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.


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.


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.


Derek Trucks and Allman Brothers 40th

AAJ: Speaking of Derek Trucks, you both started out extremely young, worked with Alex Taylor, and joined the Allman Brothers when you were twenty. You each joined during turbulent times—you after the death of Duane and Derek just before the departure of Dickey—and you both helped to turn the band around. Also, both of you were tapped by Clapton for a tour. Do you see him as a bit of a kindred spirit?

CL: For sure. I've admired Derek throughout his young career, but one thing you may not know is that I cut the first demos of Derek as producer. I recruited Jimmy Hall. I think Derek was either twelve or thirteen at the time, and he was being managed my Bunky Odom, who was someone who had actually worked at Capricorn in the days when I was with the Allmans. Bunky came to me and he said, "Listen, there's this young kid—he's Butch's nephew and he's just an amazing guitarist and slide player and I'd really like to get something down on tape with him. Would you help?" So I said, "Of course," and I recruited Jimmy Hall to sing because Derek didn't sing. We cut maybe five tracks or so. I think we were ahead of the curve. It did not result in a record deal for Derek. I think people listened to those recordings and said, "Wow, amazing, but what do we do with it?" I don't think they could quite put together how to market Derek. And time went on and I think it was good that he was able to mature at his own pace. I'm just so proud of his work. No doubt, Derek will be an influence for a long time.

AAJ: Would you consider hooking up with the Allman Brothers in a more official capacity during their Beacon runs or summer tours?

CL: Well, sure. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Allman Brothers and there's already been some discussion about special shows that may take place. I don't know what scheduling may come up concerning the Stones or other possibilities, but certainly I'd like to leave some time to help celebrate their 40th anniversary. Having been part of the band and maintaining a strong relationship, I think it would be tragic if I didn't engage in some way, shape or form.

l:r: Jaimoe, Chuck Leavell, Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks

AAJ: And they probably all agree that on certain songs, without you it's just not the Allman Brothers.

CL: Well I would love to and I look forward to it. I think it will happen. I'm kind of waiting to see what schedules they come up with and what openings exist for me to engage.


Dave Edmunds

AAJ: You friend Dave Edmunds put you on stage with Ray Charles, B.B. King and several of your other heroes. Could you share a bit about that experience?

CL: How grateful am I to have worked with Dave! Dave was great to me. He brought me into so many interesting projects—the Fabulous Thunderbirds who I wound up spending a couple of years with, those Legends of Rock shows that included Ray and those others, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and James Brown. And we did another show in Spain—it was Legends of the Guitar, and we backed up B.B. King and Steve Cropper. So Dave was responsible for introducing me to a myriad of artists and musicians and I will be eternally grateful to him for that.

Dave is such a great artist himself, and we had fun together, whether I think back to recording sessions or the live shows we did. There was lots of laughing and a great light-hearted feeling. And I'll tell you something very interesting about Dave—I think we were recording his record, Closer to the Flame (Capitol Records, 1990), and I walked into the studio one day and he was on the Hammond playing "Green Onions"! He got to the solo and played it perfectly, note-for-note. A Booker T solo! Man, it blew me out of the water because I'd never learned it note-for-note like that. I said, "Edmunds, you rascal, if you know it you've got to show it to me!" So he showed me the note-for-note solo of Booker T on "Green Onions."


NPR Piano Jazz

AAJ: I'm a big fan of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz program on NPR (National Public Radio). She's an amazing musician and conversationalist. She brought out the best in you musically for the show. Your version of "Georgia on My Mind" and Hank Williams' "I'm so Lonesome I could Cry" were really impressive. You sounded like you really enjoyed yourself. Could you share a bit about that experience?

CL: Well, first of all, for me to be on her show came as a suggestion from Greg Hughey, a friend of mine in Alabama. He actually wrote her a letter and then followed up with a phone call. Greg sent me an email with an MP3 attachment one day and said, "I want you to listen to this." It was a message from Marian McPartland on his answering machine saying, "I would love to have Chuck on the show, but how in the hell will I ever find him? He's always on tour." It just blew my mind that she would call back and say that she would love to have me. I couldn't believe she wanted a rock guy on her jazz show. I was so grateful, so I immediately followed up and we made it work with the scheduling. She was so gracious and wonderful and wanted to bring out the best in me. Quite frankly, I was intimidated to go on that show. I mean, here you have a jazz icon, Marian, who is such an incredible player with perfect pitch, and she hears around corners. But she went out of her way to make sure I was comfortable playing whatever I felt would be appropriate for the show. She was so encouraging and it was such a wonderful experience that when we finished the next day I sent her a dozen roses to her house. She was marvelous and that show has been re-run a number of times and I've got lots of nice comments.


Keith Jarrett

AAJ: I wanted to mention that I thought the last chapter of your book What I Think You Should Hear was a great idea—basically four pages of music and musicians you recommend. You are a great admirer of Keith Jarrett. Have you ever had a chance to see him live or to meet him?

CL: No, but I love his music so much! To me, he's so courageous as a player—for someone to be a prodigy and go through the classical repertoire at such a young age and then to delve into jazz and, against his own judgment, to play the Fender Rhodes because Miles was such an influence and Miles asked him to do that. And his courage on his solo performances—to go out there with a blank mind and start playing and invent music on the spot. I find him the most phenomenal musician I can think of. I revere him so highly, I just can't tell you! I must have nearly everything he's done, although he's so prolific I'm sure there must be one or two I've overlooked. I absolutely adore his music and his talent is so off the charts to me.

When you talk about musicians through the ages—whether it's Beethoven, or technical players like Chopin, Mozart, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson—I don't think you can mention any of those guys without mentioning Keith Jarrett. I just think he's that phenomenal and will stand through the eons of time to be one of the most amazing musicians ever.


Rolling Stones

AAJ: I thought Martin Scorsese did a fine job on the film Shine a Light. During the opening black-and-white scenes you are seen in your central role as musical navigator, but during the on-stage portion you only see Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie and the background singers. Why was that? Did the camera for the keyboards malfunction?

CL: Every film done on the Rolling Stones is ninety percent Mick Jagger. That's just the way they operate, and you know that going in. We all knew that there would be little of us on screen other than what incidental things might come up. You'd love to have more camera time, and I was pleased they did a remix. I'll give you a story on this. After the first cut, Scorsese and his team came to Rome when we were touring, and we rented a theater and went in and watched it. I'm sure all of us, myself included, were disappointed in some aspects of it. It's so much the principals, especially Mick, and very little of anything else in terms of the camera, and also the mix. It's like the rest of us just don't exist.

And so I went to Mick and I said, "Listen, you haven't asked me, but here's my comments on the film and on the audio mix." I literally typed it out in a four page letter to him. All the comments were specific, from this song to that song, the camera angles, and especially the audio mix. I don't know whether it made any difference or not, but I can tell you that I was pleased that in the final cut at least the audio mix was much better balanced that what we heard in Rome, and I feel pretty good about that. As for the camera thing, it's like I said—every film they've ever done has been that way. I think it's unfortunate because there's so much more to the Rolling Stones. It's not just me—how many shots of Bobby Keys do you see in that film, and how many shots of the horn players? They may get a total of three seconds of camera time in a two hour film.

AAJ: I think serious Stones fans were probably a little bit disappointed.

CL: I think it is so much deeper and more interesting than that but, you know, that's their way.

AAJ: I know Keith has said that the Stones are a guitar band. It's also a major musical enterprise with a fan base that has pretty clear expectations that must be respected when performing. I'm curious, though, when you guys are off somewhere rehearsing with no audience to please and egos more or less in check, are there times when they aren't the "Stones" and you all are simply musicians jamming the blues and relating to each other like you did when you were a kid back in Alabama?

CL: Oh, sure there are. Man, that goes on all the time, and I think there are also documented events—listen to "Losing My Touch" on Forty Licks (Virgin, 2002). That's very unlike the Stones and very Keith like and it certainly gives me some good space to play. And when you listen to the Stripped (Virgin, 1995) record, that's another example of when they take the focus a little bit down from the principals and you hear a little more of a band sound, and even on Shine a Light (Interscope, 2008), when you listen to the audio soundtrack you can hear us there. Yeah, those moments happen.

But Mick has a certain concept of who the Rolling Stones are and who they aren't. And he sticks very close to that and he's never gonna change it, and it's always gonna be about him and Keith. Ronnie Wood has had some difficult times of late, and I saw something in the press recently where Mick said, "You know, we're going to tour with or without him." I understand that, but that gives you a little insight into who Mick thinks the Rolling Stones are and what he thinks the Rolling Stones are. And he's certainly not afraid to let people know that and make it clear that the Rolling Stones are basically Mick and Keith. They would say Charlie, and I would say Charlie too. But they have a commercial entity that, at least at the present moment, has four principal members, and that's what they want to keep things focused on.

>AAJ: One can understand why they wouldn't want to tamper with that kind of success. But the interesting thing, Chuck, is that you've had the contrast. Keith said they are a guitar band, and the Allman Brothers were the ultimate guitar band, but they heard your chops and they asked you to join the band and they turned their sound around for you, so you've seen every side. You've been with the most successful rock band of all time, but considering what the Allman Brothers Band did, I think that's also a huge compliment to your talent.

CL: Well, I appreciate that and you're right, and of course that was a completely different situation. And sometimes, quite frankly, I do lament the fact that I've not been able to have that type of influence with my role in the Stones. There are plenty of recordings laying around, and there are moments and there are also complete songs that were done and never released where I have a more prominent role. I would have loved to have had a stronger influence on the band musically, but it's their show and they're going to run it the way they choose.


George Harrison

AAJ: Another thing in your autobiography that particularly moved me was your friendship with George Harrison. I know by the time you met George you had already met plenty of rock superstars. Still, it had to be completely surreal as you were walking alone with him around the grounds of his estate?

CL: It was! My first band while growing up, the Misfitz, played British invasion. The Beatles were at the top of the list in that regard. Everybody had their favorite Beatle and George was mine without a doubt. I just liked that he was the odd one, he was mysterious, and he was the underdog. I think I had a similar feeling in my musical situations as he must have had with the Beatles. I would learn his guitar parts—I would take those 33 1/3 rpms and slow them down to 16 rpm. I loved his songs—the few of them that made it on to the Beatles records. When the Beatles broke up and he put out All Things Must Pass (Apple, 1970) it was like an explosion of music which I thought was brilliant.

But let me get beyond the artist and talk about the person. He was one of the best human beings I've ever met or known in my life. You felt that immediately when you first looked him in the eye and shook his hand. He was a great humanitarian who cared about people and cared about making the world a better place and wrote songs about it. He was also very comfortable to be around. He had a great sense of humor and one of the most wonderful chuckles I've ever heard in my life. When you heard George laugh or saw that smile on his face, it was a glow. It was a very special thing and I'll always be grateful for not only playing for him, but having known a guy like that.


The Environment

AAJ: Readers should also know that beyond music you have a parallel career in the environmental field. You lecture, write books, and own Charlane plantation. From your book, I know that this is where your heart is. Could you share what your life is like there when you're not touring or in the studio?

CL: Sure, well it's a hundred eighty degrees from touring, recording and the lifestyle of a musician. As you know, I am very passionate about it. First of all, it was a responsibility handed down to us by Rose Lane's grandmother, and because her family has such a heritage of stewardship of the land, I wanted to make sure that I did the right thing in carrying that heritage forward. When we inherited the first part of the property, I knew very little about these things and I went through a process of educating myself. But once I did begin to gain some knowledge, I also gained passion for it. I realized for the first time not only how important forestry and trees are to all of us, but the big picture—the environment. Of course, we all know what we've been doing to our planet, and we face some very difficult choices and challenges, but I'm an optimist. I do believe that finally at this juncture people are waking up—people are making changes in their lifestyles.

I think you'll see more alternative energy coming into the picture—wind power, solar power, electric automobiles and so forth. I think one big change that we are seeing now that will make a huge difference is entrepreneurs and people of wealth putting money into these things. It's going to take a real investment in capital and a real investment in personal commitment. But I'm seeing that now for the first time and I think now we've finally turned the corner. It's not easy and there are a lot of things to grapple with. It certainly isn't going to change overnight. I believe passionately in these things, and if we don't make the changes, I fear we face destruction. But I don't think it's going to come to that.

I'm going to continue to try and make the difference I can make. I'm working on a new book on growth issues. I think that's a big issue we need to look at—we've got over six billion people on the planet and the population is going to continue to grow. So if we are going to grow, we have to be smart about it.

I will tell you one other thing that I'm happy and excited about—we're launching a new website around October with some partners. It will be called Mother Nature Network: mnn.com or mothernaturenetwork.com.

The purpose of the website is to give real answers to these environmental questions to the mainstream population. What we've found in our research is that the sites already in existence are often too scientific and difficult to understand or they are too shallow. In some cases there are so many advertisements that it looks like a Nascar jacket and you can't really get past that to the meat of the information. So we are building a very clean site with useful and easy-to-understand information that can be easily accessed. I believe strongly that people want this and are looking for answers. The Internet is the most powerful place for information that we have now, and it's growing all the time, so it's the logical place to reach people.


Dream Band

AAJ: There's so much we can't cover in one interview, but thankfully you've also written an autobiography that goes so much deeper that we were able to go today. But one final question, imagine your dream band for one night—a septet with you and six musicians who are no longer with us. Which musicians would you pick?

CL: Elvin Jones, drums;
Jaco Pastorius, bass;
Joe Zawinul, synths;
Wes Montgomery, guitar;
Charlie Parker, sax;
Louis Armstrong, trumpet.

Zawinul and Pastorius played beautifully together, in my opinion. They, along with me, would represent the more modern era, although I certainly don't feel worthy here. The rest are obvious choices, often referred to as the "all time best" on their respective instruments. But I'd be interested to hear what marrying the earlier era with the latter might sound like. Of course I'd personally be scared to death!

Selected Discography

Chuck Leavell, Live in Germany: Green Leaves and Blue Notes Tour 2007 (Evergreen Arts, 2008)

Chuck Leavell, Southscape (Evergreen Arts, 2005)

Chuck Leavell, Forever Blue (Evergreen Arts, 2001)

Chuck Leavell, What's in the Bag? (Evergreen Arts, 1998)

Sea Level, Best of Sea Level (Capricorn, 1997)

Sea Level, Ball Room (Capricorn, 1980)

Sea Level, Long Walk on a Short Pier (Capricorn, 1979)

Sea Level, On the Edge (Capricorn, 1978)

Sea Level, Cats on the Coast (Capricorn, 1978)

Sea Level, Sea Level (Capricorn, 1977)

Rolling Stones, Stripped (Virgin, 1995)

Rolling Stones, Voodoo Lounge (Virgin, 1994)

Rolling Stones, Steel Wheels (Virgin, 1989)

Keith Richards, Talk is Cheap (Virgin, 1988)

Mick Jagger, She's the Boss (Columbia, 1985)

Indigo Girls, Swamp Ophelia (Epic, 1994)

The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Hot Number (Epic, 1987)

The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Tuff Enuff (CBS Associated Records, 1986)

Eric Clapton, Unplugged (Reprise, 1992)

Eric Clapton, 24 Nights (Duck Records, 1991)

Larry Carlton, Renegade Gentleman (GRP, 1993)

The Black Crowes, Shake Your Money Maker (Def American, 1990)

Dickey Betts, Highway Call (Capricorn, 1974)

Allman Brothers Band, Wipe The Windows, Check The Oil, Dollar Gas (Capricorn, 1976)

Allman Brothers Band, Win, Lose, or Draw (Capricorn, 1975)

Allman Brothers Band, Brothers and Sisters (Capricorn, 1973)

Gregg Allman, Laid Back (Capricorn, 1973)

Photo Credits
Courtesy of Chuck Leavell
Petra Fehrmann, HR1



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