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Chuck Leavell: The Magic of Finger Painting

By Published: September 2, 2008
Instruments, Studios and Venues

AAJ: I noticed you played a Yamaha C7 piano on Southscape (Evergreen Arts, 2005). It had a beautiful sound and the engineer captured its rich bass very well. People seem to swoon about this piano with its sound and action. Is this still your instrument of choice?

CL: Yes, and I think you'll find that recording studios across the country seem to favor the C7. I can tell you that there are quite a few of them in Nashville. I just think the C7 records very well. It might not have the low end that the nine-foot would have, but for some reason it seems to really sing. And what I have at home is a C7. I love it and I think Yamaha is very consistent, and that quality is an important thing. The one at the Sound Kitchen records beautifully and it's a joy to play.

AAJ: You've worked in so many studios. What other ones really stand out in your mind?

CL: Going back to Alabama, Muscle Shoals Sound was a magical studio, and while I didn't do a tremendous amount of work there, I did work there on occasion. Maybe it was special because I did some early recordings there and was excited to get on those records at that point as a musician, being young and eager to make records. Muscle Shoals Sound had a history—everybody from the Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan and Wilson Pickett worked there and, of course, Duane Allman worked there a lot. It was a very special place.

Because of the history we had at Capricorn, we certainly had magical moments at that studio, and recorded so many records there. That's where “Jessica” and the entire Brothers and Sisters (Capricorn, 1973), Laid Back (Capricorn, 1973), and Highway Call (Capricorn, 1974) were recorded.

AAJ: Is that studio still in existence?

CL: No, but there is discussion about trying to revitalize it, and I'm hoping they will bring it back at some point. So that stands out and, let's see, Capitol Studio in Los Angeles is an extremely special place to work. There's also something special about Ardent Studios in Memphis—I think that it's one of the survivors. Amazingly, that studio has been around since the '60s and there have been some wonderful records made there.

AAJ: You've played at all sorts of venues—intimate clubs, the Royal Albert Hall, the Beacon Theater, stadiums. As a musician, what are some of your favorite venues?

CL: When I'm playing my own shows, I favor the smaller theaters or special rooms. One that comes to mind is the historic opera house in the city of Hawkins, Georgia. It's probably about a 350 seat room with a historic feel, and the community supports the theater and I like that. When you have a community that has a treasure and supports it, I think that's very special. Other ones that I would name would be the Grand Opera House in Macon, Georgia. It's a larger room, about 900 capacity, but a very, very special place.

In terms of venues throughout my career, how can I not mention Carnegie Hall? That's an amazing place. In recent times, the Palace of Esterhazy was a very special place to play. It was where Joseph Haydn was given carte blanche to build a room for performances of his compositions. I was able to play there on the Green Leaves & Blue Notes Tour.

In terms of historic moments I'll mention that just recently we saw the 35th anniversary of the Watkins Glen Show where the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead and the Band played. At the time, in 1973, it set a record for the largest-attended musical event, with over 600,000 people. The other one I would mention would be the recent show we had with the Stones in Rio on Copacabana Beach playing to a million and a half people.

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Solo Recordings

AAJ: I'd like to start with Southscape (Evergreen Arts, 2005), an instrumental album recorded in Nashville. This is one of those recordings were everything comes together, with its lush sound, strong material, and excellent players. You really did capture the sense of the South. Could you share a bit about the sessions and the players?

CL: I had written that material and the time had come to do something with it and my first thought was Michael Rhodes. Michael is a friend. I worked with him before and he had been very encouraging to me. Michael was really instrumental in helping me to make the decisions as to where to go and who to work with. He said, "Man, if you're ever ready to do something, call me and I'll do whatever I can to help—whether it's playing or helping to get the studio together, or whatever it might be." I called Michael and he suggested the studio, which was the Sound Kitchen. He also suggested Chuck Ainlay as the engineer—he said, "Just trust me on this." He'd been working a lot with Chad Cromwell on drums and thought he'd really fit the bill. The other musicians that I brought to the table were Tim Ries and Randall Bramblett. Having co-written some material with Randall, I certainly wanted him on it, and we've been friends a long time anyway. And with Tim being such a strong jazzer and strong musician I wanted to bring him into the picture too.

AAJ: And Larry Carlton.

CL: I wanted to keep the focus as much as possible on a quartet—piano, bass, drums and sax—but Larry has been a friend and I had worked with him on projects before. Since he lives in the Nashville area and there were a couple of songs that were asking for a guitar, he certainly came to mind immediately.

AAJ: Let's talk a bit about another one of your solo piano recordings, Forever Blue (Evergreen Arts, 2001). It sounds like having Chuck Leavell performing a solo concert in the living room. How did you and co-producer Paul Hornsby get such a warm and intimate feel on that recording?

CL: Doing a solo piano record was something that had been on my mind for a while. It was a little intimidating to do because you're naked to the world—it's you, the piano, and fate! I wanted it to be diverse and I think we achieved that with the opening, which is also the title cut. It is basically just an improvised blues, then a gospel song, “Higher Ground,” a traditional song with “Georgia on My Mind,” and then I wanted to revisit some of the things I'd done that were written for solo piano like “Song for Amy” and “Blue Rose.” And you're right—the intention was to make it feel intimate. I'd been on tour and I didn't want to go away to make that record; I wanted to do it locally. Capricorn Records was out of the picture at that time and Paul Hornsby had the best studio in town. Paul's been a very good friend and mentor to me, so I felt like it would be comfortable to work with him. Paul was wonderful with me—very encouraging—and it made a big difference to have somebody behind the glass who made me feel good about what I was doing.

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