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Cleo Kennedy: From Birmingham to Bruce...and Beyond

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

September 15, 2023


Cleo Kennedy @ 16th Street Baptist Church in 1980, in a newspaper photo taken to help promote the Folkways LP LEST WE FORGET, VOLUME 2: BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA, 1963 - MASS MEETING - courtesy of Cleo Kennedy

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the racist/terrorist bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, a major historical event in the Civil Rights Movement. Back in 1963, September 15th fell on a Sunday morning. A pre-planted bomb had been set to explode during Sunday-morning activities at the church, which also had become one of the most important venues for Civil Rights Movement meetings and gatherings. The bomb killed four young girls - none older than fourteen - and injured almost two dozen other congregants. "Well, I was killed in 1963, one Sunday morning in Birmingham," sings Bruce Springsteen in Wrecking Ball's closing track, "We Are Alive."


Cleopatra "Cleo" Kennedy, who sang in Springsteen's 1992-93 touring band, was a key member of 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, though fortunately she wasn't present at the church on the day of its bombing. Nevertheless, she knew the four girls who had been killed, and of course endured the pain and grief of the bombing's aftermath, along with the rest of her community. Although she was just barely out of her teens at the time, Kennedy had become a standout member of 16th Street Baptist Church's choir, often called upon to deliver solo performances in addition to singing with the choir, preparing the congregation for an inspiring sermon from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


I first connected with Cleo Kennedy a little more than a decade ago, when I was a contributing writer for Backstreets.com. Thanks to my friend Dave Marsh, I already knew of Cleo's historical ties to the Civil Rights Movement and 16th Street Baptist Church. After hearing Wrecking Ball and "We Are Alive," I thought it would be great to give Cleo a chance to hear "We Are Alive" and share her reactions with our readers. Not surprisingly, Cleo found the track to be very moving and inspiring. "[It] really touched my heart," she told me. "We are still alive, after all that we have been through and all of the stuff that happened during that time. We are still alive; we're still here, and it took a lot of faith, a lot of determination, a lot of standing up... It took a lot for us to make it to this point... I was involved in the [Civil Rights] Movement and I did the whole nine yards. I went to jail, and I did it all in the course of fighting for freedom, and I don't regret anything that I did because had it not been for people doing what they did up until this point, we wouldn't be where we are now. And I don't feel like we’re totally where we should be anyway, but we're much further than where we would have been." (Click here to read my full archived 2012 Backstreets.com report.)


Cleo's first album as a member of The Gospel Harmonettes (That's Cleo pictured on the far right.)

Since that time, happily, my friendship with Cleo has grown, and I have gotten to learn so much more about her fascinating and inspirational life story. In the latter part of the 1960s, Kennedy's next-door neighbor, the legendary gospel singer Dorothy Love Coates (from whom Phil Spector and Darlene Love derived Darlene's stage-name, due to their mutual love of Coates' singing,) invited Cleo to join her group, Dorothy Love Coates & The Gospel Harmonettes. Cleo sang with the group through the early 1970s and recorded four albums with them: The Handwriting on the Wall, The Separation Line, 'Till My Change Comes, and The Winner.


In the mid-1970s Cleo connected with another gospel legend, Reverend James Cleveland. He quickly made Kennedy a featured member of The James Cleveland Singers and later his Southern California Community Choir and L.A. Gospel Messengers groups. Cleveland also became a beloved mentor and friend to Cleo for the rest of his days, until his untimely death in 1991. Two decades after Cleveland died, gospel-music scholar Bob Marovich assembled and released the Grammy-nominated book/box-set The King of Gospel Music: The Life and Music of Reverend James Cleveland. Marovich interviewed Cleo Kennedy for the project, and she recalled lovingly how supportive Cleveland was when she got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in the late 1970s. She had to move to L.A. for regular treatments at the UCLA Medical Center, and James Cleveland invited her to live with him and recuperate at his View Park home. "He brought me food on a tray just like he was a maid," Kennedy told Marovich. "He loved me and he teated me like a part of his family. I will never forget him for that."


It also was through her work and association with James Cleveland that Cleo began to get offered gigs in the secular world of pop music. One of her earliest and most notable such jobs was singing the backing vocals on the opening and closing tracks of Ray Charles' 1977 album True to Life: Charles' versions of "I Can See Clearly Now" and "Let It Be." Charles had heard Cleo singing on a James Cleveland recording, and specifically requested her for the recording session. As Cleo recently told me, "I was sitting in the waiting-room [of the recording studio] by myself, wondering where everybody else was and why they hadn't gotten there yet. I looked at the time and thought, 'They're supposed to be here by now, and there ain't nobody here but me.' Then, all of a sudden, Ray came out of this other room, saying, 'Are we ready yet?' I said, 'No, because the rest of them didn't come yet.' He said, 'There's no rest of them; it's just me and you, mama.' And I almost fainted. He said, 'I picked your voice out of the background [on the James Cleveland record,] and your voice was the one I wanted.' He recorded me singing soprano, then he recorded me singing alto, then he recorded me singing tenor, and then he put it all together." Cleo added to Bob Marovich in his interview with her, "There's no girls - it's all me!" Indeed, Cleo Kennedy may be one of the few singers - if not the only singer on the planet - who can lay claim to having been all of The Raelettes for a day. Both tracks were included on the 2021 box-set True Genius: The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection, and you also can hear them below:




Cleo in the landmark 1977 miniseries ROOTS

Cleo and other members of James Cleveland's groups also got to play singing peripheral characters in the original 1977 television adaptation of Roots (in a scene now available only on the Complete Original Series Blu-ray/DVD editions) and with James Brown in the 1980 Blues Brothers film.

Cleo helping to back "Reverend" James Brown in THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980)

Cleo in a screenshot from the original 1980 NO NUKES film

Cleo and friends in a screenshot from the original 1980 NO NUKES film

By the late 1970s, Cleo had found regular backup-vocalist work in the studio and/or on the road with popular secular artists like Graham Nash, Diana Ross, and Paul Williams. In fact, an interesting coincidental crossing of paths with her future employer, Bruce Springsteen, occurred in 1979 when she sang with Graham Nash's band during the series of MUSE "No Nukes" concerts at Madison Square Garden, where of course Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band also delivered their now-legendary performances. Both Cleo and Bruce appear, though not together, in the original 1980 No Nukes film. (An additional coincidence at those same "No Nukes" shows: Cleo's future 1992-93 Springsteen touring bandmate Bobby King sang with Ry Cooder's band during his "No Nukes" set. Bobby can't be found with Cleo and Bruce in the 1980 No Nukes film, but he can be heard on the Ry Cooder track "Little Sister" on the accompanying multi-artist No Nukes album, while Cleo can be heard there backing Graham Nash on "Cathedral," and of course Bruce can be heard there on his two tracks with the E Street Band and onstage guests Jackson Browne and Rosemary Butler. Cleo doesn't recall having any direct encounters with Bruce or Bobby King during the 1979 MUSE-concerts series.)


Cleo on the cover of the 1985 book BLACK GOSPEL: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE GOSPEL SOUND

In 1992, when Bruce Springsteen assembled a new band to tour behind his simultaneously released Human Touch and Lucky Town albums, Cleo became an invaluable member of such a great gospel-and-soul-infused group.

I think that her solo spotlight on the epic outtake version of "Roll of the Dice" from Springsteen's MTV Plugged is definitely one of her all-time greatest moments. She doesn't kick into high gear until about nine minutes into an eleven-minutes-long performance, but WOW is it worth the wait!


Cleo recently told me that one common trait that she believes that James Cleveland and Bruce Springsteen shared was that as bandleaders they cared deeply not just about their music, but also about their band-members. In the spring of 1993, Cleo's grandmother passed away, and she needed to take a temporary leave of absence from the tour. "I had to fly back home for the funeral and everything, and Bruce gave me an envelope with my plane-tickets in it, and put some money inside the envelope with the tickets. He said, 'If you need anything else, we're just a phone-call away. Honor your grandmother, take your time, and we'll see you when you come back.' And when I met them back on the tour, during my first show back [on May 9, 1993,] all through the show he kept yelling [off-mic, towards the backup-singers' riser] things like, 'Cleopatra, baby, we're so glad to have you back! Honey, we missed you!' He did that all through the show, and I will never forget him for doing that...telling me all that night how happy he was that I was back."


Like James Cleveland, Cleo told me, "Bruce made us feel like we were a part of his family. He didn't make us feel like we were strangers. I remember one time we had finished a show, got back to the hotel, and they were having a wedding-reception in the lobby part. Bruce turned around to us all and said, 'Let's crash it!' I said to myself, 'Oh my God, he's not gonna do it,' and I started laughing because I knew he was gonna do it anyway. And of course he went up on the stage with that guitar and started singing. And those people went wild; it made their wedding reception what they wished it would be!"


Cleo kept her struggles with MS relatively private, so not everyone in the 1992-93 touring organization was aware of it. At one point on the tour, however, she felt somewhat ill and didn't feel up to eating anything. "Bruce sent someone up to my room," Cleo told me, "who was to take me to get checked out at the local hospital." Cleo thought that wasn't necessary, but the person at her hotel-room door made it clear that he was expected to do what Springsteen had requested, so she complied. The hospital team determined that Cleo needed a humidifier. Cleo told me that in short order Springsteen purchased a humidifier for each and every band-member's hotel-room. "He was very considerate and very concerned like that," she said, "and just treated us like anybody would want to be treated. I will never forget him for that, and I would love to be up on the stage with him one more time for anything. I don't care if it's shortening-bread...I would be there with roller-skates on," she added with a laugh.


In November 2019, Cleo's house sustained extensive damages in a fire. Fortunately neither Cleo nor anyone else was harmed physically in the fire, but she lost many of her most treasured personal mementoes, and rebuilding became extra-challenging for her once the COVID-19 pandemic began. I was honored to join with Bob Marovich, Dave Marsh, Chris Phillips, and many others in supporting a fully successful GoFundMe campaign that helped to provide Cleo with what she needed to rebuild. Cleo asked me to thank once again everyone involved and all donors for helping her in her time of need. "They don't know how they blessed my soul," she said. "I've been able to regain so much of what I've lost. With their help, I was able to get back everything that I really wanted. [The GoFundMe campaign] was a big, big blessing for me."



Cleo, who continues to live in Birmingham, AL, turned 80 last spring, and her current church hosted a major birthday celebration of her life's ongoing and lasting musical, spiritual, and social-justice legacy. I was so happy and honored to be there personally to celebrate my friend's birthday with her family and other friends. And with some help from my pal Chris Phillips, I was able to provide her with a very special little birthday-gift package of Springsteen CDs and DVDs that included all of her officially released work with him to date, as well as other gospel-influenced music from Bruce's official catalog. It fully replaced and enhanced a similar set of CDs/DVDs that she had lost in the 2019 fire.



I also got to make my first visits to many of the historical sites in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma that are tied to the Civil Rights Movement, including 16th Street Baptist Church and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was a deeply moving and inspirational experience, of course, and one that continues to provide me with much-needed insight and hope during our current troubled days.

And finally, I got to hear Cleo Kennedy sing once more, live and in person again. It had been almost thirty years since that last happened for me, and I am happy to report that she still can hit those beautiful high notes. (I've told her that if she ever does get to sing with Bruce Springsteen somewhere on stage once more, I intend to be "the first in line" to buy tickets.) She also continues to inspire, not just with her voice but also with how she's chosen consistently to live her life, remaining an extraordinarily positive force in the face of every obstacle that's ever stood or continues to stand in her way. She truly "lives it every day" and "keeps pushing 'til it's understood." And I think once more of what she told me back in 2012 after hearing "We Are Alive" for the first time: "We are still alive...we're still here, and it took a lot of faith, a lot of determination, a lot of standing up..." On this day especially, I am filled with gratitude for all of those freedom-fighters who are no longer with us physically, but whose legacy still stands with us, shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart. And I thank my friend and hero Cleo Kennedy, for standing up and continuing to do so, inspiring me and so many others to do the same.

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