CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Cleve Eaton 1939–2020

Bassist for the Ramsey Lewis Trio in its commercial prime, he also played with Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, and many more

Cleve Eaton
Cleve Eaton in 2007 (photo courtesy of Janet Stevenson)

Cleve Eaton, a bassist, composer, and arranger who became a stalwart of the Chicago jazz scene and a world-traveled and renowned musician before building his career anew in his native central Alabama, died July 5 at a hospital in Birmingham. He was 80.

His death was announced on his Facebook page by his daughter, Kwani Dickerson Carson, and confirmed to the Birmingham News by his wife of 43 years, Myra Eaton. No official cause of death was given; however, Eaton had been hospitalized since March. “He was tired,” Mrs. Eaton told the News.

Eaton was probably best known for his 10-year stint in the Ramsey Lewis Trio, in which capacity he shared in two Grammy Awards and at least four gold records, and for his subsequent 17-year stint with the Count Basie Orchestra. However, Eaton was far more prolific than these two lengthy tenures would suggest. He also played with seminal Chicago figures Bunky Green, Bobby Gordon, and Gene Ammons, as well as icons Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. He appeared on over 100 albums ranging from jazz and pop to R&B and funk. And he wrote 300 compositions, many of which were performed by Lewis and Basie, as well as by himself on half a dozen albums under his own name.

Drummer Dennis Mackrel, a fellow veteran of the Basie Orchestra, told Birmingham’s WIAT-TV that Eaton was a consistently and remarkably high-level musician. “He was very precise in the way he played,” Mackrel said. “He recognized that the bar was high and didn’t have a lot of time for people who didn’t realize that.”

“The end of a great bass player’s life and the world’s most awesome husband, father, granddad and great-granddad,” Myra Eaton told the Birmingham News.

Cleveland Josephus Eaton II was born August 31, 1939 in Fairfield, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham. His mother played piano, and Cleveland began learning it at the age of five. After that he also learned saxophone, trumpet, and tuba. Then, as a 15-year-old student at Fairfield Industrial High School, he saw a bass case in the car of music teacher John Springer. He wasn’t sure what could be in such a case, but Springer showed it to him and played it, and Eaton’s love affair with the instrument began.

Eaton attended what was then Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial College (now Tennessee State University) in Nashville, playing in a jazz band and graduating in 1961 with a degree in music. He then moved to Chicago to begin his professional career, where he quickly gained a reputation and frequent bookings. “He was really in demand in Chicago,” Ramsey Lewis said to WIAT. “He was never without a gig.”

He first came to the attention of Ike Cole (older brother of Nat and Freddy), playing and touring with him, then of Lewis, subbing for the pianist’s original bassist Redd Holt on several occasions before becoming the Lewis trio’s working bassist in 1966. By that time, Lewis was a major star, scoring crossover jazz hits with covers of pop and soul hits, and Eaton’s first record with him, Wade in the Water, went gold. (One of its tracks, “Hold It Right There,” won a Grammy.) He remained with Lewis for 10 years, departing after the pianist’s seminal 1974 funk-fusion album Sun Goddess (another gold record and Grammy winner). The jazz-funk into which Lewis’ music had evolved would serve as the basis of Eaton’s own classic album, Plenty Good Eaton, in 1975.

Eaton would continue for a few years to lead his own Chicago-based unit, Cleve Eaton & Co. (which would sometimes expand to the big-band Garden of Eaton), until he was asked in 1979 to fill in for two weeks with Count Basie’s orchestra. Those two weeks became 17 years, fostering an important relationship with the legendary pianist and bandleader, who said of Eaton, “He is my personal bassist, and one of the best of all times.” In his capacity with Basie, Eaton worked with Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Gillespie, and Vaughan, among many others, and remained with the Orchestra for 12 years after Basie’s death in 1984.

In 1996, Eaton received an offer to teach music at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He returned to his hometown-by-extension and remained there for the next 24 years, teaching and playing regularly with his reformed Cleve Eaton & Co. (which in 2004 became Cleve Eaton and the Alabama All-Stars). He was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1979, and into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

Eaton survived two bouts of cancer, never missing a gig in all of that time. Indeed, according to Myra Eaton, a Valentine’s Day booking at Birmingham’s Hoover Country Club that Eaton canceled in February, shortly before his hospitalization, was the first he ever missed.

“It didn’t matter if it was one person or 100,000,” she said. “Every single gig was big for him.”

Eaton was predeceased by a son, Cleveland III, and a daughter, Margralita. In addition to wife Myra and daughter Kwani, he is survived by three sons, Lothair Eaton, Andre Eaton, and Kole Anderson; two daughters, Keena Eaton Kelley and Tania Adams; nine grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. A public viewing (masks and social distancing required) will be held July 14 at Davenport & Harris Funeral Home in Birmingham, with a private service and burial at Elmwood Cemetery on July 15.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.