as well as Count Basie, who would celebrate his 78th birthday at the venue to an overflowing crowd around the building in 1982.

“We had the birthday party there because they were on tour on the way from somewhere going to Chattanooga, and Basie came in here for $5000,” says Myra, “He didn’t want to charge Cleve the regular fee and nobody believed that he was coming to Ensley. It was even on the news. People got to talk to him, sign autographs. And to this day people come up and say, ‘We never would have seen him if you hadn’t brought him in.’”

Only open for three years, despite its short run, the club would play an important part in Birmingham jazz history, with musical acts or jam sessions every night of the week playing to a cross section of audiences that helped bring people together from all walks of life from all over over the city, state and region. Having become a burden on their finances, energy and time, by 1983 the couple no longer found it feasible to keep it open, and shuttered its doors.

The building that housed Cleve’s Place.

Asked what it meant to the city of Ensley at the time, Berry says, “I think it meant a lot, because the community supported it. That’s where most of his support was from around in that area, because he was out of Fairfield, so a lot of people knew him anyway. They supported him, and supported Cleve’s Place, until it shut down.”

Undeterred by the club’s closing, throughout the rest of the 80s, 90s, and into the 2000s, Cleve would continue to play an important part in the local music scene, playing with a host of local jazz groups and musicians as well as teaching music at UAB starting in 1996, continuing a career he had started back in the old days in Chicago. Having established himself as a venerable elder who enjoyed sharing his musical life and knowledge with those wanting to learn from him, Eaton could be found performing all over the city in various outfits, equally at home playing at places like the Birmingham Museum of Art or the Open Door Cafe— whose Wednesday jam sessions and Sunday jazz brunches would spawn a rotating group of talented local players called the Alabama All Stars— among countless others. “These were my buddies,” he says, “I didn’t look down on them because I was back home. I got a chance to play with everybody here and everybody came out to play with me.”

Inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2008— an achievement that cemented his immense musical legacy here in the state— over the past decade Eaton has continued to add to his already hefty resume despite having suffered from multiple serious health ailments. Having been diagnosed with oral cancer that same year, followed by a bout with prostate cancer in 2010, Cleve recently found himself back in the hospital after a minor follow-up surgery where doctors discovered heart blockage and he developed pneumonia that left him bedridden for nearly three months while fighting to regain his strength. A huge blow for a working musician and man who prides himself on never missing gigs, it’s been a trying time for both him and his family—emotionally and financially— yet his indomitable spirit has remained intact, hoping to get back to doing what he loves to do best: playing music and performing live. And although it will be an uphill battle, if there was ever a man up to the challenge, it would be him.

For Myra, it’s just one more chance to help take care of a man who has taken care of both her and their family through his life in music and their life here in Birmingham. “I’d be in awe of him even if I didn’t know him,” she says today, “I saw the respect of the other musicians he played with. He made them look good, he made them sound good, and when he made the show it turned into something different. And when he took a solo, the audience went CRAZY.” Adding, “He just seemed like a heaven-sent person to me. And being who he is— not was, but who he is— is like a king that the Good Lord blessed me with. A gift to take care of like a diamond or platinum or something. And I try to keep it polished, and keep it going, and keep it out there. You know, because I know the Good Lord put us together. Because I didn’t have to be here, and he didn’t have to come here at the same time. I cry when I think about it.”

Eaton with Joe Carnaggio (from the Alabama Allstars), Dave Crenshaw (recently honored for an album he played on that won a Grammy), and Eaton’s grandson, Kameron Dickerson. Photo by Karden Dickerson

Hopefully for all of us we will see him back where he rightfully belongs, right behind his bass with a smile on his face and music in the air. Not sure Birmingham could imagine it any other way.

One Response to “Cleve’s Place”

  1. Chuck Jambor-Vibist-Milwaukee says:

    Keep up the immense extraordinary volume of achievements you have done. Get well. I want to see your next plateau.

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