Talkin' Blues with Chuck Leavell

Alan Bryson By

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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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