Talkin' Blues with Chuck Leavell

Alan Bryson By

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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.



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