CHUCK LEAVELL ISN’T a rock star, at least not a big one.
Nonetheless, anyone who has been reading liner notes during the past 40 years or so knows that the Alabama-born keyboardist is one of the most pre-eminent and prolific pop musicians of his era. The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards says that Leavell has “fingers of gold.” Greg Allman calls him “tasty and tasteful ... one of those musician’s-musician cats.”
This year Leavell, who turned 60 in April and is celebrating his 30th year with the Rolling Stones, has added to his legacy by releasing a solo album, Back to the Woods: A Tribute to the Pioneers of Blues Piano and playing on John Mayer’s new Born and Raised.
“The joy of my career has been that I get to work with all these incredible artists through the years,” Leavell says. “It’s just been so interesting to work with these varied and diverse artists. You can always learn something that you can apply to another situation. And then to be able to have the solo career and put out this little record and have people pay attention to it, I’m so grateful for that. I don’t take any of this for granted.”
His resume also includes Dr. John, a five-year stint in the Allman Brothers Band, playing on Eric Clapton’s Grammy Award-winning album Unplugged (1992) and a slew of session credits for the Black Crowes, Montgomery Gentry, George Harrison, Martina McBride and many others. He’s also published four books, including a memoir, Between Rock and a Home Place (Mercer University Press, 2004) and three environmental works, most recently Growing a Better America (Mercer University Press, 2011).
Back to the Woods – the title refers to Leavell’s activism as a tree farmer and co-founder of the Mother Nature Network – features music from the catalogs of Leroy Carr, Ray Charles, Otis Spann and more, with help from Mayer, Richards, Candi Staton and others. It was the brainchild of Leavell’s son-in-law and co-producer, Steve Bransford, who holds a Ph.D in American history from Emory University in Atlanta, with an emphasis on indigenous roots music.
“Steve came to me with this idea, saying, ‘You know, Chuck, there’s been lots of tributes done for blues guitar players and singer/songwriters and the jazz idiom and so forth, but to my knowledge no one has really paid homage to the real blues piano players of the world,’’’ Leavell recalls. “I thought, ‘Well, that sounds interesting.’ And then, ‘I’m the guy to do it! What do you have in mind?’’’
Bransford had prepared three CDs, packed with 150 songs, which the keyboardist started listening to while driving around in his truck.
“A lot of it I was familiar with,” Leavell says, “but there was a lot of obscure stuff Steve turned me onto, like the title cut, by a guy named Charlie Spand. I just found it all so fascinating. So I began to pick out the ones that I thought I could do justice to and that I thought would be fun for me personally to play, and that was the process.
“Once we got it down to a reasonable number of songs I began to really concentrate on them and learn them and put my own twist on them.’’
The album did require some study, Leavell acknowledges, and left him with new insights into the way the early masters approached their music.
“Take, for instance, the Memphis Slim track,’’ he says, referring to Wish Me Well. “When I started listening to his style, it’s almost like he’s slapping at the piano and just willy nilly throwing his hands around and letting them land almost where they may, but of course it’s not quite that. There’s technique involved. I found that a really fun style to get into and to try to find my way around.
“There was a whole process of picking out little things in each artist’s particular style and then trying to adapt it and play it in my own way,’’ Leavell says. “That kind of music is so deceiving. I’m sure blues-guitar players will tell you the same thing. On the surface it sounds like, ‘Oh, it’s the blues. It’s kind of easy. You just throw it together and off you go.’ But it’s not like that at all. There’s nuances that need to be there, what (former Rolling Stones keyboardist) Ian Stewart used to call ‘diamond tiaras’ that occur, and you have to be really careful of the way you present this stuff, because it can come off sounding silly if you don’t do it authentically.’’
Leavell expects to do another volume of blues piano music.
“There’s so much of this great stuff,’’ he says, “how can we not?’’
He feels a curatorial responsibility to expose new audiences to this music, the keyboardist adds.
“Absolutely I do,’’ he says. “I owe a lot to each and every one of these players and the players that came after them – Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, even going over to the boogie guys like Pinetop Perkins and Albert Ammons. So I feel really good about the fact that we’ve shed some light on these largely unknown names.
“I’ve already had lots of comments from people saying, ‘Wow, I never knew about so-and-so,’ so it’s a good feeling that we’re bringing this to light and others are seeing the value of it.’’
Mostly self-taught, Leavell – who also learned to play guitar and tuba as a youth – started his first band, the Misfitz, when he was 16. He began playing sessions, including on Freddie North’s gold single Don’t Take Her She’s All I’ve Got (1971), and formed another band, the South Camp. Then his mentor, Paul Hornsby, summoned Leavell to Macon, which Capricorn Records was turning into a musical hotbed and the home of Southern rock.
Leavell played on sessions for the Charlie Daniels Band, the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie and more, and also formed a band called Sundown. He spent a couple of years in Dr. John’s band, but after playing on Gregg Allman’s solo album Laid Back (1973) was recruited to join the Allman Brothers Band. Leavell played on a pair of studio albums, particularly making his mark on the instrumental Jessica (1973). After the Allmans broke up in 1976, Leavell went on to form Sea Level, which released five albums before calling it quits in 1981.
ROLLING TO THE STONES
Leavell wasn’t without a band for long, however. He was hired for the Rolling Stones’ 1982 European tour, and has been aboard ever since. He’s widely acknowledged as the Stones’ unofficial music director, in which capacity, he has said, ‘’It’s my job to keep Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie all happy.’’
“It’s a great gig, the best there is,’’ Leavell says. “I don’t think people, even their biggest fans, really appreciate how good those guys are as musicians.’’
It’s widely reported that the Stones will tour again this fall to celebrate their 50th anniversary, but Leavell disclaims any inside knowledge.
“You know, I’m still waiting to hear what may or may not occur,’’ the keyboardist says. “It’s also my 30th anniversary with the Stones, so that’s a biggie for me. I just feel like it would be a tragedy if the 50th anniversary goes by without some kind of activity.
“I just think everybody’s had other things to do and focus on,’’ he continues. “My gut feeling is that something will happen, but of course there’s only four people who can pull that trigger, and that’s of course the four Rolling Stones. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that phone rings.’’
When not touring the world with the Stones, Leavell’s primary concern is ... the world. He and his wife, Rose, established Charlane Plantation as a large-scale offset before the term became an environmental buzz word. Then, in 2009, he and former marketing executive Joel Babbit launched the Mother Nature Network, a Web site (www.mnn.com) on which environmentalists, journalists, technology experts and others discuss ideas and philosophies of sustainability and eco-friendly living.
Supported by a coalition of private donors and such corporate sponsors as AT&T, Coca-Cola and Miller Coors, MNN.com averages 4 million unique visitors per month and had 33 million page views during the first quarter of 2012. It’s the world’s most visited for-profit environmental site, according to Comscore, and is an active forum “just to talk about things we can do to make the planet better,” Leavell explains.
He is careful, though, to separate his environmental efforts from his music.
“I don’t favour people that are preachy about whatever causes they have,’’ Leavell says. “I love talking about environmental issues, but to me it’s important to differentiate between entertainment and the other passions I have. In other words, when I’m off the stage or out of the studio, I’m comfortable speaking to people about these issues.
“But I really think the stage is not the place for it, so I rarely ever mix the two.’’