Rock's Renaissance Man: Chuck Leavell

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

MACON -- You're in the middle of a question with this prolific musician, and you know even while you're asking it that the question is condescending, maybe even insulting. Still you can't help but ask.

Chuck Leavell has, in answering a couple of questions, casually dropped the names of Gregg and Duane Allman, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, George Harrison ... and your mind is having trouble wrapping around that.

You realize that with his pedigree -- bona fide invited member of two of rock music's greatest bands: The Allman Brothers and the freaking Rolling Stones -- Leavell has every right to mention the musical circles he's traveled without it being that big a deal. But still ... you have to ask if maybe he sometimes thinks about the level of talent and amazes even himself.

"Yeah, I kind of pinch myself every now and then," Leavell, who will play a benefit concert for GraceWay Recovery Residence at the Albany Municipal Auditorium Feb. 5, laughs in answer to a question that you get the feeling he's heard before. "I was a fan of these artists before I got the opportunity to play with them, including Gregg and Duane when they were with the Allman Joys, so, yeah, it is a big deal.

"But you have to remember that I've played regularly with these musicians. When I'm in the room with them, it's time to go to work."

Leavell knows all about going to work. The man who has played keyboards for two of the most influential rock bands ever is one of those mutli-hyphenates who changes hats as often as Jagger has changed model/girlfriends in his scandal-ridden career.

When Leavell isn't rehearsing, recording or touring with the Stones, he's an in-demand session musician, a nationally-recognized tree farmer, a conservationist, the co-creator of the world's third most visited independently owned environmental Web site and an accomplished author with three published books to his credit.

"I'll rest when I'm dead, man," he replies when asked about the possibility of slowing down. "I can't imagine living out my life sitting in front of a TV set or on the front porch in a rocking chair. I plan to remain active as long as I can."

The demands of Leavell's unbelievable schedule do not afford him much opportunity to work on projects of his own choosing, and that's one of the reasons he's stoked about playing the GraceWay benefit.

"It's rare that I get to do anything (musically) totally solo," he said. "That's why I'm looking forward to the GraceWay show. It's going to be naked, bare-bones Chuck. Certainly GraceWay is a wonderful cause, and that's one more reason that I want this to be a great experience for everyone involved.

"I've been working on putting together a show, and I'm excited about it.

I'm excited about playing that venue."

Leavell talked extensively with The Herald about his historic musical career and his non-musical endeavors recently.

ALBANY HERALD: OK, you're a guy who's been a member of the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones; you're a tree farmer, a conservationist, a published author. What do you call yourself?

CHUCK LEAVELL: Lucky, I guess. I'm just a guy who has been fortunate enough to have a career in music who's also gotten involved with the environment, with tree farming, with writing ... and don't forget my family. I've been married to Rose Lane for 37 years, and we have two beautiful daughters and two wonderful grandchildren. Since the last Stones tour ended in the summer of '07, I've had some time to focus on my own music, I'm working on a new book and I've done session work with artists like Miranda Lambert, David Nail, Montgomery Gentry and others. Plus, I've been able to see the launch of the Mother Nature Network environmental Web site.

AH: So you're obviously not one for sitting around.

LEAVELL: I'm just one of those people who enjoys doing things. I've always found that when you have a passion for something, you find the time to do it.

AH: When you were growing up, were there things that you can pinpoint that led to this incredible life you've lived?

LEAVELL: My family settled in Tuscaloosa, Ala., when I was pretty young, so I consider that home. It was a great place to grow up; there were a lot of good local musicians, and there were opportunities to play at a lot of places. I was in a band called the Misfitz when I was 13 or 14, and we had a regular gig at the YMCA every Friday night. On Saturday mornings, we did a television show called "Tuscaloosa Bandstand," so my career actually got started early.

Old sayings were a big deal in our house, and my Dad always said, "You make your own luck." My philosphy kind of came from that; that to me was how you ended up being at the right place at the right time.

AH: How did your career evolve from a local garage band to what is maybe one of the most incredible careers in music history?

LEAVELL: As time went on, I started seeking out other musicians, grabbing opportunities to play when I could. We had Muscle Shoals and Birmingham, so there was a big music scene. Around 1970, though, I decided to move to Macon where Capricorn Records was located to look for opportunities there. I did the starving musician thing there for a couple of years, but it was obvious to me that this is where I wanted to be.

I took small steps up the musical ladder, did recording sessions and toured with Alex Taylor (James' brother) and Dr. John, and that eventually led to me being asked to join the Allman Brothers in 1972. I'd been taking baby steps up the ladder to that point, but this was a huge step, a whole other extension.

AH: What was it like jumping into a band like that that was emerging as the founders of a kind of music -- Southern Rock -- that became a genre of its own?

LEAVELL: It was very exciting. Here I was this 20-year-old musician, and the first album I played on was "Brothers and Sisters" (recognized as one of the Allmans' greatest works). I just focused on who I was, on not putting on airs, on playing what I play. It worked out.

AH: But with all that went on with that band during that time, how were you able to maintain focus?

LEAVELL: I really didn't find it that difficult. Sure, there were distractions on the periphery, but I kept it about the music. Three of the members of the band -- Jaimo (Johanson), myself and bass player Lamar Williams -- kind of formed a band within the band that we called We Three, and when there was all this drama going on, we entertained ourselves by playing music. In fact, when the Allman Brothers disbanded in '76, we added Jimmy Nalls and formed Sea Level.

Also during that time, a lot of other musicians flew through to record at Capricorn: Bonnie Bramlett, Gregg and Dickie Betts did solo albums, Bobby Whitlock. I'd take every session I could.

AH: There's a great mythology that developed about the Allman Brothers during those glory days. What do you remember most about that time?

LEAVELL: I remember going to shows on a private plane, which was impressive. Rose Lane and I had gotten married in 1973, and our first child was born in 1975. When (the Allmans) went out on tour, we bundled her up and brought her along. I remember on days off we'd take the baby to places like the San Diego Zoo. We were never big on staying in hotel rooms all day.

I also remember these phenomenal concerts at incredible venues. We played for 63,000 people at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium in '75, played at a lot of places that aren't around any more: the Boston Garden, RFK Stadium and JFK Stadium. We played for 600,000 at Watkins Glen with the Grateful Dead and the Band.

Of course, you had things like the Scooter Herring (drug) trial (at which Gregg Allman testified against one of the band's roadies) that caused turmoil. And there was the death of Duane (in a motorcycle accident) that led to me becoming an actual member of the band. They were obviously devastated, and they were at a point where they could get someone to replace Duane -- I know they talked about Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and people like that -- or just go their merry way. They did an emotional tour as a five-piece, and Dickie Betts stepped up and played Duane's slide parts. They came off the tour and wanted to rest, but during that time Gregg did the solo album "Laid Back." I played on the sessions, and all of the members of the band came in at various times to jam.

I got called into the offices at Capricorn one day for a meeting, and when I walked in there was (founder) Phil Walden and the Allman Brothers. I didn't know if the shoe was about to drop, but they said they enjoyed my work and asked if I was interested in joining the band.

It was a great experience, and even when things kind of deteriorated, I was able to start a new band. Sea Level was a positive experience, and we got to do a different kind of music.

AH: Fascinating ... but how did the Rolling Stones gig come about?

LEAVELL: That was a shock; it came out of the blue. (Promoter) Bill Graham loved the Allman Brothers, and we became friends. He was hired as the Stones' tour director in '81, and they were talking about musicians for an '82 tour. He suggested my name, told them they should get in touch with this kid from Georgia. They called me one day, and I was on a plane the next day.

AH: We're talking about two legendary bands here. Were there major differences?

LEAVELL: The bands were similar because the Blues run through both, but the Allman Brothers offered me more solo opportunities, a chance to stretch out and experiment. The Stones were more concise. They play well-constructed songs whose arrangements do not vary. There isn't a lot of improvisation. As you know, in the Stones the focus is on Keith (Richards) and Mick (Jagger).

But I became a kind of music navigator for the Stones. I'd keep detailed notes during rehearsals, and we'd often use those to make changes. Mick and Keith have written hundreds of songs, and it's not easy to keep track of them all. I'm the guy who does that. It was a different role, but a fun role.

AH: Were you and other members of the band involved in writing Stones songs, or was it pretty much a Jagger/Richards process?

LEAVELL: Certainly Mick and Keith are the songwriters, but I am privileged to have my name on one of the songs with them ("Back to Zero"). All the members of the band were involved with fleshing out songs during rehearsals, so we were all involved in the writing process. Another way I've been involved is that I make out the set lists for the tours. We go through a huge number of songs during rehearsals, then Mick and I get together and compare notes. I'll cull 100 songs to 60 and 60 to 40, then we'll make a set list from those.

I have a database of every set list we've played in every city so that we can refer to it and make sure we don't repeat the same songs in each city. I'll put together a suggested set list from that, subject to approval by Mick and Keith.

AH: Of course, there are some songs you have to do.

LEAVELL: Right. You can't do a Rolling Stones tour and not do "Satisfaction," "Jumping Jack Flash, "Start Me Up." You do that, and fans walk away disappointed. We do try, though, to place those songs so that each set will be fresh and interesting.

AH: So what are some of your best Rolling Stones memories?

LEAVELL: One thing that really stands out is during the last tour we did a show in Rio in front of a million and a half people. That's three times as many as the Allman Brothers show at Watkins Glen. When the (Berlin) Wall came down in '89, we were playing shows in Eastern Bloc countries. We played a show in front of 126,000 people in Prague, and the posters said, "The Tanks Roll Out, the Stones Roll In."

Of course, playing the Super Bowl in 2005 was an incredible moment.

AH: Did it ever become blase; did the wonder ever go out of it?

LEAVELL: Never. There are times when all of us are sick, injured, we've lost a loved one, but the show really does have to go on. The fans make a sacrifice to come to see you play, to be entertained, and it's our job to take them to another place for the two hours of the show. It's up to us to make the best memory for them that we can.

(This is Part I of a series. Coming in Part II: Solo music, tree farming, environmentalism and writing books.)