Award-winning vocalist Cleveland Watkiss MBE still remembers the day he discovered his younger sibling, acclaimed pianist and composer Trevor, had been bitten by the music bug. The brothers spoke to Dave Freak, ahead of performing in Birmingham within days of each other.
"I caught him in my room," recalls Cleveland, now 59, on coming home unexpectedly to discover Trevor rifling through his prized jazz funk records.
"He’d been listening to the stuff I was playing, and would sneak into my room and try and tape it. He was nine-years-old," says Cleveland, who was then 19-20. "At that time, when you’re kids, you’re like eons away from your younger brother: He’s not into Freddie Hubbard and stuff? But he was! For me I was really shocked."
Today, Cleveland and Trevor are two of the UK's most respected musical adventurers, but back in the late-70s/ early-80s, they were just a couple of East London lads with a growing music obsession.
Alongside Cleveland’s vinyl collection, Trevor recalls middle brother Anthony as another early inspiration.
“He influenced us both,” says Trevor, the second youngest of nine children. “He played guitar and keyboards. He played soul music, I guess he liked jazz chords … chords, harmony, he played reggae and in the church as well."
Says Cleveland: "[Anthony] had this great natural ability to just pick things up and just play. I remember seeing him at the piano, just playing, and saying ‘How’d you do that?’ He just … played! Played tunes. He was really the natural of the three of us, but never pursed it."
The second eldest in a family of nine, Cleveland recollects music filling the family home - the radio, rhythm and blues records, the latest sounds from Jamaica, and more. "My dad passed away when I was nine years old," he says, "and I found out that he loved a lot of jazz stuff, so maybe it slinked into the DNA that way."
Cleveland had started "tinkering" on piano at school and picked up a guitar, but it was winning a leading reggae sound system talent contest that really showed him he not only had the skill, but also the passion, for creating music. "That was really the spark for me to pursue music and singing. I was 14-15 at the time."
Forming a band and gaining a Covent Garden wine bar residency, Cleveland mastered his craft playing live 3-4 nights a week: "It was a place where we learned how to play tunes, played the tunes we liked. We weren’t concerned with how difficult tunes were, it didn’t compute that way for us, for me at least. [John Coltrane’s milestone] Giant Steps? Just play it! Learn the chord progression, learn the melody, and then just do it! We didn’t think about it as being this complicated tune that’s got all these chords in it, we didn’t think like that…
"A young mind is always searching and is inquisitive, it doesn’t know any boundaries,” he adds. “As soon as someone says, ‘that’s a difficult chord … you can’t do that … that’s so difficult to do!’ you can go two ways: Well, okay, I’m going to prove you wrong - which is the way I did; or you can bottle it up, ‘this tune is so difficult, I’m not going to do it!’"
Meanwhile, Trevor was also teaching himself to play guitar and piano, and was regularly checking out his brother's wine bar shows: "I used to go down there, as my curious self, to where he was playing … and want to play! I used to play fills ... he wanted to sing more, to be free of the piano, and eventually I got to play the piano in that group. Which was very inspiring and encouraging, to be put in that situation."
"The piano really stuck for him," notes Cleveland. "I noticed Trevor was getting really into it, studying, and getting to a place where he could really come and play with us. It was really from there … it was like ‘oh wow!’ … watching him grow, it was fascinating."
Relentlessly inquisitive, and with very different career paths, both musicians shared a can-do/ DIY approach, yet both also acknowledge the significance of formal music classes.
Trevor: "Once you’re on the path to achieve what you want to do, to accomplish a certain level you can do it yourself, but having some kind of direction and guidance is quite important. It was for me. I think it’s important to get some direction in your instrumental studies."
Though initially told music college wasn’t for him, Cleveland found himself at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. "A lot of the stuff I was learning there at the time I felt I learnt by just doing – listening to the records and being in bands. But what was really handy was getting your [music] reading together, getting some singing lessons with some of the teachers who were there, extra piano lessons."