Chuck Leavell: The Magic of Finger Painting
“ ...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.. ”
Chuck Leavell is one of the world's premier blues rock pianistsa veteran musician who has recorded and toured with many of the best-known names in the business. He is perhaps best known for his work with the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Black Crowes, and most of all, his legendary years with the Allman Brothers Band in the '70s.
The Allman Brothers Band blurred the line between jazz and blues rock with their own unique fusion. They have attracted the attention of musicians such as Branford Marsalis, David Sanborn, and Herbie Mann. Bill Graham, the iconic concert impresario and owner of the legendary Fillmore East and West venuesa man who had seen the best of the bestchose the Allman Brothers Band as the closing act for the Fillmore East's final concert in the summer of 1971. He proclaimed that, to his mind, they were making the finest contemporary music at the time.
Robert Palmer, the New York Times music critic, wrote: "One spring night in 1971, around the time of the Fillmore East recordings, Mr.(Duane) Allman noted in a conversation that he had been listening obsessively to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) album and to various John Coltrane recordings. He said these were the musicians who had mastered the art of melodic improvisation on the simple vamps and modes favored by most rock groups. In his opinion, no rock band, including the Allman Brothers, had ever come close to equaling the standards set by Kind of Blue. But I also remember walking out of the smoke-filled Fillmore East as the sun rose over Second Avenue, after marathon Allman Brothers Band shows, thinking that if the musicians hadn't quite scaled Coltrane-like heights, they had come as close as any rock band was likely to get."
Guitarist Duane Allman, the band's undisputed leader, before he was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident in October 1971, took rock audiences to heights they had never experienced before. Finding his successor was a daunting prospect that led to pervasive rumors that Eric Clapton might join the band.
No one could have imagined that an unknown twenty-year-old playing an acoustic piano would follow Duane Allman in a band whose trademark was dual lead guitarists. Dickey Betts, reflecting on the decision to have Chuck Leavell join the band, said: "I think that if we'd made any other move besides Chuck, it would have ended just like that. Because he is so powerful, a lot of people accepted the change." Leavell rose to the challenge and shone, playing a major part in Brothers & Sisters (Capricorn, 1973)arguably the band's best studio recording. This album, also their most commercially successful, produced their first hit single, "Ramblin' Man," and the universally-recognizable instrumental, "Jessica," which prominently featured Leavell.
Unlike many British rock musicians of their generation who approached the blues in a reverential way, Leavell was part of a group of Southern musicians who grew up with blues, rockabilly, country western, bluegrass, R&B and gospel as a natural part of their lives. The Allman Brothers' sound integrated all these influences and jazz. They relied upon extensive counterpoint between the two drummers, the two guitarists and a bassist who didn't use a typical rhythm section approach, but instead played in counterpoint to the soloist. The result was an easily-recognizable style that deserved a name that reflected this blend of influences, rather than the flawed description, "southern rock."
Unfortunately, the band's creative high point fell victim to the excesses of rock stardom, impelling Leavell to leave the Allman Brothers and found the critically-acclaimed band Sea Level. Despite making some excellent and memorable music, Sea Level went under in 1982, but an important part of their legacy was making their rock fans much more receptive to jazz.
Leavell found himself plagued by debts, lawsuits, acrimony and existential angst; wondering how he would provide for his wife and daughter. During this very bleak period, he was contacted by Ian Stuart, who invited him to audition for a spot on the Rolling Stones tour. For more than a quarter of a century, Chuck has remained with the Stones, taking on the role of musical navigator when Stuart died in late 1985. Keith Richards has said: "Chuck is our direct link to Stu. Without that continuity, the Stones would not be the Stones." Leavell covers his work with the Stones very thoroughly in his excellent autobiography, Between Rock and a Home Place (Mercer University Press, 2004).
Chuck Leavell is a man who has spent time with presidents and whose friends include some of the biggest names in rock music. Yet he is modest, soft-spoken, reflective, and remarkably considerate. He is often and appropriately described as a charming and gracious Southern gentleman. Beyond his life as a musician, he and his wife Rose Lane operate Charlane Plantationa 2,100 acre tree farm, nature preserve and corporate retreat near Macon, Georgia. In this role he has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of America's leading conservationists. Leavell has also written a book about his other passion, the stewardship of the earth, entitled Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest (Longstreet Press, 2001).
- Introduction to Music
- Instruments, Studios and Venues
- Solo Recordings
- Music Made In Germany
- Macon Music and Dr John, Allman Brothers, Sea Level
- Duane Allman, Eric Clapton
- Sea Level Reunion
- Randall Bramblett
- Derek Trucks &Amp; Allman Brothers 40th
- Dave Edmunds
- NPR Piano Jazz
- Keith Jarrett
- Rolling Stones
- George Harrison
- The Environment
- Dream Band
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 dynamicsplaying from the souland I was very fortunate that she gave me that. I'm trying to paint picturesthat'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 meit'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 itthe 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 pointhow 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 themyou could point to Procal Harumbut 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 thingssolo 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 ageI'd barely turned twenty.
AAJ: And your playing toosomething 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 Levelit 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 workI 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 doto paint a portrait of the South.
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 historyeverybody 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 MemphisI 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 venuesintimate 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.
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 helpwhether 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 engineerhe 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 quartetpiano, bass, drums and saxbut 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 worldit'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 rightthe 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 mevery encouragingand it made a big difference to have somebody behind the glass who made me feel good about what I was doing.
AAJ: I want to focus next on your latest recording, Live in Germany: Green Leaves & Blue Notes Tour 2007 (Evergreen Arts, 2007). Disk one opens with Dr. Longhair's “In the Wee Wee Hours” and is followed by a mix of tunes from Sea Level, the Stones, the Allman Brothers, George Harrison and many more. You hooked up with some excellent young talent in Germany and it's an interesting sound because these guys are young European jazz players and their approach gives many of the blues and rock songs a very different feel. Please share a bit about the musicians, the recording and the German tour.
CL: My back was up against the wall on this because the tour was imminent and I needed a band. It was the original intent for me to do it totally solo, but we had a couple of promoters who would only book me with a band. I knew it would be prohibitively expensive to bring players from the States over, so I was very fortunate that Tim Reis had a contact with Paul Hoechstaedter, the drummer. As fate would have it, Paul was available and he brought the other players to the table. The technology was helpful because I was able to send mp3s to them since I didn't have notated charts for the guys. They heard the music and made their own charts. We were pressured because of the time factorwe only had two rehearsals before the first show. Because of their professionalism it just came together and, as you mentioned, these guys are all jazzers. They come from a difference place than I come fromI come from soul, R&B, and rock. And they did indeed bring a completely different perspective, which was a happy accident! If I had planned for that it probably wouldn't have worked out that way, or it wouldn't have turned out as well. They really rose to the occasionthey did their homework. They were very well prepared. I say in the liner notes that the stars lined up in that particular performance and it's true. Very rarely does that happen. The people who put the radio program togetherKonnie Keller, the engineer Rainer Schwarz and the producer Christoph Classenjust put together this magical evening. It was well recorded, the audience was with us from the first song till the last, and the feedback between us and the audience was very special, as was the communication between the musicians.
In terms of the material, it's pretty obvious that it's a career retrospective. This is what I domy life has been spent working with those particular artists, whether it's the Allman Brothers, Sea Level, Eric Clapton, or George Harrison. I was also able to throw some of my own solo material into the mixthat's who I am and I think the CD reflects that.
l:r Martin Scales, Christian Diener, Chuck Leavell, Lutz Haefner, Paul Hoechstaedter
AAJ: I really enjoyed your take on “Compared to What.” Your substitute guitarist, who came in at the last minute, really ripped that one up!
CL: Yeah, Frank Kuruc, who came in because Martin Scales couldn't make the gig, deserves special mention. Frank was amazing. I give high compliments to him for really stepping up to the plate with literally only a couple hours of preparation. That song is one of my all-time favorites, and a favorite of so many other jazz musicians. That was an historic recording with Les McCann and Eddie Harris at Montreux. When I first heard that recording, it just flipped me out. It's almost like sacred ground and I was almost a little reluctant to step on it, but because I love that song so much and I wanted to pay tribute to those guys, I felt like it was appropriate to do. I was really pleased by the way it turned out.
AAJ: You guys sound great together and you enjoy Germany. Is there any chance you'll come back and do a studio recordingperhaps something ambitious with a larger band?
CL: I have nothing planned at the moment, but it was such a positive experience and Germany's been so good to me in terms of the fans, and the acceptance. This record is going to be coming out in Germany in September, so I have support from the ZYX record label, the fans, and the musicians. So, yes, there is a strong possibility. It's hard to say something for sure about the immediate future, and who knows what the Stones may have in mind, but that's a great opportunity and I hope to take advantage of it at some pointto do some new material and go into the studio with these guys.
AAJ: Speaking of Germany, I'm curious about what you think of your fellow keyboardist, and our first lady of jazz here in Germany, Barbara Dennerlein.
CL: I've really enjoyed Outhipped (Verve 1999) and her live CD and the clips I've seen. Wow, what a talent! She's in a league of her own, I can tell you that. From that story about her and Jimmy Smith, I'm sure Jimmy was intimidated with her opening up the set. With all due respect to him, she's just absolutely amazing. I'm constantly amazed by Hammond players who are good with their feet as well as their hands, and she certainly is.
AAJ: When you were sixteen, you left school and became part of the Capricorn scene in Macon. You ended up touring the country with Alex Taylor for a couple of years. Do you remember some of the musicians you met on the road in those two years? What impact did this experience have on you as a person and as a musician?
CL: It was an incredibly special time for me as an individual and, I think, also for music in general. You're talking about the early '70s. Believe it or not, we played some shows with The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and to hear Jan Hammer was certainly a life changing experience. Later on, Jan did some shows with us in Sea Level and his own band. That was also very special. We played with Ike and Tina Turner, Jefferson Airplane and later with Jefferson Starship when I was with Sea Level. Specific to Alex Taylor, we also opened quite often for the Allman Brothers. As a young musician, it gave me my first experience of seeing a lot of these bands live. Sometimes on a night off we'd go and see other music. I can remember very distinctly being in Boston and going to the Jazz Workshopa famous club there that no longer exitsand seeing Roland Kirk. That was a time of a lot of listening and a lot of absorbing for me.
AAJ: I know that you enjoy music trivia. You worked with someone who worked on Sonny & Cher's early recording sessions. Do you know who that was?
CL: [Long pause] Alright, I give up. Who?
AAJ: Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John). We could do the entire interview just about Macwhat a fascinating character! I remember seeing him in a feather headdress throwing glitter. It was like a voodoo high priest at Mardi Gras.
CL: [Laughs] I might have been in the band! Although he had recorded “Right Place at the Wrong Time,” that was more of a mainstream record than his Gris-Gris stuff. We were doing the Gris-Gris stuff. He insisted we dress up and put the vaseline on our faces and the glitter. Here's another little tidbit for youmy wife Rose Lane, and I met because she was working at Capricorn and I had gotten the job with Dr. John. Mac said [imitating Dr. John], "You know you guys gots ta dress up wid me now." Rose said she could help us with that, so she and her friend sewed a lot of the clothes that we wore.
AAJ: I think I hear some of his influence in your playing.
CL: Oh man, are you kidding? Of course I played mostly Hammond organ and he played piano, but occasionally he would jump on the guitar and I'd get to play the piano. Really what it gave me was an opportunity to observe and listen to his technique. Mac is so amazing because he's got that New Orleans thing, but he's also got another more sophisticated element to him. He's got the Gris-Gris, which is his own invention, I would say, but he's also got more of a jazz side to hima sophisticated knowledge of chords and chordal structuresand I tried to pick up on that as much as I could. When I first heard some of the chord spreads and voicings that he did, I was, like, "What is that?" [Laughs] Not being used to that, it took me a long time, and I would have to beg him, "Mac, don't move your hands. Leave 'em right there and let me see what it is you're doing so I can figure that chord out." As much as I would try by earand I've got a pretty good earthere were some spreads and voicings I couldn't quite sort out.
AAJ: After your tour with Dr. John, you were invited by Johnny Sandlin to do session work on Gregg Allman's first solo album, Laid Back (Capricorn, 1973). These sessions were another crucial moment in your career. As a twenty-year-old, you sounded like a seasoned professional. Your playing was very tasteful and understated, with beautiful flourishes that added so much color and mood. You were very prominently featured. Could you take us into the studio and recall how it unfolded? How were the songs presented to you, how much direction and freedom did Gregg give you, and what surprised you?
CL: Being called in to work on that record was the moment in my career that I had been waiting on for so long. I think everything else up to that point was kind of preparing me to make that record. In terms of how it came together, Johnny Sandlin had befriended me. He was already established as a known producer there, but we were friends as well. I think it was his suggestion to bring me in, as well as Bill Stewart, Charlie Hayward, and some of the others who had been involved. He had obviously had several conversations with Gregg as to what kind of record Gregg wanted to make. He didn't just want to make an Allman Brothers recordhe wanted another set of musicians, another texture and direction. The other guys I would mention would be Scott Boyer and Tommy Talton who both played on that record and had the country rock band Cowboy, so that brought a new element to the mix. We didn't go in with a whole lot of preconceived notions. I think it was more that Johnny cherry-picked the musicians from the area who were available and he had thought it out, of course with Gregg's approval. The material was the other thing of importance. Gregg had some material he thought didn't quite fit the Allmans. He wanted to re-do “Midnight Rider” with a different vibe and there was also some outside material brought inthe Jackson Browne song “These Days,” and some of the material that Scott and Tommy wrote.
As the sessions began, it was really a matter of Johnny having the songs picked out and Gregg having his songs. In some cases there were demos. In some cases there were no demos and it was just a matter of Gregg sitting down at the instrument, whether it was the guitar or the piano, and playing and singing the songs and allowing us to interpret them. Johnny wanted us to interpret them. We didn't have arrangements or charts or anything like that given to us. It was pretty much just, "Here's what Gregg's got. What do you guys think? Should we have a solo here? How about the bridge?" All those things were left open. That was the joy of making that recordas a young musician, being able to make some input. I would say it was one of the first records where I had that kind of input. And the quality of the musicianship was excellent with Bill Stewart and Charlie Hayward. I think all of us were grateful to have been called and given the opportunity to have that experience. It flowed so well and so easily and we all played off of each other and communicated well. I think it came out to be a pretty good record.
AAJ: Also, during these sessions, the rest of the Allman Brothers Band dropped by and there were several lengthly jam sessions. It wasn't intended as an audition, but your playing so impressed them that collectively they decided to ask you to join the band. At this time, you also began recording Brothers and Sisters (Capricorn, 1973). I wish we had the time to explore this album in depth, but I want come back to “Jessica.”
Here's a composition inspired by Django Reinhardt with several key changes, some very interesting transitions and time changes, a guitar, organ and piano playing three-part harmony, and a solo on grand piano. On top of that, it's a seven-and-a-half minute long instrumental. I don't know if it was a hit in terms of charting, but it got, and still gets, lots of radio play.
CL: It did chart and that was a bit of a surprise to all of us. First of all, going back to the recording of it, Dickey had the melody and he had kind of an idea of what he thought the rhythm should be. Again, a lot of it was left up to us. He played it on acoustic guitar to us and we began to say, "Well, where do we go with this?" We experimented with the harmonies and we came up with the three parts between the instruments you mentioned. To my knowledge, nobody had actually done this before, and I thought it made for a very interesting blend. Of course, the Allmans were known for twin guitar leads, and part of their sound was having harmonies between the two guitars and sometimes the Hammond B3. But since things had changed and Duane was gone and I was there, we said, "How do we deal with this? We still want that sound." I said, "Well, hey, give me a harmony part, or let me find a harmony part and I'll play it along with the melody." That worked out and I think that made for a unique-sounding record.
As far as the arrangement, I think that's something we all had a hand in. I made some suggestions, such as the transition from guitar to piano solo, the breakdown prior to the piano solo, the set up for that solo, and so forth. You have to put yourself in my shoes for a minute. I was twenty years oldvery young, very eager. This was such an opportunity for me, and this was a great band. I'd had some great experiences prior to this, but this was really a pretty big step for me. I was trying to find my place in the band, trying to contribute. I think they'd thought, "Chuck's pretty interesting. Let's get him on the record and in the band," but I think they were also looking at me like, "Okay kid, what have you got to say? What are you gonna add to us?" There was a little bit of pressure there, but it was comfortable pressure; I didn't feel uncomfortable at all. It was just exciting to have the opportunity, and everybody cooperated. I have to mention Johnny Sandlin again. I think Johnny was very good about hearing when something interesting was done during the recording of Laid Back (Capricorn, 1973) and Brothers & Sisters (Capricorn, 1973). He was quick to point things out like, "Hey man, that's really workin.' Let's go there and expand on that." Johnny was really very encouraging and a great catalyst for both of those records.
AAJ: I have this image of guys in Nashville back then hearing you and thinking, “That hippie's been listenin' to Floyd Cramer.” Did Floyd Cramer have some influence on your playing?
CL: “Last Date” was a huge record. Going back to what I said earlier about re-reading Ray Charles' book, if I heard a country record I liked, that was great. Certainly, Floyd Cramer was a huge standout, not only because of “Last Date” being a hit, but also because Floyd played on so many records as a sideman. He made records with Chet Atkins and Boots Randolph. Musicians take note of those things. We recognized whether it was the Philadelphia sound, or whether it was Motown and that rhythm section, the funk brothers and all of that, or whether it was Muscle Shoals and the Swampers, as they were known. Or even across the ocean, you looked at Nicky Hopkins and his name popped up on albums, not just the Stones,' and you began to realize there were these little teams of people making these records. Floyd was part of that team up in Nashville that was extremely influential on me and so many others.
AAJ: I'm curious what kind of reaction to songs like “Ramblin Man” and “Jessica” you've received from county musicians and fans over the years.
CL: In the '70s, when we had the Allmans and we were popular and known, we were playing a blend of music that certainly had elements of the South in it. And then that music seemed to somewhat disappear, and I get the question, "Whatever did happen to southern rock?" Well, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers are still around, but my statement would be that it really morphed into country music. Charlie Daniels, who was part of the southern rock sound, certainly has continued and is known in the country realm. I just worked recently with Montgomery Gentry, which is a popular country duo these days, and their music is very much like what we were doing in that era. Of course, it's updated and has other elements in it, but I think it is largely based on that. Or you hear Toby Keith, or many of the current well known country musiciansyou hear a lot of that music in there.
AAJ: So you think that as kids they were probably listening to it and absorbing what you guys were doing?
CL: Absolutely. When I do sessions in Nashville for those artists, inevitably the influence of the Allman Brothers and others comes out in the conversation. Sometimes we even refer to something specific, like, "Hey do you remember the sound on 'Come and Go Blues'?" We use it as a point of reference.
AAJ: The version of “Dreams” on the live Gregg Allman Tour album (Capricorn, 1974) is so different from the original, with you on piano, Tommy Talton on slide guitar, Randall Bramblett on sax, and a great string section. I wondered if you all had played around with “Dreams” during the “Laid Back” studio sessions and it simply didn't make it on the LP. Do you remember how you guys worked up that version?
CL: I think, wisely for Laid Back (Capricorn, 1973), we didn't want to emulate too many of the songs the Allman Brothers were known for, but when it came time to go out and do the tour, it was fair play to look into the Allmans' catalog, especially songs that Gregg was known for and had written. “Dreams” was a perfect choice for that. We had decided to go out and have a string section, and Ed Freeman had written the charts for Laid Back (Capricorn, 1973). We thought, "Wow, what an interesting thing it would be to do that tour and do these nice hallsCarnegie Hall, The Academy of Music, and so forthand make this a very different tour compared to the typical rock tourmake it a bit more sophisticated, have the strings, background vocalists and the horn section, and then put the set together. “Dreams” was a perfect choice for that setting. It was quite different from the Allmans' versions, but it's such a great song, and such a great vehicle to solo over.
AAJ: Because you were the first person to join the original Allman Brothers lineup after Duane, I'm sure Allman Brothers fans would be extremely interested in your impressions of him and his playing. I should mention for readers that you played guitar early in your career, and as a kid in Alabama you actually saw Duane play in his formative period when he was in the Allman Joys. Did you have any inkling that you were watching someone special, and could you share your impressions of the young Duane Allman?
CL: Absolutely, Duane was such a presence, it was undeniable. As a young musician in Tuscaloosa, I'd heard about the Allman Joys; the rumors were flying around about them and the buzz was on. When I first heard them play, which would have been at the Fort Brandon Armory in Tuscaloosa, I was absolutely blown away. Duane had such an aura around him, it was undeniable. He was one of the few musicians or artists where you immediately get it. Almost nobody else was playing slide guitar then. He was kind of the only guy, though I suppose he could have heard it from Ry Cooder. It was such a unique sound to hear someone playing electric slide guitar the way Duane played it. Also, there was a particular outboard unit called a fuzz face, and while distorted guitar was known from a lot of guitar players, Duane put two or three fuzz faces up in parallel to make an amazing sound from his guitar. They were also doing unique arrangements of other materialI remember they did a psychedelic version of “Satisfaction” that absolutely blew me out of the water. But the answer to the question is that everybody saw the glow that Duane had and the stage presence that he had, and the unique musicianship he was known for. Certainly, any time they came back in town, I wanted to see them.
And as they morphed into their next band, which was the Hour Glass, I had a chance to see them and that was another change. Again, that's going back to one of the first rock bands I'd seen with a Hammond and a piano. Paul Hornsby was playing piano and Gregg was playing Hammond, and sometimes they would switch around, and that added another dimension to their sound.
Duane became quite a desirable entity for artists to have on their records during the late '60s and early '70sfrom his work with Wilson Pickett on “Hey Jude” or his work with Aretha Franklin, to any of the records he made at Muscle Shoals and elsewhere. So, yes, I was very familiar with Duane's work and I think he was a hero of many of us from the South. Duane was an inventive musician who rose above the rest. We admired him. He was a leader, not only for the Allman Brothers Band, but to all of us in other bands. We all looked up to Duane and his loss was tragic for all of us. Everybody in town and people throughout the South mourned his death; it was such a heavy blow. He had really put us on the map. It was tragic, but I thought it was a gutsy thing for the Allmans to go out as a five piece band after Duane's death. I can remember distinctly there were so many rumors floating around about who was going to replace himlocal guys, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton.
AAJ: It was during the very sad period after the loss of Duane that, all of a sudden, Herbie Mann's Push Push (Atlantic, 1971) featuring Duane was released. Do you remember the first time you heard it?
CL: Many of the musicians from other bands didn't know Herbie Mann's name, but I did. When it was known that Duane was working with Herbie Mann, we thought, "Whoa, he really is stretching out here." And when we heard the record, it was so cool! It was a breakthrough record.
AAJ: In your book you mention Clapton talking about Duane's talent, but it was in the context of him asking, “Why are people so hung up on my guitar playing?” Do you remember ever talking with Eric about Duane or the Allman Brothers in general?
CL: Yes, we did talk about it and some other kinds of crossover issues. One of the things I remember was that they were making the Derek and the Dominos album and the Allmans were playing a show in Miami and someone suggested that they go hear them. Eric was totally blown away by Duane and the band, and he wanted to recruit Duane to play on the album, which he did. They went through the sessions and we all know they were magical. Eric said that Duane lifted the sessions to a whole new place and they were just following fate reallyall they knew was that it was unique and sounded good, and they wanted to do it. Of course you have to give credit to the recording engineer, Tom Dowd.
What Eric told me was that after that, when he'd made the record and gone out to do some dates, he wanted to get Duane to play on some dates with him. He said that, oddly enough, it didn't translate as well live as it did on the record. He said he didn't know whymaybe it was his fault, or maybe they didn't have enough time to really work it out, but when they tried it live it was just too much. It just didn't come together as well as it did on the record.
I found that to be an interesting statement, and I can remember very well that there were all kinds of rumors about Duane leaving the Allman Brothers to play with Derek and the Dominos because the record had been a huge success. First of all, I know that Duane would have never left the Allmans. His heart was there and that's what he wanted to do, but Duane was certainly interested in experimenting and trying different things. If things had been different and it had worked with Derek and the Dominos, I think he would have triedmuch like Warren Haynes does nowto work in both worlds, but Eric put it to me that it really didn't work out as well as they thought it would, so they carried on separately.
AAJ: You've talked often in interviews about Unplugged (Reprise, 1992) so I thought I'd ask you about the Montreux Jazz Festival when Eric Clapton had you trading off the lead vocal with him on “White Room.” That song is no easy task for an occasional singer. Was that a pretty heady experience for you?
CL: Greg Phillinganes used to sing those parts. When we went into the rehearsals beyond the Unplugged experience and into the normal touring and Greg was no longer there, Eric said, "Well, who's going to sing those parts?" I looked around and I kind of put my hand up and I said, "Well, I'll give it a go." And he said, "Let's hear it." So we went into “White Room” and got to the bits and I sang it, and Eric said, "You've passed the audition." I felt good about that.
AAJ: I know you don't experience stage fright, but did you have any misgivings about singing in front of that kind of crowd?
CL: Well it was such an opportunity wasn't it? I wanted to do it well and make Eric feel comfortable and good about it. Hopefully I did, but you'd have to ask him that. [Laughs] I certainly enjoyed it.
AAJ: Moving on to Sea Level, apart from the funkier side, in some ways it seems that band's output was the natural progression of this early Allman Brothers blend of music, fusing its feel and energy with a bit more of the sophistication of jazz. Looking around today, it almost seems like Sea Level was years ahead of the curve. Due to death and illness, a complete reunion isn't possible, but have you and Randall Bramblett ever considered putting together a Sea Level tour?
CL: My feeling is that it's really looking over your shoulder to do that. Many members of the band have passed on and Jimmy Nalls has debilitating health issues. I did work with Randall on Southscape (Evergreen Arts, 2005) and I have a show coming up where I'll be using his band to back me up, and we'll certainly be doing some Sea Level material. At the bottom line, my feeling is that it's done, it was what it was, and we had a good time with it. Rather than trying to revive something that I think has already run its course, if I were going to do something with Randall, I would be reluctant to call it Sea Level. I'd rather it be something new and fresh.
In terms of your comment on the music, I really have to credit Jaimoe for the direction of the band. When I joined the Allmans I spent a lot of time with Jaimoe. We had that little trio with Lamar, and we hung out a lot at Jai's house. He was just so great about listening to all kinds of music. He turned us on to everybody from Miles Davis to Cannonball Adderley, Chic Corea, all of that stuff, so I have to credit him in a large part for the direction of the music.
AAJ: You've worked closely with so many excellent composers: Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and another one who is not as well-known, but is nevertheless extremely talentedyour friend and Sea Level band mate Randall Bramblett. His “Living in a Dream,” “King Grand” and “That's Your Secret” are classics. He's great, don't you think?
CL: He's unfortunately one of the best-kept secrets of the South, in my opinion, and I say unfortunately because I do not understand why he's not a household name. I think he's such a great song writer, singer, performer, keyboard player and saxophonist. While Randall's had some successBonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton and some others recorded some of his materialhe has hundreds of songs that I think so many other great artists could or should do. Randall's made great great records in recent times. Why they haven't made it to the charts is just a mystery to me. He's about to release a new record next month that I've already heard, and he continues to amaze me. In my opinion, I think he's probably the best Southern singer/songwriter we have.
AAJ: Speaking of him, I keep hoping that Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi will cover “That's Your Secret” and introduce it to a new generation. It's such a timeless song, with clever lyrics, fantastic vocal hooks and space to really break out instrumentally.
CL: Absolutely. You may not know this about Randall, but he's got a dual degree in religion and psychology. I think a lot of his lyrics are so great because they probe the mystery of life, and Randall comes to that honestly because of his interest in those subjects. Randall wants to help people and he wants to help people with his music. He worked as a social worker counseling people who are going through tough times. He's done a study of Carl Jung and even wrote songs about him on his early solo records. He follows these great philosophers and great thinkers and their search for the mystery of the ages.
AAJ: Speaking of Derek Trucks, you both started out extremely young, worked with Alex Taylor, and joined the Allman Brothers when you were twenty. You each joined during turbulent timesyou after the death of Duane and Derek just before the departure of Dickeyand you both helped to turn the band around. Also, both of you were tapped by Clapton for a tour. Do you see him as a bit of a kindred spirit?
CL: For sure. I've admired Derek throughout his young career, but one thing you may not know is that I cut the first demos of Derek as producer. I recruited Jimmy Hall. I think Derek was either twelve or thirteen at the time, and he was being managed my Bunky Odom, who was someone who had actually worked at Capricorn in the days when I was with the Allmans. Bunky came to me and he said, "Listen, there's this young kidhe's Butch's nephew and he's just an amazing guitarist and slide player and I'd really like to get something down on tape with him. Would you help?" So I said, "Of course," and I recruited Jimmy Hall to sing because Derek didn't sing. We cut maybe five tracks or so. I think we were ahead of the curve. It did not result in a record deal for Derek. I think people listened to those recordings and said, "Wow, amazing, but what do we do with it?" I don't think they could quite put together how to market Derek. And time went on and I think it was good that he was able to mature at his own pace. I'm just so proud of his work. No doubt, Derek will be an influence for a long time.
AAJ: Would you consider hooking up with the Allman Brothers in a more official capacity during their Beacon runs or summer tours?
CL: Well, sure. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Allman Brothers and there's already been some discussion about special shows that may take place. I don't know what scheduling may come up concerning the Stones or other possibilities, but certainly I'd like to leave some time to help celebrate their 40th anniversary. Having been part of the band and maintaining a strong relationship, I think it would be tragic if I didn't engage in some way, shape or form.
l:r: Jaimoe, Chuck Leavell, Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks
AAJ: And they probably all agree that on certain songs, without you it's just not the Allman Brothers.
CL: Well I would love to and I look forward to it. I think it will happen. I'm kind of waiting to see what schedules they come up with and what openings exist for me to engage.
AAJ: You friend Dave Edmunds put you on stage with Ray Charles, B.B. King and several of your other heroes. Could you share a bit about that experience?
CL: How grateful am I to have worked with Dave! Dave was great to me. He brought me into so many interesting projectsthe Fabulous Thunderbirds who I wound up spending a couple of years with, those Legends of Rock shows that included Ray and those others, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and James Brown. And we did another show in Spainit was Legends of the Guitar, and we backed up B.B. King and Steve Cropper. So Dave was responsible for introducing me to a myriad of artists and musicians and I will be eternally grateful to him for that.
Dave is such a great artist himself, and we had fun together, whether I think back to recording sessions or the live shows we did. There was lots of laughing and a great light-hearted feeling. And I'll tell you something very interesting about DaveI think we were recording his record, Closer to the Flame (Capitol Records, 1990), and I walked into the studio one day and he was on the Hammond playing “Green Onions”! He got to the solo and played it perfectly, note-for-note. A Booker T solo! Man, it blew me out of the water because I'd never learned it note-for-note like that. I said, "Edmunds, you rascal, if you know it you've got to show it to me!" So he showed me the note-for-note solo of Booker T on “Green Onions.”
AAJ: I'm a big fan of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz program on NPR (National Public Radio). She's an amazing musician and conversationalist. She brought out the best in you musically for the show. Your version of “Georgia on My Mind” and Hank Williams' “I'm so Lonesome I could Cry” were really impressive. You sounded like you really enjoyed yourself. Could you share a bit about that experience?
CL: Well, first of all, for me to be on her show came as a suggestion from Greg Hughey, a friend of mine in Alabama. He actually wrote her a letter and then followed up with a phone call. Greg sent me an email with an MP3 attachment one day and said, "I want you to listen to this." It was a message from Marian McPartland on his answering machine saying, "I would love to have Chuck on the show, but how in the hell will I ever find him? He's always on tour." It just blew my mind that she would call back and say that she would love to have me. I couldn't believe she wanted a rock guy on her jazz show. I was so grateful, so I immediately followed up and we made it work with the scheduling. She was so gracious and wonderful and wanted to bring out the best in me. Quite frankly, I was intimidated to go on that show. I mean, here you have a jazz icon, Marian, who is such an incredible player with perfect pitch, and she hears around corners. But she went out of her way to make sure I was comfortable playing whatever I felt would be appropriate for the show. She was so encouraging and it was such a wonderful experience that when we finished the next day I sent her a dozen roses to her house. She was marvelous and that show has been re-run a number of times and I've got lots of nice comments.
AAJ: I wanted to mention that I thought the last chapter of your book What I Think You Should Hear was a great ideabasically four pages of music and musicians you recommend. You are a great admirer of Keith Jarrett. Have you ever had a chance to see him live or to meet him?
CL: No, but I love his music so much! To me, he's so courageous as a playerfor someone to be a prodigy and go through the classical repertoire at such a young age and then to delve into jazz and, against his own judgment, to play the Fender Rhodes because Miles was such an influence and Miles asked him to do that. And his courage on his solo performancesto go out there with a blank mind and start playing and invent music on the spot. I find him the most phenomenal musician I can think of. I revere him so highly, I just can't tell you! I must have nearly everything he's done, although he's so prolific I'm sure there must be one or two I've overlooked. I absolutely adore his music and his talent is so off the charts to me.
When you talk about musicians through the ageswhether it's Beethoven, or technical players like Chopin, Mozart, Art Tatum and Oscar PetersonI don't think you can mention any of those guys without mentioning Keith Jarrett. I just think he's that phenomenal and will stand through the eons of time to be one of the most amazing musicians ever.
AAJ: I thought Martin Scorsese did a fine job on the film Shine a Light. During the opening black-and-white scenes you are seen in your central role as musical navigator, but during the on-stage portion you only see Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie and the background singers. Why was that? Did the camera for the keyboards malfunction?
CL: Every film done on the Rolling Stones is ninety percent Mick Jagger. That's just the way they operate, and you know that going in. We all knew that there would be little of us on screen other than what incidental things might come up. You'd love to have more camera time, and I was pleased they did a remix. I'll give you a story on this. After the first cut, Scorsese and his team came to Rome when we were touring, and we rented a theater and went in and watched it. I'm sure all of us, myself included, were disappointed in some aspects of it. It's so much the principals, especially Mick, and very little of anything else in terms of the camera, and also the mix. It's like the rest of us just don't exist.
Chuck Leavell (second from right) with The Rolling Stones
And so I went to Mick and I said, "Listen, you haven't asked me, but here's my comments on the film and on the audio mix." I literally typed it out in a four page letter to him. All the comments were specific, from this song to that song, the camera angles, and especially the audio mix. I don't know whether it made any difference or not, but I can tell you that I was pleased that in the final cut at least the audio mix was much better balanced that what we heard in Rome, and I feel pretty good about that. As for the camera thing, it's like I saidevery film they've ever done has been that way. I think it's unfortunate because there's so much more to the Rolling Stones. It's not just mehow many shots of Bobby Keys do you see in that film, and how many shots of the horn players? They may get a total of three seconds of camera time in a two hour film.
AAJ: I think serious Stones fans were probably a little bit disappointed.
CL: I think it is so much deeper and more interesting than that but, you know, that's their way.
AAJ: I know Keith has said that the Stones are a guitar band. It's also a major musical enterprise with a fan base that has pretty clear expectations that must be respected when performing. I'm curious, though, when you guys are off somewhere rehearsing with no audience to please and egos more or less in check, are there times when they aren't the “Stones” and you all are simply musicians jamming the blues and relating to each other like you did when you were a kid back in Alabama?
CL: Oh, sure there are. Man, that goes on all the time, and I think there are also documented eventslisten to “Losing My Touch” on Forty Licks (Virgin, 2002). That's very unlike the Stones and very Keith like and it certainly gives me some good space to play. And when you listen to the Stripped (Virgin, 1995) record, that's another example of when they take the focus a little bit down from the principals and you hear a little more of a band sound, and even on Shine a Light (Interscope, 2008), when you listen to the audio soundtrack you can hear us there. Yeah, those moments happen.
But Mick has a certain concept of who the Rolling Stones are and who they aren't. And he sticks very close to that and he's never gonna change it, and it's always gonna be about him and Keith. Ronnie Wood has had some difficult times of late, and I saw something in the press recently where Mick said, "You know, we're going to tour with or without him." I understand that, but that gives you a little insight into who Mick thinks the Rolling Stones are and what he thinks the Rolling Stones are. And he's certainly not afraid to let people know that and make it clear that the Rolling Stones are basically Mick and Keith. They would say Charlie, and I would say Charlie too. But they have a commercial entity that, at least at the present moment, has four principal members, and that's what they want to keep things focused on.
>AAJ: One can understand why they wouldn't want to tamper with that kind of success. But the interesting thing, Chuck, is that you've had the contrast. Keith said they are a guitar band, and the Allman Brothers were the ultimate guitar band, but they heard your chops and they asked you to join the band and they turned their sound around for you, so you've seen every side. You've been with the most successful rock band of all time, but considering what the Allman Brothers Band did, I think that's also a huge compliment to your talent.
CL: Well, I appreciate that and you're right, and of course that was a completely different situation. And sometimes, quite frankly, I do lament the fact that I've not been able to have that type of influence with my role in the Stones. There are plenty of recordings laying around, and there are moments and there are also complete songs that were done and never released where I have a more prominent role. I would have loved to have had a stronger influence on the band musically, but it's their show and they're going to run it the way they choose.
AAJ: Another thing in your autobiography that particularly moved me was your friendship with George Harrison. I know by the time you met George you had already met plenty of rock superstars. Still, it had to be completely surreal as you were walking alone with him around the grounds of his estate?
CL: It was! My first band while growing up, the Misfitz, played British invasion. The Beatles were at the top of the list in that regard. Everybody had their favorite Beatle and George was mine without a doubt. I just liked that he was the odd one, he was mysterious, and he was the underdog. I think I had a similar feeling in my musical situations as he must have had with the Beatles. I would learn his guitar partsI would take those 33 1/3 rpms and slow them down to 16 rpm. I loved his songsthe few of them that made it on to the Beatles records. When the Beatles broke up and he put out All Things Must Pass (Apple, 1970) it was like an explosion of music which I thought was brilliant.
But let me get beyond the artist and talk about the person. He was one of the best human beings I've ever met or known in my life. You felt that immediately when you first looked him in the eye and shook his hand. He was a great humanitarian who cared about people and cared about making the world a better place and wrote songs about it. He was also very comfortable to be around. He had a great sense of humor and one of the most wonderful chuckles I've ever heard in my life. When you heard George laugh or saw that smile on his face, it was a glow. It was a very special thing and I'll always be grateful for not only playing for him, but having known a guy like that.
AAJ: Readers should also know that beyond music you have a parallel career in the environmental field. You lecture, write books, and own Charlane plantation. From your book, I know that this is where your heart is. Could you share what your life is like there when you're not touring or in the studio?
CL: Sure, well it's a hundred eighty degrees from touring, recording and the lifestyle of a musician. As you know, I am very passionate about it. First of all, it was a responsibility handed down to us by Rose Lane's grandmother, and because her family has such a heritage of stewardship of the land, I wanted to make sure that I did the right thing in carrying that heritage forward. When we inherited the first part of the property, I knew very little about these things and I went through a process of educating myself. But once I did begin to gain some knowledge, I also gained passion for it. I realized for the first time not only how important forestry and trees are to all of us, but the big picturethe environment. Of course, we all know what we've been doing to our planet, and we face some very difficult choices and challenges, but I'm an optimist. I do believe that finally at this juncture people are waking uppeople are making changes in their lifestyles.
I think you'll see more alternative energy coming into the picturewind power, solar power, electric automobiles and so forth. I think one big change that we are seeing now that will make a huge difference is entrepreneurs and people of wealth putting money into these things. It's going to take a real investment in capital and a real investment in personal commitment. But I'm seeing that now for the first time and I think now we've finally turned the corner. It's not easy and there are a lot of things to grapple with. It certainly isn't going to change overnight. I believe passionately in these things, and if we don't make the changes, I fear we face destruction. But I don't think it's going to come to that.
I'm going to continue to try and make the difference I can make. I'm working on a new book on growth issues. I think that's a big issue we need to look atwe've got over six billion people on the planet and the population is going to continue to grow. So if we are going to grow, we have to be smart about it.
I will tell you one other thing that I'm happy and excited aboutwe're launching a new website around October with some partners. It will be called Mother Nature Network: mnn.com or mothernaturenetwork.com.
The purpose of the website is to give real answers to these environmental questions to the mainstream population. What we've found in our research is that the sites already in existence are often too scientific and difficult to understand or they are too shallow. In some cases there are so many advertisements that it looks like a Nascar jacket and you can't really get past that to the meat of the information. So we are building a very clean site with useful and easy-to-understand information that can be easily accessed. I believe strongly that people want this and are looking for answers. The Internet is the most powerful place for information that we have now, and it's growing all the time, so it's the logical place to reach people.
AAJ: There's so much we can't cover in one interview, but thankfully you've also written an autobiography that goes so much deeper that we were able to go today. But one final question, imagine your dream band for one nighta septet with you and six musicians who are no longer with us. Which musicians would you pick?
CL: Elvin Jones, drums;
Jaco Pastorius, bass;
Joe Zawinul, synths;
Wes Montgomery, guitar;
Charlie Parker, sax;
Louis Armstrong, trumpet.
Zawinul and Pastorius played beautifully together, in my opinion. They, along with me, would represent the more modern era, although I certainly don't feel worthy here. The rest are obvious choices, often referred to as the “all time best” on their respective instruments. But I’d be interested to hear what marrying the earlier era with the latter might sound like. Of course I’d personally be scared to death!
Chuck Leavell, Live in Germany: Green Leaves and Blue Notes Tour 2007 (Evergreen Arts, 2008)
Chuck Leavell, Southscape (Evergreen Arts, 2005)
Chuck Leavell, Forever Blue (Evergreen Arts, 2001)
Chuck Leavell, What's in the Bag? (Evergreen Arts, 1998)
Sea Level, Best of Sea Level (Capricorn, 1997)
Sea Level, Ball Room (Capricorn, 1980)
Sea Level, Long Walk on a Short Pier (Capricorn, 1979)
Sea Level, On the Edge (Capricorn, 1978)
Sea Level, Cats on the Coast (Capricorn, 1978)
Sea Level, Sea Level (Capricorn, 1977)
Rolling Stones, Stripped (Virgin, 1995)
Rolling Stones, Voodoo Lounge (Virgin, 1994)
Rolling Stones, Steel Wheels (Virgin, 1989)
Keith Richards, Talk is Cheap (Virgin, 1988)
Mick Jagger, She's the Boss (Columbia, 1985)
Indigo Girls, Swamp Ophelia (Epic, 1994)
The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Hot Number (Epic, 1987)
The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Tuff Enuff (CBS Associated Records, 1986)
Eric Clapton, Unplugged (Reprise, 1992)
Eric Clapton, 24 Nights (Duck Records, 1991)
Larry Carlton, Renegade Gentleman (GRP, 1993)
The Black Crowes, Shake Your Money Maker (Def American, 1990)
Dickey Betts, Highway Call (Capricorn, 1974)
Allman Brothers Band, Wipe The Windows, Check The Oil, Dollar Gas (Capricorn, 1976)
Allman Brothers Band, Win, Lose, or Draw (Capricorn, 1975)
Allman Brothers Band, Brothers and Sisters (Capricorn, 1973)
Gregg Allman, Laid Back (Capricorn, 1973)