By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
Cleveland “Cleve” Eaton, the Hall of Fame jazz legend from Fairfield (Ala.), died on Sunday morning. He was 80.
“He was just a wonderful man who treated me like a queen and took care of [his children and grandchildren],” said his wife Myra Eaton. “I’ve had a great life with him. He was the greatest husband, the greatest bass player in the world, even if I wasn’t married to him.”
The Eaton’s were approaching their 44th wedding anniversary in August.
In a Facebook post on Sunday, Kwani Dickerson Carson, Mr. Eaton’s daughter, wrote her father was “our Superman . . . a man’s man.”
“He met my mama and said she was the ‘baddest woman’ he’s ever laid eyes on and he’s a guy outta Fairfield Ala. who married a woman that made heads turn all over the world. Lol.
“He was my Hero. He saved my mama and my siblings from the worst of the worst and promised to protect and love us forever and ever. And he did.”
Mr. Eaton was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1979 and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2008 and over the course of his career wrote more than 300 songs performing with some of the greatest names in music including Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughn.
Eaton was born in Fairfield on August 31, 1939 and began as a child musician, mastering his mother’s piano, the trumpet, and the saxophone.
According to Mr. Eaton his relationship with the bass began when he saw a bass case in the car of John Springer, a music instructor at Fairfield Industrial High. At first Mr. Eaton said he didn’t know what he thought was in the case, “for all he knew it could be a body.” But when Springer showed him it was a bass, and played it for him Mr. Eaton’s love for the instrument began.
Mr. Eaton would go on to say that, of all the instructors he encountered as he rose through the ranks of the top bass players in the world, no one taught him more than John Springer.
Mr. Eaton played in a jazz group at Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial, which became Tennessee State, in Nashville while earning his Bachelor of Music degree and where he pledged Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. He moved to Chicago where he would eventually hook up first with the Ike Cole Trio and then the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
Mr. Eaton’s relationship with the noted Ramsey Lewis was what initially propelled Mr. Eaton into national recognition, which included a 10-year stint with that Trio and included multiple gold records and the Grammy for the song, “Sun Goddess.”
While working with Ramsey Mr. Eaton noted the band had a young phenom on drums named Maurice White who left and formed his own group: Earth, Wind and Fire, which would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Mr. Eaton would also leave the Ramsey Lewis Trio and said he trusted in God to lead him in the right way. That way would come in the form of an offer to serve as a two-week fill in for the Count Basie Orchestra. Two weeks would turn into 17 years and Count Basie declared Mr. Eaton “the Count’s Bassist.”
“He lived a long and incredible life that he wouldn’t have changed for anything in the world,” his daughter wrote on Facebook. “He was terribly humble and cool but I always told him he was the MAN. The Greatest. Just wanted to show the world that folks from ALABAMA were Awesome. He wanted to be THE world’s Best Bass Player. He was.”
Mr. Eaton was preceded in death by his son Cleveland Eaton III and daughter Margralita Eaton. He is survived by his wife, Myra; his children, Kwani Dickerson Carson, Lothair Eaton, Andre Eaton, Keena Eaton Kelley, Tania Adams, Kole Anderson; grandchildren Karden, Kameron and Kasey Dickerson; Benjamin Adams, Shandre’ Eaton Vail, Aaliyah Eaton, Keenan Rogers, Kentrelle Bonnor-Butler, Andre Eaton Jr.; great grandchildren Andre Eaton III, Keeona, Keenan Jr., KyRese, Kabria and KaReem Rogers, Derrick, Mi’Kel and Jakorian Vail. Services are being handled by Davenport & Harris Funeral Home.
Updated at 5:50 on 7/5/2020 with names of survivors.
Updated at 9:01 p.m. on 7/8/2020 to delete the reason why Maurice White left working with Ramsey Lewis. The given reason was not accurate, Mr. Lewis said in an interview.