The Reverend Interview
WRITTEN BY JOSH RAY – JULY 2015
Whether through religion or music, The Reverend Cleve Freckleton was born to serve. The soulful pillar at the core of the Morphogenetic Field, The Reverend merges his gospel roots with the secular sounds of soul, funk and reggae he encountered while serving as ‘Minister of Music’ in the States alongside a pimp-turned-preacher. Based out of Leeds, Cleve has worked with a range of artists including British deep funk stalwarts The New Mastersounds, The Bluebirds and with his own band as Reverend Chunky Butt Funky.
Channelling the fire and spectacle of a deep-south church service, The Reverend adds a deeper dimension to the Super Weird Substance; a juxtaposing spiritual influence, for we are all sinners.
Ahead of his debut release out Friday 31st July on Super Weird Substance, The Reverend Cleve Freckleton told us his story…
I was brought up around gospel music so it was a true part of my life, even though I had different influences coming from other places. In the sixties and seventies radio was the main source of entertainment before MTV. It was predominantly either Radio Luxemburg – which is an offshore kind of station where you could listen to stuff that’s a bit different – or John Peel’s show on Radio 1, where you could listen to predominantly rock music but you would hear reggae in its various forms – but rock, soul and R&B dominated the airwaves.
Because of my parent’s background there would be all these gospel records around and I’d go and see live gospel music. My ambitions – if I could play music full time of course – would have been gospel. I worked 9-5 and had the music on the side. I’m really glad now that I wasn’t drawn towards the idea of the red carpet that exists in music; you only need to watch programmes like X-Factor and The Voice – even back in the day with soul music, things like Live at the Apollo competitions. Is that the way to say that you’re an artist? I can’t subscribe to that at all…
When I’m working with young people I try to draw them away from that line of thinking. The principle thing is that you love the thing that you’re doing and if you love the thing that you do, it won’t matter to you whether you get that red carpet treatment and you can be happy playing at a little pub down the street in front of 20 people, thrashing out your thing man. It’s that passion; it’s always the passion! It’s still what I’m driven by.
SO GOSPEL MUSIC WAS THE FIRST THING YOU APPROACHED WHEN YOU STARTED SINGING?
Yeah, it was predominantly gospel music. It was a weird thing in my house because on a Saturday night my dad would have some Elvis or Ray Charles on and he’d play along with it – Sunday morning, the nature of our house changed. You’re going to church and the devil’s not allowed in your house. So all of a sudden, you try to find those Elvis records and they’ve disappeared.
When I’d go to the churches they’d be quite strict on music. Reggae was a classic example, reggae was natural to the way we played – we were the sons of the West Indies – but you’d get some right disapproving looks from the pulpit and the elders. Secretly I think they really liked it…
As my brothers got a little older they broke away from the religious stranglehold and started playing in bands – once you leave home you can kind of stop going to church and all that. I’d go to their rehearsals and I’d hear them playing covers of reggae and soul records as well as their own compositions and they’d be bringing loads of vinyl home so I was hearing things like The Commodores, Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield.
As soon as my brothers brought something home I was into it because I wanted to learn how to play. I can remember hearing The Average White Band and thinking, “Wow! It’s not just black American musicians making this music, these guys are from Scotland but they’re funky as hell! Then all of a sudden it opened up to me and made me realise that this musical heritage that I was frightened of – gospel music – it influenced everything.
Then I began to look up some of these gospel musicians and some of these guys would be playing on gospel albums but then they’d be playing with George Benson. I started to see these musicians in a different light – they weren’t just playing for church, they had a musical career that encompassed that. I was always told it was gospel or nothing. Truthfully, I got a six-week ban from playing in church as a fifteen year old because I got caught playing in a reggae band. Back in the day when I was trying to look like some dread guy with a big hat on my head full of plastic… I was a bald-head back then dread!
I did begin to understand that all that music is all coming from the same place, it doesn’t matter what label you put on it; gospel, reggae, soul, funk, punk, folk – an E flat is an E flat no matter what genre you play it in. That’s where my influences came from, all those different places. Although, in the first thirty years of my life, I would say that I was drawn more to gospel music even though I played in secular bands – and I’d keep them on the down low haha.
YOU EXPERIENCED THREE VERY DIFFERENT WORLDS GROWING UP. YOU STARTED OUT IN HAMMERSMITH, LONDON, DIDN’T YOU?
Yeah, well I was born in Chelsea in the Hammersmith borough but my family lived in SW6, which is Fulham, Chelsea all that way but then we moved over to Battersea, which is SW11 I think. I was there until I was nine years old and then my family moved to Jamaica. Well I should say I moved with my dad…
That’s a longer story I’ll tell you about. My dad kidnapped me – it was a great adventure and all but it always sounds worse when you say it like that! What happened was; my mum wasn’t well, she’d suffered mental health issues for a long time and my dad thought getting her back to Jamaica would help, in his humble opinion. But he couldn’t get her to go so he thought getting me to go was the only way of getting her to go – I was the youngest boy and I had a real connection with my mum.
It did happen, but nine months later… So I had nine months alone with my dad – but they were incredible! I mean I missed my mum and my brothers and sisters but I was young and looking for adventure; climbing trees, jumping into rock pools, you know that’s the kind of freedom you want as a kid.
SO YOU SPENT ABOUT FOUR YEARS THERE?
Yeah I left when I was nine in 1972 and I came back to England in 1976. So I had four years there, it was an incredible experience, I went to school out there. In that sense I had a normal childhood, but then at the same time we also had a cow… You couldn’t have that in the middle of South London!
MAYBE IN LEEDS.
Haha! Actually you could you know, seriously.
SO YOU CAME BACK TO LEEDS. HOW LONG WAS IT BEFORE YOU WENT OFF TO AMERICA?
I went to work in America because I was invited by a guy who’d come over. He was a church evangelist basically; an incredibly charismatic guy called Darryl McKay. He used to be a pimp so you can imagine his demeanour. It’s crazy isn’t it, but I love it! If you look at him you could see he used to be a pimp; he was sharp as a razor blade. You know that archetypal black hat, cane, long coat – but he was a preacher! He’d been addicted to heroin at fourteen so he’d come through a dark journey going through things like facing prison – but he’d seen this transformation.
Music was important to him and he always travelled with a musician, so when he came to the UK he brought Derrick Monk, who is probably one of my greatest influences as a musician. He played at James Brown’s funeral. And this tale I’ll tell you is true; when I was working for these guys we were doing a prison service, so once every month we’d go into a local prison and give a service. And it so happened, on one of the duties that I was on one Sunday, James Brown was one of the inmates. It was at the time when he was in jail for attempting to shoot his wife or something. Just the most surreal thing you could ever imagine!
The thing with funk though, if you watch James Brown dancing and performing, it all came from that gospel world. Even though he’s not a church guy himself, one of the guys Bobby Byrd – who he had a lot of association with – was a church guy and his dad was a preacher so you couldn’t help but get involved in that kind of theatre. Especially down in the south I could really see where that whole gospel culture influenced things like funk and soul. The theatre in gospel churches down south is an incredible thing man. Real full trance like states, fire, shouting; it’s theatre man!
When I went to America I went to serve them doing that – I was working at those churches. They got me a visa because Darryl was an influential person – if I remember rightly he was friends with the governor of Colorado – so he’d gone through all the crazy things in his past and come out a guy with a real stature, well renowned where he’s from. So I went out there with the title ‘Minister of Music’ and my job was to work in churches, particularly to work with the music programme, especially if they didn’t already have somebody there. But it might be that a preacher needed to go on holiday or they couldn’t do their service for whatever reason and that’s when they’d send me over to serve the people. I could fill two roles in one in a way.
YOU WERE GETTING ABOUT QUITE A LOT THEN?
Oh yeah, everywhere man… I was in churches from Florida to California.
Yeah, with no license!
HAHA, OFF THE RADAR…
You know what, I don’t care man. I was driving for years – my brother used to have a Vauxhall Viva and I would knick it and drive around when I was 14 years old. Not one accident either…
I really had a privilege in that experience though; up and down the different highways. There was one time I had to drive from Baltimore to Little Rock, Arkansas – forty hours solid driving! America is a vast place… So I drove through the Tennessee Mountains, which are just incredible and you pass all these amazing cities on the way like Memphis. Then I drove from there to Jacksonville, Florida so I had to go through Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana – incredible days, incredible experiences.
The radio in the car was a huge source of inspiration cause you’d drive through different states with different radio stations. If you liked jazz there’d be a jazz station and if you liked gospel there’d be a gospel station – there was something for everyone’s taste. One of the things I remember; on the way back from Arkansas to Jacksonville was the first time I’d heard TLC and the song I remember was Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg. It was just this sassy groove – and they were young girls. I was opened up to this vast array of music – whereas in Britain, Radio 1 dominated everything… Radio was definitely a huge part of the experience for me.
YOU MENTIONED PLACES LIKE BALTIMORE AND ARKANSAS. WERE THE NEIGHBOURHOODS YOU WERE WORKING IN QUITE DEPRIVED?
You know it’s crazy because the whole idea of the gospel and how different church groups view it is quite something. If you go to a conventional British church – Church of England, Catholic – generally you hear the gospel inside and that’s as far as the gospel goes. Nowadays I suppose if you’re at home you’ve got TV channels with the service – but the Pentecostal churches saw it as part of their remit to go out and convert and change; they were actually proactive. So you’d get these preachers like Darryl – bearing in mind his background and who he was – his life was really the street and that’s where he was most potent. You’d get hundreds of people coming to his temple.
The other side to this, there’s an economics that goes with it. It was something that I didn’t understand here, it wasn’t until I went there. If you look at it from a practical point of view, the more bodies you had in the church technically the more finance you can get. If I have a thousand people in here and they all give a quid you have a thousand quid, you know what I mean.
That’s looking at it in one sense though. In the other sense I was paid staff as were other people. It had to become a business dude… But that’s when I began to see something else, which informs part of my philosophy with music. That there’s two separate entities here; there’s the entity of the art form or the gospel if you’re preaching versus the one focused on finances and how much money you have to make to continue.
YEAH IT’S ABOUT A BALANCE. YOU CAN’T NEGLECT ONE AND JUST FOCUS ON THE OTHER.
Unless, you choose the life of saying I’m doing this because I choose to work – which I did for many years – and this is the thing I’ll do on the side because it’s my passion. It’s that choice and sometimes you have it and sometimes you don’t.
Those churches though; those guys would go out and set up meetings in the rough neighbourhoods because they were willing to challenge the thinking and say you don’t have to live this life. Darryl in particular – because he was a street dude – had that appeal because he had their language and he had a swagger. He was a good-looking guy; he had this go-to smile man.
THE SMILE THAT MADE YOU LEAVE TO AMERICA…
Haha yeah it totally did! America changed me a lot – for good and for bad. For good because I saw a whole new way of being, for bad because of the strain it put on my family. The price I paid for that was my marriage.
SO WAS IT FAMILY THAT BROUGHT YOU BACK TO ENGLAND?
Yeah I couldn’t live without my kids. I’ve got a little running joke with them that on my gravestone it will say; “shit husband, great dad” haha! I could live with that description – as a man in terms of negotiating relationships, problem – as a man with his children, nothing but fine. I felt that magic since I had my first one when I was 18 and I’ve got seven now. I’ve always been around kids; my first proper girlfriend already had a kid so there’s never been a time when kids weren’t a part of my life and who I am. That was the ultimate catalyst. That and the fact my marriage was falling apart and I knew I couldn’t sustain it.
That period was a defining period for where I am now. I got back here, the divorce happened and I thought I’d just fall back into the same circle but because my wife was part of that circle too; it’s really difficult when you’ve had all these people in common. It was hard! I think it was easier for me to opt away from it just to save myself and everyone else the hassle. It left me at a real crossroads; I remember thinking about it now because it felt like everything in my world was crumbling. I can probably say to you now actually – even if I don’t know if I know what real depression is – for the first time in my life that I can remember, I’d lost a certain motivation about myself. I stopped caring about how I dressed… I’m the kind of guy that loves to get dressed up, that’s why I’m always playing funk cause you get to wear a shirt and suit!
So there was definitely something going on inside me, I think I was mourning a loss. It was at that point, when I was mourning this loss, that I walked in to a laundrette and saw this guy with a guitar over his shoulder – and by definition that is a musician. He was at the music college and he played a bit of blues and soul and he invited me down to jam with him and some dudes. I didn’t really understand that way of playing even though I’d heard it – I was used to playing a different type of music. But I remember going to this jamming session and I loved every bit of it and they asked me to join their blues band, bear in mind they were in most cases twelve years younger than I was but there was a passion there – seven or eight individuals all from different musical backgrounds and it just worked.
YOU GOT AROUND QUITE A BIT AS WELL. YOU PLAYED AT THE CORK JAZZ FESTIVAL DIDN’T YOU?
Yeah man we got around. We’ve been on the same stage as Van Morrison and people like that and some of the old blues guys like Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff – there were loads of great acts that played at the Cork Jazz Festival it was incredible. We had six years of going constantly.
There’s a story I have to tell you actually. When I was 16 I used to visit the Music College on the other side of town. I used to walk into it and as I walked in there was this corridor and through each of the doors was a practice room, each with these beautiful instruments. Occasionally there’d be a door left open and I’d always check and if there was one open or if one of my mates had left it for me, I’d go in and play. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been thrown out of that music college.
Then about six or seven years ago, the Music College asked me to come in and do workshops on Saturdays. I couldn’t believe it man, I laughed! In the 1970s they were throwing me out of that place, in the 2000s they’re paying me to be there! How bizarre…
SO YOU JOINED THE BLUEBIRDS, HOW LONG WERE YOU WITH THEM FOR?
This happened in 1993 I think and we didn’t stop til – well they went on for a while after me – but 1999 was another crossroads for me… I got bored – maybe I shouldn’t say this but it’s the truth. Even when I was serving in the States, I got bored. What’s interesting about this stage I’m at now is I’m not getting bored. I do a bit of teaching, I work with the Super Weird guys, I run a choir here, I run a band still, I busk in the street, I go into schools with projects; there’s all these different things going on so I’m not bored.
WAS IT WHEN YOU LEFT THE BLUEBIRDS IN ’99 THAT YOU STARTED MAKING MUSIC WITH YOU BAND AS REVEREND CHUNKY BUTT FUNKY?
Well yeah, there were always gigs though, as an independent musician there was always work. But what started to happen was I got asked to do a two-day festival in York, to play on both days. So I put a band together to go do this gig. My stepdaughter Chelsea was with me and I remember we didn’t have a name, or whatever it was, was rubbish. So this guy told everyone to put names in a hat and as soon as I picked this one out I knew it was the one; it said Chunky Butt Funky. I was already known as Reverend Chunky anyway but that Chunky Butt Funky. That started the chain and because I’d played that festival, I played a wedding and more things came from that. So you go from playing once or twice every six months to the point you’re playing Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – having to turn gigs down!
So you can imagine, I’ve had a colourful life. I’ve got seven children to four women, including some of their children as well. If you read my book you’d think I was all over the place, and I am like that to a degree but I was with my wife for 19 years; it was quite difficult for me. As a matter of fact, this latest part of the journey started at Latitude Festival where emotionally I was at my most tender. I nearly never went – I couldn’t deal with it because I was in a dark place. But my youngest girl – bless her soul – came and said “I’ll go with you” and persuaded me to go. Those two days in that field changed everything! Across the landscape – incredible!
The minute I met Kermit I knew something was right. Just like when I met Darryl, something feels right; I believe. But in Kermit’s case it was incredible how close our paths must have crossed on many occasions because we were all aware of the same people, we just didn’t have that definitive link yet. It’s mad! He’s coming from the same place I am. Exactly the same place, the difference is he took that path at a younger age and his talent got him to where he is but I went in a totally different direction.
Truthfully, when I met him I hadn’t heard of him. Bear in mind that when the whole Manchester thing exploded with the scene and that music, the Hacienda and everything, I was out there in a completely different world. So I came back to hear about all these things, my missus used to go to these things so I’d hear her talk about it. So when I met Kermit, we had this conversation. The other guys in the band were already aware of who he was but I was naïve.
So Kermit told me – in quite a condensed form – about his background, I remember him showing me his scars from the operation and everything. When he asked me to come to Liverpool he told me about the whole Super Weird family and he gave me the mixtape. I didn’t listen to it til I got home but wow! It was just this crazy mix of everything – everything that influenced me growing up.
So I came to Liverpool and I met Greg and basically they said look, we want you to work with us. And I mean working with singers like BB.JAMES and the The Reynolds is just incredible. After the tour, I thought I’d just go home but what it did was cement the friendship and Greg and Tracey were encouraging me to get in on tracks.
They are the people I choose to do business with. They wont make a profit without you making a profit and if they make a loss they’ll shield you from it. And you know what, I’ll give my music and my writing for that sort of attitude. Yeah man, they’re real people.
That’s the thing I’ve seen in the guys from Super Weird, they’re bringing all this stuff together but they’re also quite inventive. The encouragement particularly around Kermit and his writing really fascinates me and it kind of stirred something inside me too. To see someone who’s writing is just so prolific.
I do love what’s happening here with these guys. I don’t know where it leads to but I’m enjoying the journey.
I’VE JUST GOT ONE MORE QUESTION FOR YOU… CONSIDERING YOUR FIRST JOB WAS A WATCHMAKER’S ASSISTANT, WHY ARE YOU NEVER ON TIME?
Wow… Actually you know what, you’ve made me think there so I’m going to tell you this:
My dad’s friend was a watchmaker and I worked with him one summer – I was only seven or eight so I was a young kid. I was fascinated by the concept of watches because you saw the internal workings. It’s human engineering at it’s best in some ways. What I remember was; putting them together is a lot harder than taking them apart!
I’ve two stories for this, the first was that when I went to Jamaica I had to take the bus from where we lived in the country, down to Kingston. There were two buses that came through, the Coronation bus and the Green Line – they came at different times in the day. The Coronation bus used to come quite early in the morning but in terms of a clock, I could not tell you when it was going to get there – but when you heard the horn coming over the hill my dad could tell you how far away it was. “Fifteen minutes hurry boy – get your shoes on!” Outside there was no bus stop and no timetable – just an average time. So that’s the first thing I wanted to tell you.
Also, I went back to Jamaica after 36 years of being off that island – 36 years! And I was getting a bus to go visit my great uncle, so I grabbed my bags, left the house and went to the bus station. When I get there I find my bus and go up to the driver and ask him “what time’s this bus leaving.” He didn’t even look at me, he just said “it leave when it leave, when it full.”
I’ve stood waiting for trains and heard people going off because their world operates by this thing, this clock. It’s a man-made concept. It’s a theory. I understand seasons – I understand times. I don’t understand ‘the time’. I mean look what I do for a living… If I didn’t know how to be on time I’d never have a job but believe you me, my general philosophy is: if you’re meeting me socially, don’t you dare be looking at your clock on me! You know what, I get there when I get there.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CLEVE FRECKLETON & ELSPETH MOORE