Chuck Leavell is a Grammy lifetime Achievement Award winning keyboard player as well as a Georgia Music Hall of Fame inductee. He was a member of the Allman Brothers when they recorded the classic "Brothers and Sisters" album - and at that time they were at the height of their popularity. During that period, they headlined major festivals and toured the world. In 1977, Chuck formed the band Sea Level which produced some great music on the Capricorn record label. Throughout Chuck's career, he has worked with diverse artists such as Chuck Berry, The Marshall Tucker Band, Aretha Franklin, Kitty Wells, Charles Mingus, Eric Clapton and many others. Chuck has an excellent array of solo work that he has released through the years. The Rolling Stones got wind of him and he has been recording and touring with them since the "Some Girls" album in 1982. He is considered "The Sixth Stone" and is the music coordinator during rehearsals. Chuck provided the keyboards for George Harrison's famous 1992 concert in Japan. When Chuck is not performing his world class music, he is very involved in environmental conservation. I recently caught up with Chuck.
R.V.B. - Wow did you get started with music?
C.L - My mother played the piano and I learned from her. I started around age 6. Back then it was just for fun - and while I did wind up taking lessons from someone else for 6 months or so, I mostly learned by ear. Then my cousin taught me some guitar chords, and I started playing that. By age 13, I had my first band - The Misfitz. We played the YMCA every Friday night and the songs were mostly a combination of British Invasion, Soul Rock 'n Roll and a bit of Country.
R.V.B. - - What sparked you to stick with the piano over other instruments? How did you go about starting your first band?
C.L. - I played some guitar in the Misfitz, but stuck with keyboards mainly because no one else around could play it. Eventually, we were asked to be the "house band" for a local TV show that was based on American Bandstand.
C.L. - I can't remember our first non paying gig….probably just jamming around the neighborhood. But my first paying gig was at a little girl's birthday party. There were two of us playing guitar and her dad paid us $2 each. That got my attention. As for practicing…with the Misfitz, we practiced a couple of days a week at my house. Mom let us move the furniture in the living room around so we could get our equipment in there. On my own, I would listen to records and sometimes slow the record player down from 33 1/3 to 16, which let me get quite specific with guitar and keyboard parts. I suppose I did that most every day.
R.V.B. - You started doing early session work and scored a nice early hit with Freddy North. How did you enjoy the success and is that the first time you heard yourself on the radio? Did the band "The South Camp" play covers or did you write your own stuff?
C.L. - Well, the reward for Freddie's record was not very big in terms of money. I probably got paid something like $50. But in terms of hearing myself on the radio…as they say...priceless. The South Camp did mostly covers, but we would do special arrangements of most of the songs we learned. That gave me some good skills in terms of being an arranger and thinking creatively.
R.V.B. - When you moved to Macon to work with Capricorn and form the band "Sundown", was this a big move for you or just a natural progression? I noticed the studio album that you did with Alex Taylor had a wide variety of genres (Blues, Folk, Country and even the song you guys co- wrote). Did you play that variety live when you went on tour and where did that tour take you?
C.L. - Oh, it was a very big move. Especially since it meant quitting high school to do it. I was torn a bit, but thought the opportunity musically was too important to pass up. Yes, we were playing quite a variety of genres…which kept us on our toes. We wrote some, but were also doing songs that other good songwriters submitted to us. A great proving grounds.
R.V.B. - After Taylor (James Taylors Brother), things started really happening for you. First you hooked up with Dr. John. How did you go about sharing the keyboard duties with him? How was the general experience?
C.L. - Mac played piano mostly, and I played Hammond B3. That gave me a chance to learn the instrument better. Sometimes Mac would play guitar, and I would slide over to piano. But just being in his band gave me the opportunity to learn from a Master. I still regard him as my mentor, and recently was able to be in the core band that played a tribute concert for him in New Orleans. I also got to be one of the featured artists on the show, which was a great honor for me. The show will be made into a DVD for sale - and I think it will be called "The Musical Mojo of Dr. John".
R.V.B. - How did you get introduced to Greg Allman? Was the sharing of the keyboards with Greg a similar process as with Dr. John? You recorded with Greg on "Laid Back". Where was that recorded and how long did it take to complete?
C.L. - I had met Gregg and all the ABB when we would open up shows for them - both with Alex Taylor and with Dr. John. But we didn't get to know each other well. That came with the invitation to play on "Laid Back". I played mostly piano and electric piano , and of course Gregg did B3 and some guitar. Those sessions went really well, and would lead to the invitation to join the Allmans. "Laid Back" probably took a month or so to record…not all at once…there were some breaks. But overall it went quite quickly.
R.V.B. - Ok, now the big one. You were formally asked to join the Allman Brothers. Did you guys rehearse as a band going over the catalog of songs that they already had at first, or did you go into the studio to work on "Brothers and Sisters" first? During the recording of "Brothers and Sisters" and "Win, Lose, or Draw", did you have a lot of freedom to express your ideas during the making of the albums? Was there harmony in the band during the creation of the classic, "Brothers and Sisters"?
C.L. - We recorded "Brothers and Sisters" right after "Laid Back" - sometimes simultaneously. We would sometimes jam during the sessions on some ABB tunes. The recent release of the 40th Anniversary Edition of the record includes some of the jams and rehearsals that took place. The mood overall was quite good. Everyone was still hurting from Duane's death, but there was a feeling of renewal of the band. I was given full reins, but of course I was keen to try and find parts that complimented. I tried to step out at the right times, and to play a support role when I thought it was best.
C.L. - We were riding high, doing great shows, selling out and just livin' large. It was magical and wonderful. Watkins Glen broke the attendance record set by Woodstock - we played gigs with The Grateful Dead, Santana, The Eagles. Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels and other good bands. But the focus was always on the music.
R.V.B. - . After the Allman Brothers , you sat in with a lot of other artists on recordings -mostly of the Southern rock genre. Were any of these recordings with Marshall Tucker, Bonnie Bramlet and Charlie Daniels done at the Muscle Shoals or Fame studio or were most done at the Capricorn building? Did you have to approach their music any differently than the Allmans stuff?
C.L. - It was a natural progression to start doing session work with other artists. I wanted to expand my horizons and learn all I could and look for opportunities to play with other different kinds of players and producers.
C.L. - Most of the jazz influence came from Jaimoe. He turned me on to all kinds of artists…Coletrane, Corea, Handcock, Miles, etc. It was like being thrown into a whirlwind. While I would never consider myself (or Sea Level) a jazz artist, we wanted to experiment with blending in some elements of it into what we were doing. I was ok with being more out front, but was glad to add Randall Bramblett into the band later as someone who was a great singer/songwriter and could help take some of the pressure off. Randall and I still play together a good bit, and I think he is one of the Greats.
R.V.B. - As if your career wasn't going well enough to this point, the Rolling Stones come knocking. How did it come about to be asked to audition? Do you remember the songs you auditioned on? What was the first recordings that you did with them?
C.L. - I was called to audition in 1981 on very short notice. Bill Graham had suggested my name. After the phone call came, I was on a plane within 36 hours. I auditioned for 3 days. We played a variety of things….Chuck Berry tunes, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and other blues stuff…and of course Stones songs. They had just recorded "Tattoo You"…so we did some tunes off of that. But it took a few months to land the gig….they toured the US in '81 with Ian McLagan and Ian Stewart on keys….then took a break. I was called to do the " '82 European tour, and it was me and Stu. He became very much like a big brother to me.
R.V.B. - It must be quite an honor to be a major part of the Rolling Stones now. Over the years, are there any favorite songs that you are on and most proud of? How do you contribute to the writing process with them? What is your role as far as rehearsing the music for the shows?
C.L. - Oh, all the songs are great. So many….such a huge body of work. My role is somewhat like a musical director these days - I take lots of notes during rehearsals and have two huge notebooks full of charts, comments, notes, etc. I just try to do what I can to help the guys feel comfortable and try to get them to explore the possibilities both live and in the studio.
C.L. - I am a tree farmer. My wife, Rose Lane and I , own about 2,900 acres of forestland and I actively manage it. I also participate in advocacy for outdoor issues, and have written three books on environmental subject matter. I also co-founded "The Mother Nature Network" (www.mnn.com) along with my partner, Joel Babbit. We now are the most visited site of its kind….getting upwards of 10 million visits a month.
R.V.B. - One final thing - how was working with George Harrison and Eric Clapton?
C.L. - They were both absolutely amazing to work with. George was my favorite Beatle, and was one of the coolest guys I've ever met. So down to earth, so fun to be with, so intelligent and well - meaning. I miss him so much, but am grateful beyond words to have played with him. Eric's "Unplugged" record was a real joy to make, and it still stands as his best selling recording, which feels pretty good. He gave me a good bit of room to play, for which I'm very grateful. I would love it if he would call me to play again, and would jump at the opportunity. But Chris Stainton has been "his guy" for a long time now, and is a fabulous player. It looks to me like it is his seat to keep, and he certainly deserves it.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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