America has not had an extended visit by the Rolling Stones since 2015’s Zip Code tour, but that changes in 2019. The Stones’ No Filter stadium tour will play 13 concerts that begin April 20 in Miami and wrap June 21 in Chicago. Along with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood will be keyboardist Chuck Leavell, the former member of the Allman Brothers Band who has been musical director of the Stones since 1989.
“The Stones honestly sound better than we ever have,” says Leavell. “Our tours last year and the year before in Europe were just off the charts good … and successful. I’ve been hoping the band would come back to the States, and now that it is official, I just can’t wait to put it in front of the people. Believe me, we are going to work hard in preparation for this run, and will be putting on the Groove for every show.”
Few musicians perform with one, let alone two iconic rock bands. Chuck Leavell first met the founding members of the Allman Brothers Band — Duane and Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks, Jai Johanny Johanson (Jaimoe) and Berry Oakley — when he toured with Alex Taylor and Dr. John in 1970. Backstage, Leavell would play piano as the Allmans performed.
“I would just hang out and sit at the piano behind their lineup and play along from time to time,” says Leavell. “That was kind of fun. Some of the road crew saw me do that and they may have relayed that to some of the band members.”
After Duane Allman died following a 1971 motorcycle crash, Leavell played on Gregg Allman’s solo debut and in 1972 was asked to join the group. The first LP he performed on was Brothers and Sisters, which featured his piano solo on the instrumental “Jessica.”
When the Allmans temporarily broke up in 1976, Leavell founded the rock/jazz/fusion group Sea Level, a pun on his name.
After Sea Level disbanded, promoter Bill Graham suggested to the Rolling Stones that Leavell share keyboard duties with Ian Stewart. Leavell, a Stones fan since childhood, saw his duties expand after Stewart’s death in 1985. Leavell, who tours and records with the Stones to this day, was appointed musical director of the band in 1989.
But that’s not all. Leavell is dedicated to environmentalism. With his wife Rose Lane, Leavell manages a 2,900-acre tree plantation in Georgia. Leavell is the co-founder of the Mother Nature Network website http://mnn.com and has produced a new television series, America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell. http://www.americasforestswithchuckleavell.com
— MotherNatureNetwork (@MotherNatureNet) December 3, 2018
Leavell discussed a musical journey that started in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and now takes him around the globe on tour with the Stones. While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are in the spotlight, he helps guide the show from behind the keyboard.
Rock Cellar: How did you come to join the Allman Brothers Band?
Chuck Leavell: It came from working with Gregg on his first solo record. When Duane died, the band had some obligations to play some live concerts. You can imagine that was an incredibly painful and tough time. They went out without a replacement for Duane, with just a five-piece version of the Allman Brothers. And they came back from that experience, I guess it might have been three months worth of shows, and they were just mentally and physically exhausted. And needed a break.
Everybody realized that. And Gregg wanted to do a solo record. So I got called by the producer, Johnny Sandlin, to come work on that record. And things kicked off nicely. We got a few tracks down and then somewhere in the scheme of things, I guess maybe two weeks into recording, these jam sessions began to occur when the rest of the Allman Brothers would come down.
There were other musicians but primarily the Allman Brothers as they were at the time: Dickey, Butch, Jaimoe, Berry Oakley and then, of course, Gregg. These jam sessions went very well and were fun and sometimes it was just “Hey, pick a key and go” and sometimes we might do a blues number or one of the numbers that they were known for.
After about two weeks I get a call from Phil Walden, the band’s manager, saying he wanted to meet me in his office. And I thought “Did I do something wrong?” So I walk into the office expecting just to see him but in fact there’s all the band scattered around the room.
A few pleasantries went down and then the shoe dropped. They said, “Hey man, these jam sessions really have been inspiring and going very well. The guys want to know if you want to join the band.”
I had just turned 20 years old and it was a big shock to me, but of course I was very happy about the situation.
Rock Cellar: After the Allmans temporarily broke up in 1976, you started Sea Level. But by 1980 they disbanded. What happened then?
Chuck Leavell: I’m out of a gig, to be frank with you. I got a trio playin’ clubs, phone’s not ringin’ for session work much and Rose Lane had at that time inherited land from her grandmother and had gained this interest in environmentalism and forestry.
It was a diversified farm, there was cattle, there were row crops on it. I went to the library, checked out books on land use and talked to other farmers and went to some seminars. Eventually it became clear to me that row cropping, livestock, those were careers that would take day-to-day work. You’d have to either do that work yourself or hire somebody to do it.
It just didn’t fit my scenario because I wanted to follow my career as a musician. I began to investigate forestry as an option and eventually enrolled in a correspondence course concerning forestry and land use, and wildlife was part of that course as well. That’s what led us to do what we’re doing now: to be involved in general environmental issues but especially the big picture of forestry, which includes other flora and fauna that live in the forest.
I came home one day, a little bit frustrated and I said, “I’m always gonna stay in music but gosh, things aren’t just happening right now and I do love what we’re doing here on the land. Maybe I should just focus on that and not worry about music for the time being.”
And my wife listened very patiently to all that and she said at the end of it, “Well, that’s all interesting, Chuck, but guess what? The Rolling Stones called you today” [laughs]. I thought she was pulling my leg but she said, “No, here’s the number, go over to the phone right now and call.”
And I did, and within 48 hours I was on a plane going for an audition.
Rock Cellar: With Ian Stewart there, why did the Stones need another keyboardist?
Chuck Leavell: They always had another keyboard. Think back to Billy Preston, Ian McLagan, Nicky Hopkins. Stu would say to me [in British accent] “Chuck, I don’t like slow songs, they’re boring. And I don’t like minor chords, they sound Chinese.”
So if it was rockin’, he liked to play on it. But if it was a ballad or something outside of a straight rock and roll idiom, he didn’t care for it. That’s why through the years the Stones have always maintained other keyboard players for those parts.
Stu loved the South. So many English musicians have that deep respect for the blues that comes out of the Deep South, the country music, even to a degree jazz that emanates from New Orleans. So he was, I think, quite happy to have a Southerner come and audition. I learned a great deal about boogie-woogie piano playing from Stu. Stu taught me a lot.
We were great friends and I miss him just like we all do.
I think largely because I studied his technique and adapted a lot of it to my own and also because I love playing minor chords and I love playing ballads [laughs], I think the band looked to me as being the guy to carry this on.
Rock Cellar: What is your role with the Stones today?
Chuck Leavell: They’ve given me the moniker of musical director, which is very flattering. I think this started back in 1989. The band had not toured since ’82 so there was a seven-year gap. Now we have the record Steel Wheels and the band is planning a big tour and that required a rather long rehearsal period.
My first comment when we all got together was, “Guys, when we toured in ’82, every night was the same set. Man, you all got an incredible body of work, I think you should really celebrate it.” So we started going deep, trying out some of the early songs that hadn’t been done in a long time but also, of course, we had a new record to promote.
I started taking copious notes, making chord charts. Did we have horns on this? If so, what were the horn parts? Were there background vocals? Who sang what? Did we change the arrangement for any reason? I’m keeping all these notes, start building an encyclopedic bit of information on paper.
That carried on from 1989 to the next tour, which was Voodoo Lounge, to the next tour to the next tour. At this juncture I have these two huge notebooks with maybe 85 to 90 percent of all the songs that the Rolling Stones have done, even cover songs. I began to be the go-to guy for when they would say, “Jeez, I’ve forgotten how the middle eight goes on this thing” or “Did we have the solo before the second chorus?” And I had all that.
Along the way, because I have the perspective of the fan as well as being in the band, I began suggesting certain songs. They gave me the position to do the set lists. I’ll make a draft of the set list and give it to Mick and of course, if there are any objections for any reasons, we’ll change it. We don’t want to go out and do the same thing we did last time, we want to make it different for the fans, do something that they would remember and enjoy.
I do those kinds of things and even directing on stage because look, let’s face it, Mick Jagger’s got so much to do up there. He’s entertaining the crowd, he’s singing his ass off, he’s playing harmonica. So there are times when he might be runnin’ down that ramp and not sure what’s comin’ next. And he may glance over at me and I can give him a hand signal or a nod of some type to say, “You’re on track” or “Wait a minute, there’s a guitar solo comin’ up.”
I count off a lot of the songs to make sure the tempos are comfortable and correct. I get looks from Mick and Keith. Keith always wants it slower, Mick always wants it faster. Mick’s got that energy. If he feels like the song is draggin’ it just drives him crazy. So all of those duties have morphed me into the position of musical director.
Rock Cellar: When recording with the Stones, is there a lot of improvisation or do the songs come in pretty much complete?
Chuck Leavell: It happens both ways. Sometimes the songs come in prepared and sometimes they have to be developed. The Dirty Work and Undercover records were to a degree “bash it out until something happens.” Mick may have had a song or two that were more complete. I remember on Voodoo Lounge, Keith had the riff and idea for “You Got Me Rocking” and we would just play that chorus over and over, night after night, just ’round and ’round until something would happen. Mick would be mumbling words, unintelligible words that made no sense but he’s just trying to fool around with the melody and get something goin’.
And somewhere along the line, maybe after doing that eight or nine nights in a row, something starts emerging. It’s out of sheer determination not to let it go. So it’s a great hook and the verses and the rest of the arrangement for the song had to be developed over time.
Rock Cellar: You’ve also worked with legends like Eric Clapton and George Harrison. Does that pressure you to up your game and embellish the way you play?
Chuck Leavell: Look, we all put our pants on the same way, and that’s been my attitude no matter who was asking me to walk in the door and play with them. But do I want to up my game? Hell yeah! [laughs] These are artists that I’ve admired all my life, growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and having my first band play all of this British Invasion along with other styles of music.
I go in with “Wow, this is a great opportunity.” I’m gonna be myself, I’m gonna listen very closely. You gotta listen to, first of all, what the artist wants in a particular song, and then you gotta listen to what the song is asking you to do. In other words, you want to please the artist or the producer but you also want to contribute. You just don’t want to do exactly what they say all the time. You want to find something that you can inject into a song that makes their eyebrows go up.
It’s sometimes livin’ on the edge a little bit, walkin’ into the first time you play with Eric Clapton or George Harrison. With any of these guys, John Mayer, David Gilmour, it’s always listen up then find a way to contribute.
Rock Cellar: What other environmental projects are you working on?
Chuck Leavell: Joel Babbit, a good friend of mine, and I started the Mother Nature Network on a wing and a prayer in January 2009. The goal is to be the best source of information, education and anything to do with the environment.
MNN.com didn’t resonate in the beginning but after the first year we were in the Top 100 and by the second year the Top 25 and by the third year we were No. 1. We remain the most-visited independent environmental site and we get about five to six million hits a month.
I also have a fledgling television program called America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell. We have two episodes that have run on about 40 PBS stations already. And we just finished shooting a third episode in South Carolina that should probably air sometime in the first quarter of next year.
The subject matter covers any and all things to do with forestry. For instance one of the first segments we did was on what’s called cross-laminated timber, CLT. This is a process and a technique of bonding wood together to make tall buildings completely out of wood instead of concrete and steel.
We did a segment on water quality. We were in Colorado talking about how the first filtration system, before water gets to any kind of plant, is the forest. There’s no shortage of content and we’re very excited about that.
Rock Cellar: Finally, would you rather be a solo artist — and have control over everything — or work with an established band?
Chuck Leavell: I’m fortunate to be able to do both. I’ve got this new record that’s just out called Chuck Gets Big, with a 17-piece big band from Germany, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. It allows me this incredible opportunity to go in a very interesting and different direction with these arrangements. There’s some Rolling Stones songs on there, there’s some Allman Brothers songs, there’s some Chuck Leavell songs, there’s Sea Level songs on it. But all with very unique arrangements.
I just feel blessed that I can do it both ways but how fun is it to play with the Rolling Stones, man? How fun is it to play with John Mayer? How great was it to go out with David Gilmour and sing the counterpart to “Comfortably Numb”? Are you kidding me? It’s just a thrill both ways. Don’t make me choose, OK? [laughs].