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Talkin' Blues

Talkin' Blues with Chuck Leavell

By Published: May 1, 2012
AAJ: What I also find impressive about him is his choice of musicians for his albums and tours. He uses his fame wisely in that respect. When you two met, did he tell you how he was acquainted with your work?

CL: Well, you know, he reminded me of something I had forgotten or, better said, hadn't fully appreciated. John lived in Atlanta for a time after he left Berklee School of Music. He had been working up in Boston with Clay Cook, who is from Atlanta. So they decided to move to Atlanta and start their careers.

So during that time period, I got a call from Clay, and he said they had a song and asked if I would play on it, and I said sure. So he sent me the tape. I think it was back in the days of ADAT and that type of recording. So I overdubbed it and never actually saw them, and John told me, "That was me, man!"

And I said, "You gotta be kiddin'! That was you?"

He said, "Yeah, that was me and my partner."

I couldn't believe it. I said, "Well I'll be dogged. I remember doin' it, but had no idea it was you."

So it was very ironic to have it work out that way. During the tour with the Stones, I remember him as always being very gracious, and just tearing it up on stage.

AAJ: That's a shame that you guys had to cancel the tour, given the situation. do you know if he's considering recording and touring as an instrumentalist? I'll tell you the reason I ask. When I spoke with John Scofield
John Scofield
John Scofield
, he said John Mayer was a "very, very good blues guitarist." I suspect he could pull off a great instrumental show if he had the inclination. Have you guys talked about that?

CL: We had four days of rehearsals in Los Angeles, and he had this problem and saw his doctor. On the fifth day, we had this meeting, and I think John was so down in the dumps about it at that point, that he chose not to come personally to talk to the band. He sent Ken Healey, his right-hand man, instead. Ken explained that John was just too down to come personally and would get very emotional, but he conveyed John's apologies and everything.

Anyway, I wrote a hand-written letter to John with, hopefully, words of encouragement, and I made that very suggestion. I wrote something like, "Man your chops are so amazing, and I know there's certainly a lot of things you could do, but I think an instrumental album would certainly be an interesting tack to take." So I don't know if he's going to do that or not, but I did suggest it to him.

AAJ: Let me put an Amen to that! That would be something to get excited about. Of course, I should also mention that Keith Richards guests on a couple of tracks on your new CD. I'm halfway through his autobiography, and what I particularly liked was his extensive explanation of his five-string, open-tuning approach to guitar. Maybe that explains his swampy sound, which is on full display on the Otis Spann song "Boots and Shoes."

CL: Right. Keith does the intro and most of the fills, and then he does the first solo, and the second solo is John. That made it very special for me to have them both at the same time. But, yeah, he did that swampy thing, but that wasn't a five string, that was a regular six-string guitar.

I've read his book, too, and it's so well written and so honest. I enjoyed that story about the five string, too. I think it was Ry Cooder who got him into it, but he really made it his own.

AAJ: I was curious, were there any big surprises or light-bulb moments for you when you read his book?

CL: I knew all the history, but what was interesting to me was the very early stuff. I think it was his uncle Gus who played the guitar, and of course I loved the description of when they basically went to audition for Ian Stewart—he'd put the ad in the paper. And to take it from there, and the goal being to be the best blues band in London, and then England. I loved all of that, and I thought it was all so interesting. It shows truly where the roots of the band lie, and to hear it from Keith was very special.

The other stuff that happened—most of it is information I knew quite well. I guess one surprise is that we all knew that Keith battled heroin addiction, but his graphic descriptions of what he was going through was moving. And the fact that he went cold turkey while Anita was still struggling and didn't want to go through it at the time he did—that had to be a lot of pressure, and it was a hell of a decision. It shows the fortitude that Keith has.

AAJ: This year marks the Stones' 50th anniversary, and there's been a lot of speculation about a tour. Because you signed on for John Mayer's tour, I had assumed you hadn't been planning on touring with them. Is there anything on this subject you're at liberty to divulge?

CL: No, there's no word about it. It was kind of interesting. In Rolling Stone magazine, Keith said, "Well, Charlie Watts didn't really join the band until 1963, so 1962 was the conception, but 1963 was the birth." I thought that was pretty clever, and it could be a hint, but I don't have any personal information about it. But it could be that the guys are thinking about doing it next year.

We'll see, but you're right. I had this opportunity with John, and I hadn't heard anything from the guys, and it's a pretty big machine, and it takes quite a bit of time to crank it up. So I went under the assumption that there would not be anything to interfere with what I was doing with John.

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