Cleveland "Cleve" Josephus "Sonny" Eaton II (born August 31, 1939 in Fairfield; died July 5, 2020 in Birmingham) was a jazz bassist, composer, arranger and record producer. He was widely regarded as one of the greatest jazz bassists of all time, and his 1975 recording "Plenty Good Eaton" is also considered a funk classic.
Eaton was born in Fairfield in 1939 and made a prodigious start as a child musician, mastering his mother's piano, the trumpet, and the saxophone before teacher John Springer introduced him to the tuba and string bass in high school. Eaton immersed himself in the working world. By the time he was in 9th grade, he was a star for Leon Lucky Davis & the All-Stars, and had bought his own new 1955 Victoria Spatz roadster with cash earned as a musician.
Eaton played in a jazz group at the Tennessee A & I State University (now Tennessee State University) in Nashville while earning his bachelor of music degree, then moved to Chicago, hooking up first with the Ike Cole Trio. After a while he was asked to join the Ramsey Lewis Trio, with whom he went on to make 30 recordings over the next 10 years.
In the mid-1970s Eaton began exploring fusion on his own, releasing a few recordings on the Black Jazz label and Ovation. In 1979 Eaton filled in for a couple of weeks with the Count Basie Orchestra, but quickly earned the position of "the Count's Bassist" and remained with the group for the next 17 years. 1979 also saw his induction into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
While touring with Basie's orchestra, Eaton recorded numerous albums and toured all over the world at breakneck pace. He moved back to Birmingham in 1985 and became director of the UAB Jazz Ensemble for UAB's Department of Music. He also formed several groups of his own, such as the Garden of Eaton, the Cleve Eaton Orchestra, and, in 1974, the R&B-flavored ensemble Cleve Eaton & Co. He currently performs with his band Cleve Eaton and the Alabama All Stars.
Over the course of his career, Eaton penned over 300 songs and appeared on over 100 recordings. Eaton played on notable recording sessions with nearly all genres: jazz with John Klemmer and Bunky Green, R&B with the Dells and Bobby Rush, pop with Minnie Riperton, Jerry Butler and Rotary Connection, and big band with George Benson, Henry Mancini, Frank Sinatra, Joe Williams, Billy Eckstein, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. Eaton was dubbed "the Count's Bassist" during his six-year stint and over ten recordings with the Count Basie Orchestra. Eaton has also performed with Nancy Wilson, Peggy Lee, Meme Hines, Sammy Davis Jr, Julie London, Bobby Troupe, Brook Benton, Lou Rawls, Nipsey Russell, Morgana King, Gloria Lynne, Herbie Hancock, the Platters, The Temptations, and the Miracles.
Locally, Eaton performed with Robert Moore & the Wildcats, the Magic City Jazz Orchestra and Ray Reach. His own ensemble performed as Cleve Eaton and the Alabama All Stars.
Eaton's wife Myra managed bookings for Cleve and others through her CeeMe Productions. A benefit concert with proceeds to assist Cleve Eaton with his expenses for oral cancer treatment was held in 2009 with Eaton and his Alabama All Stars performing. In January 2011, Myra Eaton reported via his website that he was cancer-free. Eaton died on July 5, 2020, in Birmingham. He was 80, and had been hospitalized during the last four months of his life. He was survived by his wife and six of his eight children, along with nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Eaton was buried at Elmwood Cemetery.
Cleveland Eaton was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame on February 22, 2008, having first been nominated in 1993. He also has a Bronze Star in the Hall's Walk of Fame. Eaton’s other honors include his induction into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, the Playboy Jazz Poll, Canada’s Cultural Enhancement Award and the Achievement Award at the Count Basie Tribute Concert. He received the Governor’s Arts Award 1995 (Alabama) and the Don Redman Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
His recording of "Bama Boogie Woogie" became a phenomenal best seller in the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Australia. In his ten years with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, there were four gold singles, including "Hang on Sloopy" and "Wade in the Water" and four gold albums, including Solar Wind and Sun Goddess. He performed on at least one Grammy-award winning album with the Count Basie Orchestra.
- Eaton, Cleveland and the Kats (1973) Half and Half. Cleanthair Records 562
- re-released as CBS/Gamble Records KZ-32077
- Eaton, Cleveland (1975) The Eaton Menu. Black Jazz
- Eaton, Cleveland (1975) Plenty Good Eaton. Black Jazz Records BJQD-20
- Eaton, Cleveland (1975) "Chitown Theme" (7" single) Black Jazz Records BJ-1011
- Eaton, Cleveland (1976) Instant Hip. Miracle/Ovation Records OV-1703
- Eaton, Cleveland (1976) "Bama Boogie Woogie" (12" blue vinyl single) Ovation/Gull Records GULS-63
- Eaton, Cleveland (1979) Bama Boogie Woogie. Miracle Records MLP 3001
- Eaton, Cleveland (????) "Birmingham Train"/"I Don't Want to be Lonely Tonite" (7" single) Miracle Records M14
- Eaton, Cleveland (1979) "Get Off"/"I'm Lonely Tonight" (maxi-single) Ovation Disco
- Eaton, Cleveland and the Garden of Eaton (1980) Keep Love Alive. Miracle/Ovation Records OV-1742
- Eaton, Cleveland (C.E. & Co.) (1983) Love and Dance. TBA Records
- Eaton, Cleveland (Cleve Eaton) (1983) Raw "Live Jazz" Featuring Miss Funky Lu. TBA Records
- Eaton, Cleveland I Promise Jesus. TBA Records
- Eaton, Cleveland (and Friends) (1984) A Classic. Cleveland Eaton Enterprises
- Eaton, Cleveland (Trio plus Voices) (1985) Vol. 1 Live. TBA Records
- Eaton, Cleveland (Cleve Eaton Orchestra) (1997) CEO.
With the Ramsey Lewis Trio
- Wade in the Water (1966)
- Dancing in the Street (1967)
- Goin' Latin (1967)
- Maiden Voyage (1968)
- Another Voyage (1969)
- Upendo Ni Pamoja (1972)
- Funky Serenity (1973)
- Sun Goddess (1974)
- Solar Wind (1974)
With the Count Basie Orchestra
- Strollin' with the Count (1980). Ovation
- Kansas City Shout (1980). Pablo
- Warm Breeze (1981).
- 88 Basie Street (1983). Fantasy. (Winner 1984 Grammy Awards Best Jazz Instrumental Performance - Big Band)
- Me and You (1983).
- Fancy Pants (1983).
- The Legend, the Legacy (1989)
- George Benson/Count Basie Orchestra Big Boss Band (1990).
- Best of the Count Basie Big Band (1991)
- Live at El Morocco (1992).
- Joe Williams/Count Basie Orchestra "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water" (1992)
- Joe Williams/Count Basie Orchestra "Orchestra Hall, Detroit, November 20, 1992" (1992)
With Bunky Green
- Playing for Keeps (1966)
With Gene Ammons
- w/Dexter Gordon The Chase (1970)
- w/James Moody Chicago Concert (1971)
- Santa's Bag: An All-Star Jazz Christmas "Christmas Blues" (1994) Telarc
- "Count Basie at Carnegie Hall, 1981" (DVD) CBS TV Cable released by White Star, 2003
- "Jazz in the Magic City" (1985), documentary film by Sandy Jaffe
- Short, Dale (Fall 1997) "UAB's Jazz Man: Cleveland Eaton" UAB Magazine Vol. 17, No. 4
- Bruce, Taylor (May 2006) "These elite continue the timeless life of jazz." "Portico Magazine"
- Colurso, Mary (February 22, 2008) "Birmingham bassist Cleve Eaton plays his way into Alabama Music Hall of Fame." The Birmingham News
- Booth, Phillip (May 2008) "Cleve Eaton: It's All Business" Bass Player Magazine Vol. 19, No. 5
- Kelman, John (December 1, 2010) "Cleveland Eaton: Based in Birmingham" Oxford American
- Wormsby, Hollis Jr (February 5, 2015) "The Cleve Eaton Story: God Is In Control" The Birmingham Times
- Beahm, Anna (July 5, 2020) "Alabama-born jazz bassist Cleveland Eaton dies at 80" The Birmingham News
- Wright, Barnett (July 6, 2020) "Family remembers ‘Cleve’ Eaton, 80, the jazz great, who died Sun." The Birmingham Times
- Taylor, Drew (July 7, 2020) "Jazz bassist Cleveland Eaton remembered as unique talent who accompanied genre’s greatest artists" CBS42.com
- Cleveland Eaton website
- Cleveland Eaton profile at All-Music Guide
- Cleveland Eaton profile at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame