BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – Outside of the house he lived in for nearly 40 years on the west side of Birmingham, Cleveland “Cleve” Eaton made his real home in music.
Music took him around the world as he backed some of the greatest artists in jazz, plucking his upright bass with either a grin on his face or his eyes closed in deep concentration.
“I think he was in heaven when he was playing the bass,” former bandmate Ramsey Lewis said from his home in Chicago. “I think he knew his calling.”
Eaton, affectionately known as “Cleve” by family and friends, died Sunday at the age of 80, just months after falling ill. In fact, not long before going to the hospital, he was forced to cancel a Valentine’s Day gig at the Hoover Country Club—the first time he had ever missed a date.
“It didn’t matter if it was one person or 100,000, every single gig was big for him,” said Myra, Eaton’s wife of 43 years.
Music was a constant in Eaton’s life. Growing up in Fairfield, his mother played the piano and his sister studied music at The Juilliard School. By the time he was 5 years old, he was already playing the piano. And by the time he was 15, Eaton would discover the love of his life: the upright bass. It wouldn’t be long before he would leave Birmingham with his bass, studying music at Tennessee State University, where he graduated in 1960.
Like many musicians looking to get their break in music, Eaton moved to Chicago, where he soon became staff bassist at WGN Radio and an in-demand musician, recording and playing with bands across the city.
“He was really in demand in Chicago,” Lewis said. “He was never without a gig.”
By 1966, Lewis was already making waves with his Ramsey Lewis Trio and had already had a radio hit with “The In Crowd.” When he began looking for a new rhythm section to back him up, Eaton was the first bassist Lewis called. The new drummer was Maurice White, who would go on to form Earth, Wind and Fire.
“He was such a musician that I didn’t have to miss a beat,” Lewis said. “All the songs I wanted to play or made up, Cleve was there, with or without a rehearsal.”
Eaton would play with Lewis for 10 years, making 17 albums and reinterpreting many pop hits of the day with a jazz sensibility. Eaton would later say that what kept him with the group was the way they could play the same song in countless different ways, such as the Martha and the Vandellas song “Dancing in the Street.”
“We never just jammed,” Eaton said in an interview for Mark Kurlansky’s book “Ready for a Brand New Beat.” “But every night we did it different for 10 years. That’s why I stayed with it so long. Every night, it was a fresh tune.”
By the 70s, many aspects of jazz’s avant-garde era that had become the norm in the 1960s were starting to change. More players, such as Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, began incorporating electric instruments into their sound, trying to recapture the crowds that rock music had won over. Eaton was no different. During the height of the jazz fusion era, he lead his own group, more drawn to R&B and funk than the free jazz he had spent the past decade playing, as heard on his albums “Half and Half” in 1973 and “Instant Hip” in 1976, which included the single “Bama Boogie Woogie.”
It was during this time that Eaton met Myra on a gig out in California.
“It was true love,” she said.
However, the biggest and most notable gig of Eaton’s career came in 1979 when he got the call to join the Count Basie Orchestra, which had formed in 1935 and still performs with a new generation of musicians. Although the orchestra—which hearkened back to the days of big band jazz and swing—highlighted many different instruments, the bass held a particularly important role in the group.
“Count Basie remained a vital force on the jazz scene into the early ‘80s, and his bass players were instrumental in carrying forward the legacy of swing pioneered by the great Walter Page,” author John Goldsby wrote in his book “The Jazz Bass Book: Technique and Tradition.”
Eaton held his role next to Basie and the orchestra for 17 years and was the last bassist the Count hired before he died in 1984. Looking back, Myra still remembers how Eaton played one song, “Honeysuckle Rose,” as a trio next to Basie and singer Ella Fitzgerald during a stop in Chicago in 1979.
“The rest of the band was so mad they weren’t playing with them,” she laughed.
Lewis said Eaton’s genius was on full display with Count Basie.
“The rhythm section with Basie was totally different from the music the trio was playing, but Cleve stepped in like he had been playing with him forever,” he said.
Dennis Mackrel was only 20 years old in 1983 when he joined the Count Basie Orchestra as the drummer. He was by far, the youngest of the group.
“It’s almost like going into boot camp,” Mackrel said. “Being around musicians of that caliber who were older than I was, it took a while to appreciate the depth of their knowledge.”
Mackrel said that like many in the band, Eaton was a perfectionist. Oftentimes, the first take was the best take. Mackrel described Basie as a nurturing figure in his life, but said Eaton and the others were often critical, but more as a way to push him as a musician.
“He (Eaton) recognized that the bar was high and didn’t have a lot of time for people who didn’t realize that,” he said.
However, Mackrel said that Eaton’s commitment made him the musician he is today.
“He was very precise in the way he played,” he said.
In 1979, Eaton was inducted in to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, along with the Birmingham-born jazz pianist Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount, whom Eaton had met during their mutual time in Chicago. However, what made the night memorable for Myra was seeing the two native sons playing together at the end of the ceremony.
“They both starting playing like they had always played together,” Myra said. “They were both playing wild that night.”
Later, Eaton was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
Myra said that even after Eaton went off the road, music remained the primary force in his life outside of family. He didn’t smoke. He didn’t drink. He didn’t play golf. He couldn’t even work a microwave. Eaton was a musician and there wasn’t room for much else.
“I didn’t let him do anything with his hands,” she said. “All he would do would play and write.”
Those who knew him best say that what came out of Eaton’s playing was his spirit and passion.
“In a way, Cleve was a good example of being who you are,” Mackrell said.
Lewis said Eaton was one of the top bassists in the world and that the legacy he left was simple, yet powerful.
“The legacy Cleve left was: know your instrument, practice being a fine human being, and try to spread love,’” he said.
For Myra, although there are plans in the works to complete her late husband’s memoirs and release a compilation CD of his music, there will never be another like him.
“He changed everyone’s life that he came across,” she said.
Eaton will be buried at Elmwood Cemetery. A celebration of his life is being planned for sometime next year.
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