March 30th, 2007

Brother Cleve

Brother CleveBartender profile
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 dessicated 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.


Born and raised in West Medford, currently residing in Dorchester

Past bartending jobs
First bartending I did was when I worked for the Mob … er, well it was a catering company that did a lot of Mob functions, so you always had to make sure you didn’t screw up any drink orders. Sadly, they were not all drinking Godfathers or Godmothers. Lotta scotch on the rocks and that type of thing. This was in the ’70s. I first got interested in classic cocktails in the mid-’80s; I was on tour with a band called the Del Fuegos, and we were in this diner in Cleveland where the menu had a cocktail list with Sidecars, Grasshoppers, Ward Eights, etc. on it. I was fascinated and immediately went out and bought an Old Mr. Boston drink book. A few years later a friend asked if I’d be interested in bartending at his restaurant, the Hoodoo BBQ in Kenmore Sq. I was, and the first thing I did was put classic cocktails on the menu. This was around ’88. Nobody bought them; instead everyone was drinking Woo Woos and Sex On The Beach. I hate peach schnapps. But within a few years there was a new band on the scene — Combustible Edison — who were leading the charge for a cocktail renaissance, calling their fans the Cocktail Nation and selling their own drink recipe books at their shows. They were the most fabulous act I had ever seen. When their first album was about to come out and their keyboard player couldn’t go on tour, they called me and offered me the spot. We spent the ’90s spearheading the cocktail movement in a fury of sound and liquid — we even had a Campari sponsorship. It was during those years that I met Patrick Sullivan, who got interested in the classics and later opened the B-Side Lounge. I designed the first menus there with him and also bartended there for the first few years it was open. I also created cocktail menus for the Lizard Lounge, Bill’s Bar, Pho Republique, Lilli’s, and the late great Lava Bar in Kenmore Sq.

First drink you ever had
My grandmother used to let me have sips of her Manhattans when I was a tot. It’s still one of my favorite drinks.

The drink you most like to make
My current fave at home is one I call the Maharajah’s Revenge: Old Monk rum from India, apricot brandy, and lime juice.

The best thing about drinking in Boston is…
There are some incredible bartenders in this town who know the classics but aren’t afraid to make some new concoctions, ones that aren’t “shots” or comprised of “flavored vodkas,” which are children’s drinks as far as I’m concerned.

The worst thing about drinking in Boston is…
There are still way too many toy bartenders, there’s still too much toy vodka on the shelves, and too many 1:00 a.m. closings.

Your favorite “cocktail music”
Bossa nova — old and new

Your favorite bar(s) in Boston for music
I always hear great music at Pho Republique and Om in Harvard Sq.

In Boston bars, you hear too much _____
Rock and Top 40

In Boston bars, you don’t hear enough ______
I really wish someplace played the kind of nujazz/soul/latin/hip hop/global beat sounds that you hear a lot in European and Asian lounges. It’s something that has never really caught on in America, with a few exceptions in places like San Francisco, LA, DC.

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8 Responses to “Brother Cleve”

  1. MC Slim JB

    Cleve is one of my heroes. Superb composer, musician, DJ. Amazing bartender — as much for his hospitality as his serious shaker chops — who definitely deserves that “Godfather of the local cocktail revival” title. I actually ordered a Manhattan from him at the Hoodoo (the only punk-rock kid not drinking beer or Jack-and-Coke, as I recall.) I was standing at the door waiting the first day the B-Side opened. His spinning and/or cocktail menus are what drew me to Pho Republique (South End), the Milky Way, and Lili’s in their early days. I guess I’ve pretty much been following him around for years. A local treasure.

  2. pinky gonzales

    excellent profile of a super person! cleve, i had the pleasure of residing in cleveland in the ’80s and i’m curious which diner that was with the fascinating drinks list…

  3. ljclark

    Ah, Pinky. Nice to hear from you! Cleve recently went on a rum holiday. Wonder if he brought anything back?

  4. Br. Cleve

    Hey Pinky — it was in downtown Cleveland, right on the Cuyahoga, in that waterfront area thats like a Fanueil Hall kinda place. Can’t tell you the name of it, but I remember that the Ward 8 was on the menu and that my greataunt used to drink those when I was a kid. Little did I know at the time that it was a Boston drink!

    Yes, Lauren, the Rum Holiday was spectacular. There’s still a bit of the Arundel (from the tiny, 200 yr old Callwood Distillery) left, not much of the Ron De Barrilito I got at the duty free in San Juan. Great trip, I felt like Cleve The Beachcomber!

  5. pinky g.

    Thanks for the reply, Cleve! If it was Shorty’s, kind of a ’50s retro diner where the waitresses called you hon, that’s kinda neat. Friends and i used to go there after ‘the clubs’ (house music!!) I was too young and Rolling Rock-drinking to ever notice a fun cocktail list then. Fun fact: Cleveland once had the following 3 businesses on the same strip: Hooters, Shooters, and Knockers. I swear to god.

  6. Br. Cleve

    Hooters Shooters and Knockers!!!! Wow, you know I’ve always loved Cleveland. I remember one fun filled night at the Holiday Inn over by the old stadium — Big John Patton was playing funky B3 organ jazz in the lounge, the San Francisco 49’s were guests at the hotel, as was Marilyn Chambers and her entourage, as were us (the Del Fuegos) and our punk rock pals The Circle Jerks. And there was a Dog Show going on, with all these people walking around with their Best Of Show contestants! We played at Peabodys a lot, and at the Agora (sp?) Ballroom. What a town. I’m forever grateful to Cleveland (hey, thats my full name!) for making me the cocktail maven I am today. I could be still drinking Budweiser! (well…….sometimes I do…..)

  7. Stormwater Management

    Marilyn Chambers? Color me impressed.

  8. Announcing…the LUPEC BOSTON USO SHOW « Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails - Boston

    […] actor, improviser and stand-up comedian Harry Gordon as Bob Hope, and DJ Brother Cleve, a Boston institution, will spin ‘40s-era swing music between live acts. Vintage dress and creative cocktail attire is […]

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