Carrie Cleveland: What an obscure 1970s Oakland soul singer taught me about love, potential, and longevity

I’m new enough to Twitter that the concept of DM blows my mind.

When I started cheating at Twitter to make up for lost time, I never really thought through the idea that it could actually do what I hoped it would; connect me to that internet magic that makes impossible connections and opportunities happen.

UPDATE: Heston came through!

One of the lies I’ve used most consistently to make friends and influence people hinges on my own creative potential. I’ve figured out a way to hint at something deep within me that intrigues people enough to stick around and see where it leads. When they figure out that it doesn’t lead anywhere, they’re often bought in enough to stay involved anyways.

The stories we tell

So when Heston appeared in my DMs asking what I did, I told him that I am a writer, more or less. I’m still not sure how I came to his attention, we didn’t follow each other. Right away he started sending me some links with a pretty simple frame around them; a musical love story between his parents in 1970s Oakland. He asked me whether I’d write about them.

I had some questions. For one thing, my blog has been visited by like 1k people ever. I have done none of the kind of SEO that is likely to get it in front of anyone interested in the 70s indie Oakland soul scene. How could I possibly help him achieve whatever end he was chasing? And what would I get out of it?

Heston really just seems to want to get this story out, to the point where he is hitting up random strangers on the internet to talk about it. To the point where he is going to send at least one random stranger on the internet some pretty rare vinyl to add to his collection.

I can’t really start where Heston wanted me to though.

Old content new commerce

Even before I started reading the material he was sending me I started wondering about his relationship with his mom. I love my mom; if she had 15 minutes of fame I don’t know about it I’m not sure I’d be doing the rounds on talk radio and local news 40 years later to let everyone know about it.

A poster for a no-cover event featuring Carrie and The Creative Set in 1980.

What I can relate to is the realization that my folks are getting older, that the number of times I’ll get to hang out with them is not infinite. At the time of writing Heston’s mom is in her 70s; while there is a good chance she’ll be around decades to come I wonder whether he was motivated to chase this now while she is doing as good as she seems to be.

Digging into some of the links that Heston sent over it became pretty clear that he was at least partly motivated by something more practical as well though: “original copies of Carrie’s records now fetch eye-watering sums on the second-hand market”. I’m not trying to throw shade; one of the first things I asked Heston was how he would make this more worthwhile for me (hence the vinyl in the mail).

So Heston’s roadshow is at least partially demand generation for a passive income asset that he and his mother only recently realized they had. Maybe I should dig into my parent’s unknown past a little deeper to see what underexploited intellectual property they may be sitting on.

There is also an opportunity that exists today that didn’t really when the album came out thanks to the intersection of global distribution as enabled by the internet and a resurgence of vinyl caused by a mix of excess disposable income in the boomer generation and a yearning for physicality in the generations that followed them. Maybe.

Kalita Records, the UK label behind the re-release of “Carrie Cleveland’s ‘Looking Up: The Complete Works” specializes in “in unearthing and re-releasing great music that deserves to be heard by all”. Chris Webb, the label’s founder, literally just calls up aging musicians to make them an offer they are unlikely to refuse. Like he did with Heston and his Carrie.

The original release in the late 1970s ran 1000 pressings that probably stayed within 100KM of the Oakland garage where it was recorded. The re-release is decidedly more global; appreciators of rare 70s Oakland soul are far-flung and often far removed from the culture that produced it.

Heston and Carrie are not; they’re still repping Oakland. Heston’s twitter bio claims Oakland music management for 40 years; one of the articles he shared had him DJing at one point for Oakland rapper Askari X, who I didn’t know that I knew from the Dead Prez albums that I grew up listening to.

Love, art, and death in Oakland

So what about this Oakland love story then? This was the hook that Heston led with into the story he said he wanted to tell. But the actual telling of it is skeletal at best.

Some key details are available. Bill (Heston’s dad) was actually being set up with Carrie’s sister, who happened to be sick. In a parallel universe where Bill and Carrie’s sister got together, Heston doesn’t hit me up because there is no record. Also because he doesn’t exist.

The liner notes of the new vinyl.

17 years pass between their meeting, Carrie’s joining his band (The Creative Set), and them actually laying down some tracks. 16 years pass between the year of the recording and the year of Bill’s death.

And in between?

They had a son.

They played at “hole in the wall” venues around the Oakland Bay and San Francisco areas. None of the venues meant anything to me, but they surely meant a lot to a few, and at least a little to a few more than that.

Reading all the names of clubs and hotels where they played made me think of my own formative spaces that no longer exist; stranded assets of the mind.

Even the shitty spaces provide a setting where the most important things play out. Long after they cease to physically exist or are overlaid by something else, something entirely different, they hold power over people’s lives. Even people who never went there.

Every venue is someone’s Woodstock.

Bill and Carrie made art together. Not only did they play together in front of audiences for 30 years, but they turned their music into something physical in their garage one summer.

One art project my wife and I started stands out in my mind. We visioned together, worked through creative decisions together, and improvised together. It was fun, silly, and exciting, and we didn’t even see it through. Whatever else their marriage contained, it sustained a synthesis of creativity over time.

Did that creativity sustain them in turn? Bill was a probation officer, Carrie worked at a kids hospital. Everything I know about those worlds (not much) suggests that they probably finished their days pretty tired, which makes alternate lives as “smokey lounge” singers even more incredible.

Preservation of the soul

Carrie and Bill together.

Their marriage, their music, and their son trying to preserve it all, lift it all up. And at least one of the singles that Bill and Carrie pressed is beyond preservation “lost into total obscurity”, a personal Library of Alexandria. We all produce so many things that will be lost to obscurity; essays, photos, letters, conversations. Why is it the loss of a recording hits differently?

Recording is pinning down, finishing, and the finished feels eternal. The destruction of the eternal will always break our hearts to find out about. The internet and digitization feel like a way out of that trap; an online library that cannot burn down even as we struggle to find our friend’s Live Journals from 2004.

Today Carrie is a 70-year-old woman who was born in the 40s in the South and participated in the history of Oakland. She stopped making music after Bill died at least partly because “a lot of men didn’t respect a female band leader”. Somehow she in 2019 she is also “back and better than ever”, smiling for photos, and gamely sharing a bit of her history with a mix of Oaklandphiles, obscure soul aficionados, and internet happenstancers.

I guess what I’m taking away from this is that my own trick of hinting at a deep well of creative potential to draw people in isn’t unique. Potential is reached in fits and starts for shorter or longer periods of time. Everybody loves, some people sing about it, and even fewer still press and independently distribute records about it. If you live your life right, you’ll have someone who cares enough about you to tell others how great you are long after you’ve moved on.

And since I can’t think of any better way to wrap this up, here is Carrie singing.

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