Raising a Glass to a Boston Cocktail, Music & Hospitality Legend & One Cool Cat-Brother Cleve

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service

Posted: 09/11/2022

It was shocking to learn pre-dawn, in a tweet from MC Slim JB, that Brother Cleve passed away:

[Pic courtesy of Boston Herald.]

This is an extremely sad day for the Boston (and beyond) hospitality community. Brother Cleve was quintessential ‘Good People,’ a convivial, colorful bright light in ‘the industry’ and the world. A true, Boston cocktail legend, gentleman, and genuine “cool cat,” as someone lamented in the tributes pouring in. When you saw his customary hat and garish garb across the room, you knew you were in for a good time. I’m SO sorry to hear this tragic news. Deep condolences to Brother’s family and friends. RIP.

[This evolving blog post will serve as a compilation of respect and tribute to an icon. Feel free to add your comments, memories, and stories below, or submit pics, screenshots, links, stories, or anything you’d like me to add via email at patrick@servernotservant.com. This post will be updated frequently.]

“Many of you will know Brother Cleve as a star mixologist and Brand Ambassador for Pisco and other liquors, some of you know Brother Cleve as a world-famous DJ (he once performed on Russian TV), and of course most of you know him as a former member of ground breaking Lounge band, Combustible Edison. A few of you might also know him from his many other music endeavors such as The Del Fuegos, his work directly with Esquivel, or his Bollywood band. A few here might even know him from his membership in the Church of the Subgenius.

I know him as a friend; a fellow record collector who shared his deep knowledge in the exoticamission bulletin board before there was Google; aficionado of all kinds of vintage stuff like Railcar Diners, Necco Wafers, and Tiki Bars; early cocktail connoisseur seeking out vintage grenadine, absinthe, and chartreuse; and of course, the keyboardist and most outgoing member of Combustible Edison.

With deep sorrow, a lump in my throat, and a hole in my heart I must share with you that Brother Cleve has left us. I don’t know all the details but he passed away last night Sept 9, 2022 in his sleep from a heart attack while in a hotel in Los Angeles after appearing at Tiki by the Sea. I can take comfort knowing that he lived his life to its fullest and was happy doing what he loved right up to the end and I can only hope that I live my own life the same.” -Otto von Stroheim via Tiki Oasis on Facebook

@ROSimonson via Twitter:

Chef Youji Iwakura: He also loved Japanese subculture and old school city pops, Tatsuro Yamashita, that we sang together. Sake must have been one of his next collab projects. His sake blog writing at WR: REVIEW: Gozenshu Bodaimoto Junmai Nigori Usu Sake (washokurenaissance.com)

I can’t take this right now. Your smile made ease for everyone. RIP.

Shannon Higgins: This crushed me. I was out on my night off last night when I saw this on my feed. I didn’t have words. I just started crying (I don’t cry generally) my friend asked what was wrong and all I could muster was “the world just lost an epically remarkable human”. Cleve was there for everyone… his loss will leave an irreplaceable hole in the Boston hospitality community.

Misty Kalkofen: Meeting you changed the trajectory of my life. You bought me my first bottle of Rye Whiskey way back in the days when you couldn’t find it on every shelf. You special ordered that Old Overholt from Downtown Wine & Spirits in Davis and dubbed me your protégé as you handed it to me on one of those epic Saturnalia nights. You taught me so much in the kindest, most generous way. Your drink of the week at each Saturnalia helped me learn all of the classic cocktail recipes. Our late night Manhattan hangs perusing your library of cocktail tomes sparked a fire in me for bartending that still burns to this day.

Many years ago you weren’t able to go to Tales due to health issues. You called me in to pinch hit for you at all the events you had been scheduled to work. I took this framed photo with me every where I went that year, taking photos of “you” at all the events and with all the folks I know you would have been thrilled to see. I loved handing you the photo album of your year at Tales so that you would know how much you were loved and missed. You were definitely there in spirit and spirits. I’ve kept the photo framed all these years and I’m so glad I did.

You have left a hole that can never be filled. Thank you for the joy you brought to this world. We are all better because we had you in our lives.


Elijah Wald via Facebook:

Heartsick to hear that Brother Cleve has moved up to that great tiki lounge in the sky… I’ll write a proper remembrance, but meanwhile here’s a piece I did on him for the Boston Globe in 1996, when he was about to move (as it turned out, briefly) to Los Angeles. (Insider note: Cleve backed me at a few gigs, brilliantly, and the party mentioned in this piece, at which I heard him play a history of jazz piano from Albert Ammons to Sun Ra, was my birthday.) Anyway…

By Elijah Wald
Boston Globe 1996
There is alternative music, and then there is alternative music. For example, this is how Brother Cleve traces the evolution of the American pop sound he loves: “The thread goes from theremin [the early synthesizer used to make weird sci-fi movie sounds] in the 1940s, to exotica, Martin Denny’s light jazz and bird calls, and crime jazz, that whole 1950s style that tied in with juvenile delinquent films and late period noire–Pete Rugolo and Lee Stevens, and Henry Mancini, of course. Then came the space age bachelor pad stuff of Esquivel, Enoch Light, into what I call ‘Mexotica,’ which would be your Herb Alpert and Baja Marimba bands, into your ‘wife-swapper jazz,’ your music to watch girls by, Les Baxter and Larry Elgart, that type of big band stuff, then the Moog [synthesizer] era and on into blaxploitation.”

Brother Cleve is a serious and accomplished musician. One of the most versatile keyboard players around, he studied at Berklee and the Boston School of Electronic Music, then became a member of roots-rocking bands including the Del Fuegos and Barrence Whitfield’s Savages. At a party, I once heard him play a chronological survey of American pianists from boogie woogie master Albert Ammons through Thelonious Monk to cosmic jazzman Sun Ra.
Given this, some people are disturbed to find him devoting his life to styles that are almost universally dismissed as trash. True, he has always been the sort of guy who would adopt the character and name of a sleazy radio evangelist, whose drink of choice is often absinthe, and whose Cambridge apartment boasts a wall of Mexican wrestling photos and souvenirs from Polynesian-motif restaurants (plus a rare bottle of Elvis Presley ‘Love Me Tender’ Moisturizing Milk Bath). Still, he used to play good music, and now he has immersed himself in easy-listening schlock. The worst of it is, he is attracting more attention and professional acclaim than ever before.

“I’m as surprised as anybody,” Cleve says, referring to the growing vogue among young listeners for music that has always represented the absolute antithesis of hip. “But, for me, this is really my roots music. I mean, I’ve listened to blues, soul, rock and jazz since I was ten years old, but my first record was ‘Malaguena, Music of Cuba,’ by Percy Faith, that I got when I was three. When I was six and seven, I was really into Neal Hefti and Henry Mancini, and then I got into Burt Bacharach when I was about 8 or 9. Film music was my first real love and, in a way, I’ve just gone back to that.”

This musical about-face is keeping Cleve very busy. Over the last year, he has toured with the lounge music revival group Combustible Edison and deejayed evenings of “loungecore,” a Euro/dance-club style that reworks 1970s blaxploitation soundtracks and “your Kojak, Columbo type of thing, with a funky beat, wah-wah guitar and big horn sections.” He has compiled and arranged “Merry Christmas from the Space Age Bachelor Pad,” a Christmas record by the Mexican easy listening legend Esquivel, recorded an Esquivel pastiche for the “Loungapalooza” album (other artists include Mel Torme, P.J. Harvey, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers), co-produced a set of crime jazz, and put together an anthology of “outer space” records from the late 1950s. Upcoming projects include a blaxploitation disc and dance remixes of records by Les Baxter, whose “Le Sacre du Sauvage” pioneered the exotica craze, and Yma Sumac, the Peruvian goddess of early hi-fi.

So, why is this music, despised for decades, catching on with a new generation of fans? One reason, Cleve readily grants, is the annoyance factor. Teens in the 1950s annoyed their swing-era parents with rock ‘n’ roll; in the 1970s, they annoyed rock-era parents with punk; now, with punk-era parents, what could be more annoying than a kid who listens to Enoch Light and the Light Brigade?

There is more to it than that, though. First off, Cleve points out, there is style. “I realized early on that one reason why this was gonna be successful was that girls like to dress up and boys like to be where girls are,” he says. In Combustible Edison, the band wears silver lame tuxedos and much of the audience is garbed with similar elegance. Smoking jackets and gowns are common, and martinis are the beverage of choice. This is not the grunge crowd, or, if it is, they are wearing their party clothes.

Then, there is the humor. Cleve is quick to make the distinction between kitsch, which is unintentionally funny, and camp, “which I relate more to pop art, in that there is humor behind it, but it is meticulously created.” He has been working in Mexico with Esquivel, and was pleased to find that the ultimate over-the-top orchestrator was “a pretty funny guy. That’s why he wanted to have things with ‘boink-boink’ sounds, and slide guitars going from one speaker to the other.”

Finally, there is the complexity of the music itself. While Cleve will trace the source of the exotica craze to World War II GI’s getting “a taste of Polynesian Archipelago cultures, and this was a nice safe version you could bring back to your suburban home,” he adds that Les Baxter was “a completely serious composer, who viewed himself in the footsteps of Ravel and Stravinsky.”

Cleve sees the humor in exotica, “but also the beauty, and the seriousness.” After years of three and four-chord R&B, he says, “this is very challenging, very technically demanding music to play and write.” It also seems to him to have a more promising future. “I’m not interested in nostalgia,” he says, somewhat surprisingly. “I’m interested in continuing along, doing something new with this music. I produce electronic music, I’m a keyboard player and computer literate, and techno [the modern ambient electronic style] bores the hell out of me because it doesn’t do anything. So I’m digging back into the culture, and I’m trying to move forward with this genre, bridging it into a future form of music.”

It may all seem strange to other people, but Cleve cites Frank Zappa, who specialized in blending warped humor and sophisticated musicianship, as an early idol, and sees no conflict between his love of pop detritus and his love for the greats of jazz, country or rock ‘n’ roll. “I find this so-called trash culture to be a lot realer than most mainstream things,” he says. “The people that did it were taking their own particular, peculiar vision and following it, whether they were successful at it or not. It’s like Ed Wood Jr. is considered the worst film maker of all time, but yet I would rather watch one of his films then some mega-Hollywood extravaganza. It just seems to have more soul in it.”
Now, it is time for Brother Cleve to follow his own peculiar vision. This winter, the boy who started his musical education with Sister Mary Magdalene at St. Rafael’s School in West Medford will pack up his theremin, tiki mugs and velvet paintings and head off to seek his fortune in Los Angeles. There are offers of music and consulting jobs in film and television, and Capitol Records needs him as a loungecore expert. After years of barroom one-nighters, Cleve may finally be on the verge of middle class security. Or maybe not. “No way I’ll settle for middle class,” he says, with a snort. “I’m either gonna be poor or I’m gonna be a rich [expletive].”

Lauren Clark: Sad and grateful. Sad because my friend, Brother Cleve left us so suddenly last week. Grateful because I got to be part of his world. This pic (below) of us is from the last event I did for my blog drinkboston(dot)com in 2011. Cleve was also at drinkboston’s launch party at Green Street in November 2006. I’ll never forget it. Misty Kalkofen, John Gertsen, and Jackson Cannon said they had recruited this legend to join them on my slate of “startenders” that night, and the next thing I knew, he was serving up Millionaire Cocktails and schmoozing with all the guests. We enjoyed many subsequent hangs. What a gift!

This is from my 2007 profile of him: “Brother Cleve will probably be the only bartender profiled on this site who doesn’t actually work in a bar. File him under Influences. Not to get all hyperbolic, but the contemporary Boston cocktail scene as we know it wouldn’t exist without him. Dylan Black and Misty Kalkofen of Green Street, Patrick Sullivan of the B-Side Lounge, Jackson Cannon of Eastern Standard, John Byrd of the Alchemist, John Gertsen of No. 9 Park and a fair number of other Boston bartenders with a keen grasp of old-school mixology were directly or indirectly influenced by Cleve. “Actually, most people know this guy as a keyboardist, DJ, composer and pioneer of the international lounge scene. Unlike a lot of us, Cleve didn’t suddenly ‘discover’ lounge music in the ’90s. He played the genre in the late 1960s, ‘when it was still current,’ as a teenage keyboardist who sat in with lounge acts around Boston. Later, as a member of Combustible Edison, he toured the country seeking and preaching the Classic Cocktail and living life according to the First Manifesto of the Cocktail Nation, penned by Combustible Edison frontman The Millionaire: “‘We, the Citizens of the Cocktail Nation, do hereby declare our independence from the desiccated horde of mummified uniformity — our freedom from an existence of abject swinglessness. We pledge to revolt against the void of dictated sobriety and to cultivate not riches but richness, swankness, suaveness and strangeness, with pleasure and boldness for all.’ “‘BE FABULOUS.’”


The Life of Brother Cleve:

  • AKA, Robert Toomey
  • Devra First Boston Globe 9/14/22: ‘Brother Cleve was the godfather of the local cocktail scene. Connecting his love of music and mixology, he brought people together.’  From Devra’s piece: The B-Side became one of the torchbearers for classic cocktails, and the bartenders Brother Cleve befriended, mentored, and worked alongside grew into the next generation of top talent in the area’s best bars. “If there’s a cocktail family tree, Cleve is at the very, very, very top of it. In terms of making an impact, his place is undeniable,” says Sullivan, now co-owner of the Bluebird Bar in Newton. “All the young kids today, they all really looked up to Cleve. More than anything, Cleve loved to have a nice cocktail. He loved it, like in a romantic, beautiful sort of way. And he would go into their bars. He liked sharing his knowledge. He was just brilliant. He knew everything. Like the dining-car diners of New Jersey: He could tell you 50 current ones and the top 25 ones he misses that are no longer there. He was the doctor of kitsch and sentiment. He loved things that were going away.”

Force of coolness, bridge between generations, keeper of cocktail lore, OG influencer, and generous mentor, Brother Cleve helped shape Boston’s hospitality scene.

PS-Please let me know if you would like any of your public comments included in this post properly attributed, edited, or removed. Thank you-Patrick

Photo Credits:

#1-Upper right side of this blog post, ‘Server Snapshots’ Position 1: Audrey Harrer

One Response to “Raising a Glass to a Boston Cocktail, Music & Hospitality Legend & One Cool Cat-Brother Cleve”

  1. Rick Biskit Roth says:

    I don’t know if I ever met somebody who knew so much about so many things but was so unpretentious. He continually just seemed so happy at his good fortune to be flown to an exotic island to make music, to be the official Pisco guy, to find a Brazilian 45 of the Beatles doing twist and shout (I have that wrong maybe, but it was something like that,) to play in Al Janik’s polka band, to talk about Sun Ra, to play with punks, country bands, and lounge acts. To be flown around to mix drinks and spread fun. Lots of people so pleased with their lives are insufferable, he was the opposite, always fun to be around and wielding a good wit about whatever the topic at hand was.

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