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Chuck Leavell: The Magic of Finger Painting

Alan Bryson By

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Duane Allman, Eric Clapton

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 material—I 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 '70s—from 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 him—local 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 really—all 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 why—maybe 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 tried—much like Warren Haynes does now—to 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.

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Sea Level Reunion

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.

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Randall Bramblett

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 talented—your 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 success—Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton and some others recorded some of his material—he 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.

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