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Chuck Leavell: The Magic of Finger Painting

By Published: September 2, 2008

Introduction to Music

All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning. From your book, I learned that you are essentially self taught, but I was very impressed with how your mother introduced you to music and the piano. Would you speak a bit about her method and the impact it had on you as a musician?

Chuck Leavell: I learned by listening to my Mom. She wasn't a professional teacher, but she played for family enjoyment. Since I was the youngest in the family, at the age of five, six or seven, quite often it was just the two of us in the house. So the opportunity for mother and son to sit at the piano came quite often. She was very good about taking the time to do that for me and I truly loved it. Of course, you've got to remember we're talking about a child, so she would just give me parameters like, “How would it feel if you were really upset with somebody, or had a fight with your friend?” or, “How would it sound if you were trying to emulate a storm outside?” The outcome was that she helped me to think of music in terms of feelings and emotions instead of just notes or chords or whatever. It was so much about dynamics—playing from the soul—and I was very fortunate that she gave me that. I'm trying to paint pictures—that's what I tried to do with Southscape (Evergreen Arts, 2005)—so that advice that she gave me has held up over time.

AAJ: I thought the interesting thing about your Mom is that she was confronted with a situation where your older brother lost his hearing. Do you think that made her more aware of the importance and the magical nature of sound and music?

CL: Well, no doubt. You bring up a good point that because of the situation with my brother Billy, it did perhaps heighten the awareness of what sound and music is to all of us. We are all very proud of Billy, who does wonderful missionary work across the world, but since birth has never been able to hear. Mom had rubella when she was pregnant with him and that resulted in his deafness. But he never saw that as a handicap and my parents felt the same way. They never wanted him to feel ostracized and they did everything they could so he wouldn't feel handicapped.

AAJ: And from your book, it's clear how supportive he was of you as a child.

CL: Absolutely. My Dad was a great Dad, but quite often he would be on trips or whatever, and Billy would kind of serve as a surrogate father.

AAJ: You didn't aspire to be just a blues player or a jazz, Nashville, or boogie-woogie specialist. But you assimilated those styles and more into something that is simply “Chuck Leavell.” You'll probably be surprised by this, but in some ways your playing reminds me of Paul Desmond. A friend of his once said, "An alto sax is really just a piece of metal with holes in it, but in his hands it had this warm melodic sound that was immediately identifiable as Paul Desmond." When your fingers touch the keys it is very similar for me—it's a warm, melodic sound that is Chuck Leavell. Paul Desmond once quipped that he was trying to sound like a dry Martini. What Southern food or beverage would you pick to describe your sound?

CL: [Laughs] Southern food or beverage? Well, I think it would be more like a warm Southern night, let me put it to you that way. That would be the best description I could give you.

You know, I've just been re-reading Ray Charles' book called Brother Ray (DoubleDay, 1978). What he says in his book about his feelings about music is exactly the way I feel. He talks about his love of country music, and you wouldn't think that a black man growing up in the '50s would have a desire to understand or listen to that music, but he did! He talked about what a great player Peter Nero was, raising the point that good music is good music and you know it when you hear it. Ray certainly did, and that's the way I feel about it, too. I'm not a specialist in any particular category. I'm certainly not a jazz player. I suppose you could say I'm a rock player, but I love the blues and it all comes from the blues. And there's gospel, and rock piano really comes from gospel. I really love the whole map.

AAJ: I know from your book that in some things, like writing your journal, studying forestry, or your work with the Rolling Stones, you are uncommonly systematic and methodical, but with respect to studying piano you were very free-spirited and quickly broke off your formal training. On the surface, that seems to go against your nature, but my hunch is that your ear was so good that early on you were able to fake it, and didn't see the utility of reading music. Is there any truth to that?

CL: Well yeah that's true, but I would also say that just because I never really learned notation, it didn't mean that I didn't have a certain discipline. There was a time when I hooked up with Louise Barfield, who was a wonderful teacher and a Julliard graduate and just an amazing classical pianist. She was kind enough to help design a program of exercises for me that made a tremendous difference in my playing and gave me a better understanding of things like fingering and technical aspects of the piano. I was hungering for that because I'd never had it as a younger player. She made a really big difference in my playing, and what I learned from her I still try and keep up. I break out the Hammond book and go through those exercises, and I still do the stretches that she taught me. So there is an element of discipline there, even if I didn't attend a university and study in that way.

AAJ: That's a good point. When you were about thirteen, you went to a Ray Charles concert. That experience inspired you to become a musician. Given that a substantial part of your career has been devoted to backing iconic musicians, it seems revealing that even though you recognized Ray's greatness, it was his accompanist Billy Preston who fascinated you most. It's pretty wild when you really think about it—the future sixth Rolling Stone watching the future fifth Beatle. We'll get to Ray later, but did you ever tell Billy Preston about that concert?

CL: I did. I saw him very briefly backstage at a Stones concert, maybe during the Voodoo Lounge Tour. It was like ships passing in the night, but I was able to look him in the eye and say, "Wow, Billy, you're one of my heroes. Thanks for all the great music, and I did see you with Ray Charles in '66." Unfortunately I didn't get to have a longer conversation with Billy.

That brings up an interesting point—how many bands or artists were known for having two very talented keyboardists? At the time Ray Charles was the feature, but he also had Billy Preston on board playing the Hammond B3. I guess you might have seen it in churches where you had piano and organ playing together and I guess some bands had them—you could point to Procal Harum—but before the Allman Brothers, there weren't that many bands around that had two keyboard players. Seeing Ray and Billy was the first time I experienced it, and certainly that's stayed with me.

AAJ: In preparing for this interview, I checked a music forum to see what your fans were talking about, and I read an interesting discussion with the topic: “What's your favorite Chuck Leavell solo?” “Old Love” on Eric Clapton's Unplugged (Reprise, 1992) was mentioned often and, of course, “Jessica” from your Allman Brothers days. One fan remembered a Stones concert where you played a four minute solo on “Sympathy for the Devil” that he considered the highlight of the show. Several other suggestions came up, but what surprised me was how often Dickey Betts' Highway Call (Capricorn, 1974) album was mentioned. Recently, I was happy to see that someone posted a YouTube clip from the early '80s of you in the BHLT band (with Dickey Betts, Jim Hall and Butch Trucks), playing some of the music from Highway Call. Commercially, I don't know how viable that formation would have been, but as a musician that must have been a blast.

CL: BHLT was a very special experience for all of us. It came at a time in my career when, quite frankly, there wasn't much else going on. Dickey, Jimmy Hall, Butch and I were able to come together and experiment a little bit and put this together, and not only do some of the material from things like Highway Call or the Allman Brothers, but to also do some things that Jimmy was known for. It was a shame that we didn't ever have an official release. I think the reason was that right after we put that together and did a couple of short tours, we all became focused on other things—solo projects, or me with the Stones, and we couldn't find the time to follow up. But it was a very special experience and we had fun together. I thought it was a very interesting combination.

AAJ: Let me put you on the spot. If you were preparing a time capsule for your great-great-great grandkids and could only select one example of your playing per decade, what would be your spontaneous pick for the '70s?

CL: I think the obvious pick is “Jessica.” Sometimes these things are out of your hands. You never know when you're recording any particular piece of music how it will hold up over the course of time, but certainly “Jessica” has, and I would have to say that because it's been so widely recognized, I couldn't argue with that. It came at a point in my career when I was sort of catapulted from other groups that were in some ways beginnings for me to a group that was already successful. It certainly gave me an opportunity at quite a young age—I'd barely turned twenty.

AAJ: And your playing too—something really clicked on that.

CL: Well, it did, and I would say not only that song, but the whole Brothers and Sisters (Capricorn, 1973) record stands.

AAJ: How about the '80s?

CL: Well, Sea Level was in the late '70s and ended in 1980, so let's point to Sea Level—it represents that time nicely. Sea Level never had the success of the Allman Brothers or some of the artists that I later worked with, but I think it was equally as respected.

AAJ: Absolutely. How about the '90s?

CL: The '90s would be “Old Love” for sure.

AAJ: I was curious about Eric Clapton's reaction after the taping. He seemed pretty surprised.

CL: Well I think I was very much like a coiled spring on that show. The fact is that I had worked with Eric for a while, but basically as a second keyboardist behind Greg Phillinganes, for whom I have immense respect, and who is a dear friend. Greg resigned during our tour with George Harrison. Eric came to me and said, "Listen, I'm gonna carry on after the Harrison tour, and the next project is the Unplugged project." He asked if I thought we should have another keyboard player, or would I like to have it on my own. Well, I immediately said, "Let me have it on my own."

Up to that time I had just been playing pads and simple support for Eric, so having it on my own gave me the opportunity to step out. Again, I think I was very much like a coiled spring. When the opportunity came up on any of those solos, I was anxious to step up.

AAJ: How about the current decade?

CL: Well, of course that would be my own solo work—I suppose I'd choose the song “Savanah.” But you could just use Southscape (Evergreen Arts, 2005) which was the title of the record which represents pretty much what I was trying to do—to paint a portrait of the South.

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