An illustration of jazz bassist Cleveland Eaton embedded in the title card for the Secret History of Chicago Music
Cleveland Eaton Credit: Steve Krakow for Chicago Reader

Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

I’ve been covering underappreciated artists in the Secret History of Chicago Music for more than 18 years, but as I research a subject, I still sometimes catch myself wondering: “Why is this person not a universally beloved household name?” Cleveland Eaton is just such a case. He was a composer, bandleader, producer, arranger, publisher, teacher, and label owner—and arguably one of the best double bassists who ever lived, with long-running gigs backing Count Basie and Ramsey Lewis.

Was Eaton too prolific across too many genres, like fellow bassist Richard Davis, so that no single aspect of his brilliance could seize and hold the public’s attention? Could the problem be that he grooved too hard for fans of the avant-garde but didn’t play conventionally enough for straight-ahead jazz lovers? Were his innovations too subtle or not sufficiently commercial? Do bassists just get short shrift in general? I can’t explain why Eaton isn’t better known, but I can definitely do my part to get his name out there.

Cleveland Josephus Eaton II was born August 31, 1939, in Fairfield, Alabama, part of the Birmingham metropolitan area. He started playing music at age five, and by his teens he was playing his mother’s piano as well as trumpet and saxophone. The local school system was still segregated, so Eaton attended the all-Black Fairfield Industrial High School, where he spotted a bass case in the car of band teacher John Springer and wondered what might be inside. Eaton would later claim Springer as his greatest influence, and not just because that chance encounter would begin his lifelong odyssey with the double bass. 

Eaton was also lucky to study with trumpeter and jazz educator John T. “Fess” Whatley, Birmingham’s answer to legendary Chicago band director Captain Walter Dyett. Both educators insisted on strict discipline and expected excellence. They could develop novices into professionals—Whatley also mentored the likes of Erskine Hawkins and Herman Blount, aka Sun Ra—and prominent bandleaders of the day often recruited students directly from their classes.

Eaton got his first gig at age 15, backing singer “Lucky” Leon Davis, and won a full music scholarship to Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University (now Tennessee State). He played tuba as well as bass and other instruments on his way to a bachelor’s degree.

After graduation in 1960, Eaton spent all of one day back in Alabama before moving to Chicago. He found work as a musician almost at once when Ike Cole, Nat’s older brother, spotted him playing at a hotel lounge in Kenwood. 

“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 told Birmingham writer, archivist, and music historian Lee Shook for a 2019 B-Metro magazine story. “I was at the jam session playing and Nat King Cole’s brother was there. And he asked me, ‘Man, you ain’t doin’ nothing?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Do you want to go on the road with me?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ So we left Wednesday.”

Eaton toured on and off with Ike Cole for a year and a half. He also worked as a session musician, recorded jingles, and taught music, both in public schools and as a private tutor. One of his next big gigs was with a quintet fronted by saxophonist Pepper Adams and trumpeter Donald Byrd, which had been touring hard and had already passed through Chicago several times before Eaton came aboard—their local dates included several runs in 1960 and early 1961 at Fred Anderson’s Birdhouse at 1205 N. Dearborn.

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The only extant recording of Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams’s quintet to feature Cleveland Eaton

Eaton was recruited by one of the quintet’s newer members, young pianist Herbie Hancock, and the group fortuitously documented his brief tenure on a stellar June 1961 recording made at Saint Louis club Jorgie’s. It was belatedly released as the 1981 VGM Records LP Jorgie’s Hip-Intertainment Volume One, and in 2012 Solar Records issued the expanded CD version Complete Live at Jorgie’s 1961.

Chicago treated Eaton well. In Eaton’s 2020 Jazz Times obituary, pianist Ramsey Lewis testifies to the bassist’s success. “Eaton was really in demand in Chicago,” he’s quoted as telling WIAT-TV in Birmingham. “He was never without a gig.” Shortly one of those gigs would be with Lewis, in fact—he subbed a few times for bassist Eldee Young in the Ramsey Lewis Trio, even appearing alongside Young (playing cello) on the cut “Jingle Bells” from the trio’s 1964 holiday LP, More Sounds of Christmas

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The Ramsey Lewis Trio hit “Wade in the Water,” with Cleveland Eaton on bass and Maurice White on drums

After Young and drummer Redd Holt left Lewis to form Young-Holt Unlimited, Eaton became a regular member of the trio in 1966, alongside future Earth, Wind & Fire star Maurice White on drums. The new lineup scored a major hit that summer with a supremely funky and highly influential take on the traditional gospel tune “Wade in the Water,” initially released by Chicago label Cadet (an imprint of Chess). Eaton stayed with the Lewis trio for a decade, playing on all of its celebrated Cadet releases produced by the great Charles Stepney—among them the lush LPs Maiden Voyage and Mother Nature’s Son, both recorded in 1968.

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Cleveland Eaton plays on “Dreams,” from the 1973 Ramsey Lewis album Funky Serenity. In this author’s humble opinion, it’s the most colossal psychedelic space groove known to humankind.

But if I had to pick favorites from among the many, many albums where Eaton appears, I might say he reached his pinnacle in his final years with the Lewis trio. On the 1973 album Funky Serenity, joined by underrated drummer Morris Jennings, Eaton romps through the beginnings of jazz fusion. The innovative 1974 LP Sun Goddess features White on drums again (and several other folks from Earth, Wind & Fire, including Philip Bailey), and Eaton displays his versatility on the groovy “Love Song” and the freaky, progressive “Gemini Rising,” where he uses bowed double bass to create pure textures. The album topped the Billboard soul albums chart and earned a gold certification from the RIAA.

Sun Goddess would be Eaton’s last album with Lewis, but by then the bassist had already started his own labels and his own funk-fusion bands. He’d launched the short-lived E&C Records in 1969, followed by Cle-An-Thair Records in the early 70s. The latter released a heap of singles by interesting Chicago-area acts as well as Eaton’s own wide-ranging 1972 LP Half & Half Volume 1, billed to Cleveland Eaton & the Kats. Philadelphia label Gamble Records (founded by famed songwriting and production team Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff) reissued it the following year, its title shortened to Half and Half. It was billed to Eaton alone, and its delightfully silly cover portrayed him as a cartoony flying bull. 

The Gamble Records reissue of Cleveland Eaton’s Half and Half

Both versions of Half and Half are sought-after rarities now, thanks to their forward-looking but danceable grooves. Even more coveted are original copies of Eaton’s 1975 LP on the Black Jazz label, Plenty Good Eaton. With Jennings back on drums and the underrated Ed Green on shredding violin (a la Chicago violinist Jerry Goodman in the Mahavishnu Orchestra), the frequently reissued album continues Eaton’s eclectic fusion explorations.

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“All Your Love All Day All Night,” from the 1975 LP Plenty Good Eaton, uses a bass line that seems like a clear homage to the Temptations’ famous version of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”

In 1974, Eaton met his future wife, Myra, on a visit to Alabama. She’s a Birmingham native, and in ’75 he moved there to be with her—beginning a relationship that would last till his death 45 years later. She eventually became his manager and booking agent, and he owed much of the success of his solo career to her work. 

For several years, Eaton kept one foot in Chicago and the other in Birmingham, and he released two late-70s albums on Ovation that illustrate this neatly. Instant Hip in ’76 and Keep Love Alive in ’79 both feature a band he called the Garden of Eaton, but it was made up of Birmingham players on the first and Chicago players on the second. 

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Cleveland Eaton’s disco jam “Bama Boogie Woogie” enjoyed a second life in the UK.

In 1978 Eaton reissued the slappin’ disco track “Bama Boogie Woogie” (originally from Instant Hip) via UK-based label Gull Records, better known for releasing records by Arthur Brown and Judas Priest. But soon his career would take a turn toward tradition. 

The Count Basie Orchestra offered Eaton a job in 1979, filling in for a sick bassist for two weeks. “After the two weeks,” Eaton told UAB Magazine in 1997, “he took me aside and said he was cutting the other guy loose, and did I want the job?” Soon Basie would come to call him “the Count’s bassist,” and Eaton would play with the group for 17 years, staying long after its leader’s death in 1984.

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Count Basie gives Cleveland Eaton room to stretch out on this TV performance of “Booty’s Blues.”

Back in Birmingham, Eaton and Myra would open a club called Cleve’s Place in the Ensley neighborhood in 1981, and even though it only lasted three years, it contributed to Eaton’s growing stature as a local hero and scene leader. As far back as the late 60s and early 70s, while he was based in Chicago, he’d been using his record labels to cultivate Magic City artists such as the Soul Controllers and Mary Alice McCall. In 1996, when Eaton stepped away from the Basie Orchestra and its grueling tour schedule, he returned to more formal mentorship by teaching music at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Eaton was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in ’79, and the ceremony was one of the few times he performed with Sun Ra—Eaton looked up to his fellow inductee as a genius, as any adventurous jazz musician should. He was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2008. 

Over the course of his career, Eaton wrote more than 300 tunes and recorded with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, John Klemmer, the Dells, Minnie Riperton, Jerry Butler, Rotary Connection, George Benson, and Henry Mancini. If you add artists with whom he performed but didn’t record, the list gets even longer, including Nancy Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr., Julie London, Lou Rawls, the Platters, the Temptations, and the Miracles—and even then, it’s much abbreviated.

Eaton beat oral cancer in 2008 and prostate cancer 2010, and later in the 2010s he survived a heart blockage. But on July 5, 2020, he passed away peacefully at home after a period of hospitalization and decline. He left behind three sons and three daughters (two of his eight children predeceased him), nine grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. 

Two late-60s tracks by Eaton’s band the Kats were reissued in 2020 on separate compilations from the Tramp label.

Eaton’s musical legacy continues to assert itself, though, and in 2020 several reissues honored his life: Real Gone Music revived Plenty Good Eaton yet again, and Kats tracks appeared on two compilations by German label Tramp, Praise Poems 7: A Journey Into Deep, Soulful Jazz & Funk From the 1970s and Movements Vol. 10

With Myra Eaton’s help, Lee Shook has rescued a trove of Eaton reel-to-reel tapes, DAT recordings, photos, and ephemera. He’s working with Tramp on a double LP of the complete Cle-An-Thair singles, to be released in the U.S. by Birmingham label Earth Libraries—and with any luck, there’s a lot more to come. Here’s hoping Eaton gets the international acclaim he deserves sooner rather than later!

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.