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Chuck Leavell: The Magic of Finger Painting

Alan Bryson By

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...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 pianists—a 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 venues—a man who had seen the best of the best—chose 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 Plantation—a 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).

Chapter Index

  1. Introduction to Music
  2. Instruments, Studios and Venues
  3. Solo Recordings
  4. Music Made In Germany
  5. Macon Music and Dr John, Allman Brothers, Sea Level
  6. Duane Allman, Eric Clapton
  7. Sea Level Reunion
  8. Randall Bramblett
  9. Derek Trucks &Amp; Allman Brothers 40th
  10. Dave Edmunds
  11. NPR Piano Jazz
  12. Keith Jarrett
  13. Rolling Stones
  14. George Harrison
  15. The Environment
  16. Dream Band

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