ALBANY -- When Chuck Leavell plays his benefit concert for the GraceWay Recovery Residence Friday at the Albany Municipal Auditorium, he will be playing an instrument that was first played in concert by one of his musical idols: Albany native Ray Charles.
The 9-foot Steinway grand piano that was purchased to coincide with the restoration of the Municipal Auditorium was the last Steinway signed by John H. Steinway, grandson of company founder Henry Steinway, before his death. It was first put to use by music legend Charles during the magical black-tie opening of the auditorium in 1990.
Leavell, a famed keyboardist who has played with such musical luminaries as Eric Clapton and George Harrison as well as serving as a member of first the Allman Brothers Band and currently the Rolling Stones, will be the latest in a long list of artists who have played the storied piano. And it's an instrument with a history that is almost as interesting as some of the artists who have played it.
"I've heard a great deal about that piano, and I'm looking forward to playing it," Leavell said in a recent interview. "Nothing enhances a performance more than a fine instrument."
Then-Albany City Commissioner Carol Fullerton was the driving force behind winning a vote to restore the Municipal auditorium and later, as director of the Albany Area Arts Council, she and Emily Jean McAfee headed efforts to finance and purchase the instrument that now sits in a climate-controlled room in the auditorium.
Fullerton, who is serving the second year of her first two-year term as a state representative, said she and McAfee, who currently serves on the Dougherty County School Board, co-chaired a blue-ribbon committee appointed by then-Albany Mayor Larry Bays to find an instrument worthy of the restored structure.
"We hosted wine-and-cheese soirees and gave tours of the auditorium to people who were against restoring it," Fullerton said Friday. "We also headed up a fundraising campaign to pay for the instrument. It was mostly letter writing and word-of-mouth, but there were people in the community who supported this type of campaign moreso than they did the typical events."
The committee convinced Albany State University professor T. Marshall Jones to conduct a search for the right instrument for the restored auditorium, and Jones said it became a labor of love.
"I was thinking that a Steinway would be the instrument for us, so I
went to the Peachree Gallery in Atlanta to look at their inventory," Jones said. "The store's owner, Barbara Kirby, and I hit it off, and I spent a day there playing five or six grand pianos. At some point she said 'Let me show you this 9-foot grand Steinway.'
"I sat down and played the instrument, and she said, 'This one speaks to you, doesn't it?' And it did. She agreed to hold the instrument for us, and I encouraged other members of the committee to go up and play the piano. Everyone agreed that this was the instrument we wanted."
McAfee said when the committee got wind that there were autographed Steinways available, they were anxious to land one of them for the auditorium.
"There are artists who bring their own piano when they perform, but for those that didn't we wanted to have an instrument worthy of the facility we were restoring," she said Friday.
Meanwhile, Fullerton had gotten wind that Charles was playing at the grand opening of an auditorium in Jacksonville, Fla., so she and her husband Greg got tickets for that bash. They managed to coax their way into a conversation with Charles' manager, Joe Adams, and told Adams they wanted to discuss the possibility of the singer playing for the Albany facility's grand opening.
"Greg and I were invited backstage to talk with Ray after his concert, and we told him what we were trying to do," Fullerton said. "He agreed to play at our opening, so it became imperative that we have a quality instrument for him to play."
Jones got the go-ahead to negotiate a deal with Kirby, and he managed to land the classic instrument that was listed at $60,000 for $45,000.
"As I said, we had hit it off, and I just told her straight out that we were working within the constraints of a budget," Jones said. "She knew we were purchasing the piano for the city, and because she owned the business, I guess she had some latitude (in pricing). We agreed on $45,000, and that was it.
"I've since played the piano in concert, and it is top of the line. We made a good choice."
Albany Civic Center Director John Mazzola, whose duties include care for the Steinway at the Municipal Auditorium, said the piano is a potential draw for artists who might perform at the facility.
"If the Municipal Auditorium is the crown jewel of downtown entertainment, that Steinway is the gemstone of the crown," Mazzola said. "That caliber of instrument in that facility on that stage ... There's a reception and warmth that you don't get at many places. It's an instrument that's worthy of artists the magnitude of Chuck Leavell."
The famed Steinway will be featured -- along with Leavell -- at the GraceWay benefit Friday. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Ticket information is available by calling the Albany Civic Center box office at (229) 430-5204 or GraceWay at (229) 446-4550.