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Talkin' Blues with Chuck Leavell


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Receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; recording a new CD with guest stars John Mayer and Keith Richards trading guitar solos; successfully launching his Mother Nature Network, with ten million page views per month; publishing his fourth book, Growing a Better America: Smart, Strong and Sustainable (Evergreen Arts, 2011); being named an honorary forest ranger by the U.S. Forest Service, for his commitment to conservation; and working on John Mayer's much-anticipated Born And Raised (Columbia, to be released May 22, 2012)—that's just a bit of what Chuck Leavell has been up to since speaking with All About Jazz in late 2008.

A preeminent blues-rock pianist, Leavell worked with the Allman Brothers, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Eric Clapton, The Black Crowes, George Harrison, The Indigo Girls, Blues Traveler, and many more. His pivotal role with The Rolling Stones, going back 30 years, might make one wonder if his grandkids assume his actual first name is "Legendary."

His album Back to the Woods: a Tribute to the Pioneers of Blues Piano (Evergreen Arts, 2012) is arguably his most impressive. Our knowledge of prewar piano blues is based primarily on the flat, crackling sound once carved into the grooves of well-worn 78-rpm shellac records. Beyond demonstrating his understanding of early blues-piano technique, like a fine craftsman, Chuck Leavell manages to restore this music's rich textural beauty and transform a listener's perception of it into a vibrant musical experience.

This project isn't an academic exercise done out of a sense of reverence; Leavell brings the joy, energy and excitement of a bygone era back to life. The album not only preserves an endangered musical legacy, but also showcases the extraordinary talent of one of the finest blues pianists alive today, and allows modern blues fans to appreciate why the piano dominated the blues scene for decades—a role it thankfully never lost in jazz.

All About Jazz: When we spoke a few years back, you were just launching your Mother Nature Network. It's turned out to be an incredibly popular website. What's your web traffic like?

Chuck Leavell: As a matter of fact, I just got an update from my partner, Joel Babbit. We set new records, 12 million visits in one quarter, 8 million unique visitors in one quarter, and over 30 million page views in a quarter.

AAJ: That's amazing—quite an achievement. Any exciting plans for the Mother Nature Network?

CL: We introduced an new thing on weather. Most sites—Yahoo, Google and whatever—offer weather, but the icons are usually the same. It's a sun, or a cloud, or little drops of rain. So we changed that and started by hiring a model, and she depicts whether she's cold or hot, or carrying an umbrella. But now we've taken it to where we can actually let people personalize it by using a picture of their child or pet, or whatever it might be, even themselves. So they can play with it and have some fun. We see things like that as a unique way to attract people, and obviously Mother Nature has a lot to do with weather, so we think it's a fun fit.

But in terms of things going forward, we're continuing to grow, and we are now looking at the possibility of expanding into other sites. In addition to what we are doing environmentally, we are also expanding into the areas of social responsibility, corporate responsibility, health and safety—issues that may not be directly related to the environment. Nevertheless, they are things people care about. We are slowly expanding into these other arenas, and looking into the purchasing of other existing sites and doing something better with them. Nothing specific to announce at this point, but we are continuing on the path to growth.

AAJ: You are very focused on ecology and health matters. What are a few simple changes our readers could make in their own lives that would have a real impact on their own health and the health of the planet?

CL: I tell people the easiest thing they can do is to walk. So many people, especially Americans, depend on cars or public transportation, and we have an obesity problem in this country. So if you live a reasonable distance from your work, school, office, shops or whatever it might be, walking is the most natural form of exercise that most anybody can do. Obviously, it also saves on carbon emissions, so that's the first thing I tell people they can do. You know, it's good for your spirit, your body, and for the planet.

Secondly, I would say it's important for people to be aware of the choices they have, and that's one of the important things we're trying to do at MNN. At this juncture, we have an incredible amount of content—you can dive into our site and study about things like recycling and hybrid vehicles. And I believe if people are informed, they are going to make wise choices.

AAJ: Speaking of ecology, here's my pitch to get you to come to Germany again. The Achental valley where I live, in Germany, is striving to become energy independent by 2020. This month a new pilot project just came online. It is a biomass power plant that uses wood scraps and wood by-products, and it provides electricity and heating for 500 households.

CL: That is absolutely wonderful, and by the way, we have recently hosted a group of German [governmental] ministers here at our place, Charlane [Plantation]. As you well know, Germans are very sensitive about environmental matters, so they specifically wanted to come to Georgia because of their interest in biomass facilities.

In Georgia, what's happening is that we have—I believe it's three— pellet plants that take the wood biomass and make these pellets that are used in producing heat and energy. The reason these ministers came was to see the Georgia forests for themselves and make sure that if these resources were being tapped, that it was a sustainable resource.

I found that very admirable, and we had a wonderful meeting. They not only toured my place, but they toured other parts of Georgia. We've stayed in touch, and I think they went away very confident that this is a perfect part of the world to get the resource they are looking for with respect to biomass. So we are looking forward to other pellet plants located here, and working with Germany and other parts of Europe.

AAJ: In regard to Germany, something else made me think of you and your German buddy Christian Raupach. In the liner notes for your new CD, Back to the Woods: a Tribute to the Pioneers of Blues Piano, you and Larry Cohn wrote about the early traveling piano players. You know, in Europe there are still lots of these cozy jazz clubs that make you feel like you've stepped out of a time machine into the past. Recently, I was in a tiny club that even had an upright as the house piano.

It got me to wondering if Christian could pitch something to German TV for you and your wife, Rose Lane, to travel around Germany by train, with a small film crew, playing these little clubs like the traveling musicians you wrote about, maybe even combining music with a look at environmental projects in Europe.

CL: That could be a strong possibility, Alan. As you know, I was supposed to be on tour with John Mayer this year, and I'm sure you've read the news that this granuloma on his vocal chords has returned. So that's caused us to cancel the whole tour. I was supposed to be on tour with him through October and beyond.

So the plug on that was only pulled about three weeks ago, so I'm kind of in reset mode right now. I have talked to Christian, and unfortunately we are a little late now to get dates that would make sense for me to do in Germany, at least through the fall. So I'm focusing on what I can do here. But, who knows, maybe we could get to do that. I think it's a fun idea, and it would be a great experience.

AAJ: The last time we talked, you were already interested in doing a tribute album about the early blues pioneer piano players. It's an amazing piece of work. What struck me, as I got into it, is that guitar-based blues is very much alive and well in our guitar-centric age, but it's clear how close we've come to losing something really special. Although it is actually quite old, piano blues is new to a lot of us, so I'm hoping this CD will spark a renewed interest in it.

Chuck Leavell Back to the WoodsCL: I appreciate that very much. For me, it was such an interesting project. My son-in-law Steve Bransford, is a Ph.D. who graduated from Emory University, and his discipline is American History with an emphasis on visual arts and American roots music. So it was his idea. He came to me and mentioned there's been all these projects done for artists like Muddy Waters and other guitarists and blues composers, and tributes done for a lot of jazz artists. He said that, to his knowledge, no one had really focused on these prewar piano players, and he said there is some really interesting material there, so he gave me three CDs with about 150 songs to listen to.

That was the impetus for this thing. I was already aware of a lot of the music, especially the Leroy Carr and some other things, but he dug down really deep: stuff like Barrelhouse Buck McFarland, Leola Manning—you know, names that I had never heard of. It was just one heck of a journey for me to study this stuff.

I started by just listening to those discs when I was in my truck, or whenever I had the chance. I probably just listened for three months; then I began to pick out songs that I thought would be good for me to interpret. So we culled it down to about 50 or so, and from there we focused on the final 15 we chose. Along the way, we came up with these ideas on special guest artists, and of course that really helped spice things up.

So the right way to put it is that it was a wonderful journey for me to go back and restudy some of the artists, and study some that I didn't know about, and to bring it all to life.

AAJ: Readers should know you didn't try to copy these pioneer players, but I was curious which ones come closest to the Chuck Leavell style—as a fan, I would guess Leroy Carr and Otis Spann, but of course I want to ask the master himself.

CL: It's a great question. As you know, of course I had to do a Ray Charles track, because he is my true musical hero. So we looked hard to find something that was very early Ray, and we found "Losing Hand," which is kind of little known. So because I've always loved his playing and he's been such an influence on me, certainly his name would be at the top of the list.

Otis Spann, you're absolutely right, same with Leroy Carr. One interesting thing for me was to get more into stride playing, like Charlie Spand, who wrote "Back to the Woods," and the Leola Manning track that Candi Staton sang on certainly has that. So that really expanded my horizon and caused me to start practicing, because I'd never really done that much stride playing—you know, back-and-forth left-hand bass-note octave, and then the chord behind it.

AAJ: I would encourage anyone who buys the album to listen to it first with a pair of really good headphones. I love the way the upright bass reinforces your left hand, and the recording really lets you hear what your two hands are doing.

CL: Thank you. Your comments about stand-up bass are absolutely right on the mark, and I think Chris Enghauser just did a marvelous job.

I wanted to do 90 percent upright bass on this because it helps to authenticate my intention to focus on that era because, naturally, stand-up bass would have been prevalent. And, as you mentioned, I wanted to reinterpret the songs and not copy them—to do them in my way and find approaches that would perhaps modernize them, but still pay tribute to the real masters who did these things.

AAJ: Another thing I found interesting—before your CD, I knew Leroy Carr's classic "Blues Before Sunrise," but I wasn't really aware of him. Yet he was an amazing composer. I noticed five of the 15 songs on Back To the Woods were composed by Carr. It's great to see him getting his due on your album.

CL: He's such an interesting figure, and a tragic figure in a way, because he was a terrible alcoholic who drank himself to death in his early 30s. But he was incredibly prolific with his partner Scrapper Blackwell, the guitarist who played on so many of his recordings. They were working and recording all the time.

I knew about Leroy and had listened to a lot of his stuff, but Steve, my son-in-law, really enlightened me to the wealth of material that was out there. I had a slight concern about having that many of his songs on the CD, but at the end of the day, I listened to all of it thoroughly, and thought it doesn't really matter whose name is on the thing or who we are covering. I wanted to make sure the record has a nice flow to it. I wanted to get across the general point about the importance of this era, especially the prewar era. You know, we did jump ahead with Otis Spann and Ray Charles, but most of the material is prewar era, which was a very interesting time for piano blues.

AAJ: I remember, as teenagers, we used to say a song was an "ear-worm" if you couldn't get it out of your head. "Naptown Blues" is a total ear-worm for me, and I should mention Danny Barnes' vocal. I'd heard his name in relation to banjo, but on your album he plays guitar on five tracks and does the lead vocal on "Naptown Blues." He doesn't have what you would objectively describe as a great voice, but kind of like Bob Dylan, it's extraordinary what he does with what he has. It is a total ear-worm, really infectious.

Danny Barnes RocketCL: That's great to hear. He's got a new record called Rocket (ATO Records, 2011) that I would encourage you to check out. You're going to absolutely love it. Another one of his that is one of my all-time-favorite records is called Things I've Done Wrong (Terminus Records, 2001). Those are two really great records. I bet I've listened to Things I've Done Wrong at least 150 times, and I never get tired of it. That's how I really fell in love with Danny.

He was actually on a label that our daughter's husband Jeff Bransford owned. Jeff happens to be Steve Bransford's brother, our other son-in-law. My daugher Amy sent me the Things I've Done Wrong record, and I couldn't get enough of it—still can't.

Danny and I became friends during that time period when he was on Terminus Records. We had talked about doing a project together that would be very much the Leroy Carr, Scrapper Blackwell kind of thing. It never came together in that particular form, but when I started this record, I knew I had to get Danny because he knows this stuff so well. He can do a great job with the guitar because he gets it, he knows what I'm going for. It was a joy and a pleasure to have Danny, and I think you know I'm about to do the New Orleans Jazz Fest April 27th, and I'm flying Danny down because I want him in the band. Bonnie Bramlett is going to do the vocal Candi Staton recorded, and it's going to be a lot of fun.

AAJ: Another guest vocalist on the album is someone who is a legend in the Southeast, Col. Bruce Hampton.

CL: Bruce has been a friend a long time, and you're right, legend is absolutely the right word. He had the Hampton Grease Band in the '60s and into the '70s, and since then he's had a myriad of really great bands—Aquarium Rescue Unit was a great band, the Codetalkers—and he's always very unusual, unique, and exploratory.

When Steve played me that song, I told him there's only one guy who can sing this, there's no choice. I couldn't sing it. But I love the tune, I think it's so wacky with that violin playing that repetitive figure, and the incredible tempo of the song. So we were very fortunate to get him, and I think he knocked it out in, like, one take.

AAJ: I was curious—I imagine that, through Keith Richards, you've probably hung out with Tom Waits before, and as I listen to this, I keep thinking there's got to be a second volume of this someday, and how cool would it be to have him do a couple of guest vocals for you.

CL: Oh yeah, that would be tremendous. I'm a big fan. And yes, Keith and Tom are close friends, and a volume two is definitely a possibility. Of course, this one has just been released, and I'm in negotiations with a German label to license it and release it in Germany. So right now I'm focused on this one and taking it as far as we can.

AAJ: Your album also motivated me to revisit Clint Eastwood's Piano Blues DVD. I've gotta say, personally, I think your album and his DVD together would be a great gift idea for a blues lover.

CL: That's quite interesting. I hadn't thought about that, but I certainly admire Clint for everything he's done in jazz and blues. He's a real champion of the piano, period, but especially those genres. Oddly enough, he was here in Georgia recently making a movie, and I came close to having a small part in the film, but it just didn't work out. I've never met Clint, but I was keeping my fingers crossed that it was perhaps a possibility, but maybe one of these days.

AAJ: As I re-watched his DVD, this time it struck me that, for our generation, we think of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts' dual lead-instrument approach as revolutionary, but it was very much alive in the early days of piano blues. Eastwood had these great clips of duo pianists like Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, or Eugene Rodgers and Dorothy Donegan.

CL: Absolutely, those are quite famous. I learned about those duets mainly through Ian Stewart, and we've talked about that before. Of course, boogie-woogie is a somewhat different genre from the direct blues. I really wanted to focus on the blues for this project, but you're right about the duets. I think it's marvelous.

There's a guy, and I don't know if you know this name, Bob Seeley, but you might want to check him out. In my opinion, Bob is probably the best boogie and stride player alive today. He's in his 80s, but he's incredibly fit. He goes to Europe all the time and plays in France, Spain, and Germany, and of course, he's very active here in the States.

Bob's a good friend of mine, and I actually wrote an article about him for Musician Magazine, back during the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour. Ian Stewart knew that he played this little restaurant called Charlie's Crab. He doesn't play there anymore, but he did for years. So I took Bill Wyman, Lisa Fisher and a couple of other guys to Charlie's Crab to hear Bob. I was so moved by him that I wrote this article about him for Musician Magazine, and we've remained friends for a long time. But you should investigate him. He does a lot of duet stuff. In fact, he just sent me something he did with Bob Baldori.

Jon Mayer Born and RaisedAAJ: Before I forget, I should mention John Mayer guests on a couple of tracks. He really stepped up for you. I especially liked his playing on the Memphis Slim track. You've played with so many great blues guitarists. What impressed you about John Mayer's musicianship?

CL: First off, John opened several shows on the last Stones tour with his blues trio with Steve Jordan and Pino Palladino. Before that, I had known about John and the kind of pop side of his singing and playing, and I had always admired him and thought he was a tremendous talent.

But I don't think anybody realized the blues chops that this guy has. When I heard him with the trio, I just thought, holy moly, all due respect to Stevie Ray Vaughan, but John is right up there, no doubt about it with his chops.

He started getting the attention of people like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and others, and really starting getting respect. I remembered that very distinctly when I put my CD together, and John had already called me to work on his CD, so I thought, well, I'm just going to be bold and ask him if he would play on it. Shoot, he didn't think twice. He said, "Of course I will, and as a matter of fact, you can use some of my studio time if you want." So that's the way we ended up at Electric Lady Studio. John kindly allowed me to use the studio so we could overdub him and Keith. So we got them together on the same day, which was really a great day for me.

AAJ: What I also find impressive about him is his choice of musicians for his albums and tours. He uses his fame wisely in that respect. When you two met, did he tell you how he was acquainted with your work?

CL: Well, you know, he reminded me of something I had forgotten or, better said, hadn't fully appreciated. John lived in Atlanta for a time after he left Berklee School of Music. He had been working up in Boston with Clay Cook, who is from Atlanta. So they decided to move to Atlanta and start their careers.

So during that time period, I got a call from Clay, and he said they had a song and asked if I would play on it, and I said sure. So he sent me the tape. I think it was back in the days of ADAT and that type of recording. So I overdubbed it and never actually saw them, and John told me, "That was me, man!"

And I said, "You gotta be kiddin'! That was you?"

He said, "Yeah, that was me and my partner."

I couldn't believe it. I said, "Well I'll be dogged. I remember doin' it, but had no idea it was you."

So it was very ironic to have it work out that way. During the tour with the Stones, I remember him as always being very gracious, and just tearing it up on stage.

AAJ: That's a shame that you guys had to cancel the tour, given the situation. do you know if he's considering recording and touring as an instrumentalist? I'll tell you the reason I ask. When I spoke with John Scofield, he said John Mayer was a "very, very good blues guitarist." I suspect he could pull off a great instrumental show if he had the inclination. Have you guys talked about that?

CL: We had four days of rehearsals in Los Angeles, and he had this problem and saw his doctor. On the fifth day, we had this meeting, and I think John was so down in the dumps about it at that point, that he chose not to come personally to talk to the band. He sent Ken Healey, his right-hand man, instead. Ken explained that John was just too down to come personally and would get very emotional, but he conveyed John's apologies and everything.

Anyway, I wrote a hand-written letter to John with, hopefully, words of encouragement, and I made that very suggestion. I wrote something like, "Man your chops are so amazing, and I know there's certainly a lot of things you could do, but I think an instrumental album would certainly be an interesting tack to take." So I don't know if he's going to do that or not, but I did suggest it to him.

AAJ: Let me put an Amen to that! That would be something to get excited about. Of course, I should also mention that Keith Richards guests on a couple of tracks on your new CD. I'm halfway through his autobiography, and what I particularly liked was his extensive explanation of his five-string, open-tuning approach to guitar. Maybe that explains his swampy sound, which is on full display on the Otis Spann song "Boots and Shoes."

CL: Right. Keith does the intro and most of the fills, and then he does the first solo, and the second solo is John. That made it very special for me to have them both at the same time. But, yeah, he did that swampy thing, but that wasn't a five string, that was a regular six-string guitar.

I've read his book, too, and it's so well written and so honest. I enjoyed that story about the five string, too. I think it was Ry Cooder who got him into it, but he really made it his own.

AAJ: I was curious, were there any big surprises or light-bulb moments for you when you read his book?

CL: I knew all the history, but what was interesting to me was the very early stuff. I think it was his uncle Gus who played the guitar, and of course I loved the description of when they basically went to audition for Ian Stewart—he'd put the ad in the paper. And to take it from there, and the goal being to be the best blues band in London, and then England. I loved all of that, and I thought it was all so interesting. It shows truly where the roots of the band lie, and to hear it from Keith was very special.

The other stuff that happened—most of it is information I knew quite well. I guess one surprise is that we all knew that Keith battled heroin addiction, but his graphic descriptions of what he was going through was moving. And the fact that he went cold turkey while Anita was still struggling and didn't want to go through it at the time he did—that had to be a lot of pressure, and it was a hell of a decision. It shows the fortitude that Keith has.

AAJ: This year marks the Stones' 50th anniversary, and there's been a lot of speculation about a tour. Because you signed on for John Mayer's tour, I had assumed you hadn't been planning on touring with them. Is there anything on this subject you're at liberty to divulge?

CL: No, there's no word about it. It was kind of interesting. In Rolling Stone magazine, Keith said, "Well, Charlie Watts didn't really join the band until 1963, so 1962 was the conception, but 1963 was the birth." I thought that was pretty clever, and it could be a hint, but I don't have any personal information about it. But it could be that the guys are thinking about doing it next year.

We'll see, but you're right. I had this opportunity with John, and I hadn't heard anything from the guys, and it's a pretty big machine, and it takes quite a bit of time to crank it up. So I went under the assumption that there would not be anything to interfere with what I was doing with John.

AAJ: I also wanted to congratulate you on your Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Based on what I expressed in the introduction to our previous interview, interested readers will easily understand why, despite your relatively short time with the band, there's no doubt you earned that award.

You stepped into a nearly impossible situation and not only kept that band alive, but you helped them to achieve their greatest success. I also wanted to say that it was nice that you mentioned Dickey Betts in your acceptance speech.

CL: I appreciate that, Alan, and I felt very strongly that since Dickey did not come, he should certainly be recognized. I mean, come on, he's a founding member and he's written some of the best songs that the band has done. There's been some difficult times between some of the principals and Dickey, but the truth is he'll always be an integral part of it, and I was very flattered and pleased that they included me.

You're right, I was not there so long, but the years that I spent with them were golden years, and I think Brothers and Sisters (Capricorn, 1972) still stands as the best-selling album they've ever had. I was very, very happy to be included, and it was a special moment.

AAJ: Any interesting or funny behind-the-scenes stories from the Grammy awards you can share?

CL: I can just say that Butch [Trucks] tended to overstep his bounds with his acceptance speech. There were a lot of people on the stage who wanted to say something, and it was obvious that he took up more than his share of it. I think we were all kind of rolling our eyes a little bit, but it was good to be with all the guys again.

Gregg has had some health challenges—the liver transplant, the upper respiratory problems on his recent tour, and now he has a hernia. So it was a bit disconcerting to see him struggling with these issues, but I think he'll come out of it. In general, he looked like was on the road to recovery. I certainly hope so. All the guys were very cordial to me—the newer members of the band as well as the principals.

I thought Jaimoe stole the show with his story about almost starving to death and playing with those white boys if you want to make some money. I loved it.

Selected Discography

John Mayer, Born And Raised (Columbia, 2012)

Chuck Leavell, Back to the Woods: a Tribute to the Pioneers of Blues Piano (Evergreen Arts, 2012)

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



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