Chuck Leavell: The Magic of Finger Painting

Alan Bryson By

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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 Workshop—a famous club there that no longer exits—and 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 Mac—what 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 you—my 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 him—a sophisticated knowledge of chords and chordal structures—and 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 ear—and I've got a pretty good ear—there 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 record—he 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 in—the 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 record—as 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 old—very 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 musicians—you 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 halls—Carnegie Hall, The Academy of Music, and so forth—and make this a very different tour compared to the typical rock tour—make 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.




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