Carrie Cleveland at home, holding a photo of herself from her days performing in and around Oakland. Cleveland's 1980 album 'Looking Up' has recently been reissued. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)
I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around what East Oakland must’ve been like in the 1970s: the decline of the Black Panther Party, the disbandment of the Brown Berets, the rise of crack cocaine. The decade between the Chevrolet factory's closure in the late 1960s and the rise of Felix Mitchell’s drug empire in the early 1980s. When E. 14th Street earned its name as the prostitution stroll I’d come to know as “E-ONE-FOE,” and films like The Mack depicted aspects of that lifestyle.
As many escaped the horrors of war in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador and Panama, others celebrated. The A’s won championships from ’72-’74. The Warriors won one in ’75. And the Raiders did their thing in ’77.
And in 1978, in a garage studio near the CP Bannon Mortuary on E. 14th in East Oakland, a young woman born in Shreveport, LA recorded songs about love that would be released on record in small quantities and nearly lost to history.
Forty years later, hearing Carrie Cleveland's album Looking Up is special, like discovering a box of intimate love letters. In fact, that's exactly what it is: love-laden songs adapted from the lyrical letters her husband Bill Cleveland penned, with Carrie's beautiful vocals singing over Bill's arrangements on songs like "Make Love to Me," "I Need Love" and more.
When the duo pressed and cut 1,000 copies of the record themselves, they had no idea that 40 years later, original copies of that album would sell for over $300 on this thing called the internet. I bet it would’ve blown their minds smooth out of their afros if they knew that a young woman from Europe would garner half a million views on this thing called YouTube by dancing to the sound of the Clevelands' immortal love.
Part of me wishes I could jump into an old photo of the Clevelands and tell them to never stop recording, because their art is valuable—so valuable, one day people like 24-year-old Chris Webb would aggressively seek their record.
“I had been trying to find Carrie for two years, with no success,” Chris told me during an early morning phone call from England. “I wasn’t sure if she was still alive.”
But then he saw an online seller advertising original copies of Looking Up—who said they got them from Carrie herself.
After finding that one lead, Webb said, it didn’t take long for the ball to start rolling. “I got a phone call two weeks later from her son, Heston.”
When I visited Carrie Cleveland at her home, Heston greeted me at the front door and welcomed me in. There she was: hair laid, nails done, jewelry sparkling, sitting at the head of the dining room table like royalty should. No sooner then I sat down did she get up to bring me two homemade teacakes.
While she was in the kitchen, Heston told me about discovering how popular his mom’s music was on the internet. “People online were selling copies and making money," he said, "and I was like, ‘Mom, this is your money!’”
Heston knew a few things about the music business—he used to DJ for Oakland rapper Askari X—so he took an original copy of the album to a record store.
“I’ve been looking for your mom for years. I thought she was dead,” the shop owner told Heston. (That’s when Carrie, who had come back to the table with the teacakes, intervened and said, “That made me feel real bad.”)
Heston then connected with Chris Webb, sending him old photos, flyers and biographical information for Webb’s company, Kalita Records, to reissue Carrie Cleveland’s album. Looking Up was officially re-released in September of this year.
When Heston and Carrie got a copy of the album’s liner notes back from Webb, they were both moved. “I’m reading it to her, and she started crying,” Heston told me, as I nibbled away on the first teacake. “And before I could ask why she was crying, I started crying, because it was like my dad is still here.”
Bill Cleveland, who wrote and arranged Carrie's music—Heston referred to him as the Prince of the duo—died in March of 1994. Heston told me, “Now that I hear the music more and more, I can see him.”
Carrie followed by telling me that she hadn’t listened to the songs in a very long time, so listening now made the songs feel as if they were new.
“You have to listen to the words,” Carrie said, as I finished the first teacake, washed it down with a sip of Gatorade, and started on the second one. “The words are so beautiful. Now, I think about how he wrote some really, really good songs. It’s like, is he connecting with us? The feeling and everything is really...”—she paused to search for the word—“good.”
“Make Love To Me,” her most popular track by YouTube standards, is an uptempo, feel-good soul-disco track with a simple hook: “Make love to me, come on,” sung in a high pitch. It's the type of track hip-hop artists like Dipset or Just Blaze would have sampled during the throwback-jersey era. The seductive lyrics—“You’ve got a way about you that turns me on / Don’t waste my time, come on / Make love to me”—flow like honey over the groove-heavy backing.
Cleveland's other songs have a similar feel, although “Love Will Set You Free” is in a much lower pitch. They’re all smoky lounge tunes, and that’s just where she performed them back in the day.
“We played what we called ‘holes in the wall,’” Carrie said. “Do they have a lot of those anymore?”
I had to let her know things had changed; a lot of classic Bay Area music venues had shut down, some of them just this year.
I dusted the teacake crumbs off of my hands, and then flipped through a photo book to see images of Carrie, Bill and the band performing at those long-lost venues. Places like the old Holiday Inn in Emeryville and the Pasand Lounge in Berkeley. She told me about performing in the 1980s on Mare Island in Vallejo, up in Grass Valley and even as far as Reno.
“We used to sing at HS Lordships on Sunday evenings, that was a long time ago,” she said as we continued to flip through the photos. Carrie identified images of former band members, sometimes only by the instrument they used to play.
“I’m sure all of them are gone," she said, "because we don’t hear from them anymore.”
One image of Carrie in particular caught my eye, of her posing on the gazebo near Lake Merritt. I knew that structure from my childhood, and from when the Festival at The Lake was held over there. I asked Carrie about it. “I was trying to be Diana Ross,” she said with a laugh. “My husband and I went to the park, to Lake Merritt. We just hung out, took pictures and that was it.”
When Bill passed, Carrie continued to sing. “Even when he died, I still kept jobs,” Carrie told me, noting that she made sure to finish the shows they already had scheduled. But eventually things fell apart. “A lot of men didn’t respect a female bandleader," Carrie said. And so she put down her dreams of singing and found work as a housekeeper at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, eventually becoming an X-ray assistant.
Now that her records are back in rotation, she tells me she doesn’t fully know what to expect—but she’s back to singing in the shower, and that’s a good sign. Heston is in talks with her about performing again.
But, for now, Carrie focuses her creative energy on food. Before I left, I let her know the teacakes she made were delicious. She quickly gave me a ZipLoc bag full of them, and told me to put them in the freezer. And, when I have an appetite for one or two, to take them out and let them defrost—they’ll be good forever.