When Brian Coleman and Dave Belson showed up on a recent Friday to unlock the door at their two-year-old record store, a small crowd was already waiting in the lobby. It’s not a common sight at Want List Records, which occupies space in a quiet little antique mall in Newton Upper Falls.
“It was like a new pair of Air Jordans was dropping or something,” says Coleman.
The vinyl junkies were gathered for the official unveiling of the record collection amassed by the late Brother Cleve, the exotic music and cocktail connoisseur who made it his job to intoxicate the nightlife scene in Boston and beyond. Cleve, who grew up in Medford as Robert Toomey, died unexpectedly last September at age 67.
“He had two branches of his life that overlapped,” said Belson at the store a few days before the unveiling, at an informal gathering of some of Cleve’s closest friends. “I think that’s kind of dope.”
Celebrated as an early champion of the classic cocktail revival, Cleve was also a DJ for hire and a touring keyboardist for bands ranging from the Del Fuegos and Barrence Whitfield & the Savages to the lounge-music avatars Combustible Edison. His musical taste was one of a kind: Over his life he evolved through distinct phases, from Frank Zappa and classic punk to Bollywood soundtracks and “space-age bachelor pad” music.
An estimated 4,000 LPs and another thousand-plus 45s will roll out this summer in the bins at Want List, as the owners work their way through the collection. Each record sold from Cleve’s collection will include a postcard explaining its provenance.
“He was pretty much the ambassador of fun,” says Diane Dodge, Cleve’s wife. “He drew all of his interests together in one package — music, collecting, cultural archeology, cocktails, food, music, irony, entertainment.
“And he solidified all of them into a package that people actually paid him to do, basically for being himself. If that’s not genius, I don’t know what is.”
The informal gathering drew some of Cleve’s closest friends, including onetime WCOZ DJ Cindy Bailen, “Dirty Old Boston” curator Jim Botticelli, and Unnatural Axe guitarist Tom White. They reminisced about the various local bands Cleve was associated with — the Fabulous Billygoons, Wheelers & Dealers — and the many nights when he tested out new concoctions on them. Longtime Boston DJ Albert O recalled working with Cleve at a chain bookstore in a Chelsea shopping plaza in the late 1970s, before, he joked, Cleve “got world famous.”
Coleman showed off Cleve’s last “gig bag” — a camouflage carrying case with two compartments for the seven-inch singles he selected for his last DJ set. The bag contains Elvis Presley’s “Do the Clam” and an original pressing of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” among other gems.
On the day the shop made the first batch of Cleve’s records available, his friend Dave Waller took home an armful. Waller, a neon sign preservationist, and his wife, Lynn, were moved to write the Want List owners a note after they got home.
Coleman and Belson are “distributing [Cleve’s] singularity,” Waller wrote, quoting his wife, “as if he’s become a dandelion — no longer a flower, but a thousand pieces blown to the wind to inspire the world. I’m not sure if you could sense it, but I was close to crying with happiness in your store.”
Dodge, an artist who worked for a time at Looney Tunes Records, notes the irony that she and Cleve, both cultural excavators, “got most of our stuff from dead people’s collections.
“If he could hear me say that right now, he would laugh,” she says. “I know it.”
At first she was emotional about the prospect of selling off her husband’s record collection. But the Want List owners impressed her with their attention to detail and their commitment to Cleve’s legacy.
“They’re outstanding individuals who have a lot of heart and soul,” she says. “It made it a little bit easier for me to let [the collection] go to them.”
Dodge is in the process of moving into a new house not far from the one in Weymouth where she and Cleve most recently lived. She’s bringing her own huge collections of books and fabric, and she’s holding onto some of her husband’s things — his vintage movie posters, for instance, and his extensive collection of antiquarian bartenders’ guides, dating to the 1880s.
“We ate and drank and danced and acted like pirates,” she says of their life together.
Though she’s newly sober after 31 years with her mixologist partner, she says she’s moving Cleve’s beloved bar and barware collection to the new house.
“I’m setting it up in honor of him, and a portrait of him will hang above it,” she says. “There just will be no imbibing.”