Q&A: Chuck Leavell
The rock royalty discusses his passion for environmentalism and what it's like to be a musical director for the Rolling Stones
Chuck Leavell is considered by many to be the greatest rock pianist alive. Gregg Allman once said, “I know some good piano players, man, but . . . Chuck smokes ’em.” He’s held the keyboard chair in the Rolling Stones for twenty-nine
years and is such an integral part of the group that Keith Richards once said the Stones “wouldn’t be the Stones without Chuck.”
The youngest of three children, Leavell was born in Birmingham and grew up in Tuscaloosa. His father sold insurance, and his mother was a homemaker who entertained her young son by playing the piano. When Leavell was thirteen years old, his older sister took him to a Ray Charles concert, and his life’s path was set.
Photograph courtesy of
the Chuck Leavell Archive
Leavell eventually moved to Macon and first rose to prominence in 1972 when, at the age of twenty, he joined the Allman Brothers Band following guitarist Duane Allman’s death in a motorcycle accident. Leavell recorded one of rock’s most memorable piano solos—which he made up on the spot—on the classic instrumental “Jessica.” The song was inspired by guitarist Dickey Betts’s infant daughter, so Leavell decided to let his solo echo the theme song of the Peanuts television specials.
Leavell’s passion for music is rivaled only by his love of nature, born when his wife, Rose Lane, inherited her family’s 1,200-acre farm south of Macon. Leavell started modestly by growing Christmas trees. He then became interested in forestry and planted his first pine trees in 1984. Today trees cover 80 percent of the plantation, and harvests are carried out to sustainable forestry standards. The Charlane Plantation also doubles as a forested resort. Guests can rent an 1835 farmhouse or rooms in a lodge and hunt deer, wild turkey, and quail.
Leavell, fifty-nine, is the cofounder of the Mother Nature Network website with Atlanta advertising and public relations icon Joel Babbit. He also has coauthored four books, including three on environmental issues. The latest, Growing a Better America (Evergreen Arts, with J. Marshall Craig), was released this spring. His upcoming CD, Back to the Woods, is due in the fall and pays tribute to blues piano legends. It features guest appearances by Keith Richards, John Mayer, Col. Bruce Hampton, and Randall Bramblett.
We sent Scott Freeman—author of Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band and a former Atlanta magazine executive editor—to speak with Leavell. His first story on Leavell was in 1983, when the keyboardist made his debut on a Rolling Stones album.
For this interview, the two met at the airport. “He was on his way to New York for a recording session with John Mayer,” says Freeman. “Chuck isn’t your typical ‘rock star’; when he says to meet him at 2:15, he’s going to be punctual and maybe even early. So I got there early. Good thing; he called me at two, ready to go.”