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). Chapter Index
Introduction to Music All About Jazz:
- 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
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. 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 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.
class="f-right"> 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 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.
class="f-right"> Music Made in Germany 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
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.
class="f-right"> Macon Music and Dr John, Allman Brothers, Sea Level 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.