Chuck Leavell 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.”
I remember getting a call in 1983 from your wife when I was working at the paper in Macon. She said, “Chuck has opened up a Christmas tree stand out on Forsyth Road; you should do a story.” When I got there, you’d just finished packing a tree that you were sending to Keith Richards. That’s right. [laughs] I forgot I sent a tree to Keith. I really enjoyed our experience selling Christmas trees. It was very gratifying in a lot of ways, but it certainly was not a way to make money. We got out of that business and moved on from that at the plantation.
Your new book is a very thoughtful look at the stress mankind is putting on the environment. But I can imagine someone trying to brush you aside by calling you the “Al Gore of piano players.” What do you tell people who would dismiss you? At this juncture, my credentials are strong enough that people don’t do that. I’ve been a tree farmer over thirty years, I’ve been involved in environmental issues, I’ve written books on trees, and I’ve cofounded an environmental website.
But there are a lot of naysayers out there, and I have already run into that with this book. My statement to them is, “Hey, whatever you believe or don’t believe about our environmental challenges, isn’t it just the right thing to do? To live more cleanly, to seek out renewable energy sources, to make sensible automobiles that don’t use fossil fuels or use as little as possible?”
That seems to resonate. I mean, what are they going to say to that? “No, I’m just going to continue to be wasteful?” None of us want to be wasteful. I think there are ways we can be smart about it and still have very comfortable lifestyles.
Koch Industries owns Georgia-Pacific. Koch was named one of the ten worst air polluters in the country, and the Koch brothers finance global warming deniers and right-wing causes. What’s your take on them? I don’t know them personally, so I can’t comment on what their thinking is. They do own Georgia-Pacific, but Georgia-Pacific is extremely sustainable. It’s a very responsible company, and they’re doing very good things. I’m very proud we have them with us at Mother Nature Network [as a corporate sponsor].
What’s your impression of Nathan Deal? I met Governor Deal at an event we had at the capitol. I was very impressed with his statements about forestry and the value of forestry. And I was impressed that he showed up for this announcement, because it was not really about the forest products, or the dollars and cents that lumber and paper products bring. It was more about clean air and clean water.
I also was impressed that he put my wife on the authority over the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. I think that was a very good choice. [laughs
Your book reminded me that, on average, Atlanta loses fifty-four acres of natural land every day. That is astounding, isn’t it? And half of that, at least, goes to impervious surfaces. When you add that up day after day, week after week, year after year, it’s a lot of land. Atlanta handles growth pretty well, but it’s still a tremendous amount of pressure. All you have to do is look at the traffic. It’s something we really need to come to grips with.
And where is that high-speed rail? I know it’s expensive, but guess what? Find the damn money and build a high-speed rail, because people will use it. Anyone who’s been to Japan or Europe knows how incredible those trains are. And I am just flabbergasted our country doesn’t have that.
Another thing about Atlanta—MARTA, let’s face it, is a nice little system, but it’s inadequate. It needs to go to other parts of the city. It needs to be expanded. I know that’s very difficult; it’s unfortunate it wasn’t done right in the first place. I rather like the trolley idea that’s come up. That’s very smart.
You cofounded the Mother Nature Network with Joel Babbit, who left his advertising and PR empire to start up the website. How did that come about? Joel’s clients were big-name: Home Depot, Coca-Cola, Dell. And he called me up one day and said, “My clients want to get their environmental message across. A lot of these companies are changing their ways to lower their carbon footprint, and they want people to know about it. They want to get out on the Internet. I haven’t really found a place where I’m comfortable spending their money. You know more about environmental issues; do you know of any great websites?”
I said, “You’re right. There’s some that are okay, but I don’t think there’s one that’s the WebMD of the environment.”
So he said, “You want to build it? I can get you some support if you’re interested. And if you are, I will resign my job and we’ll go do this together.”
Within forty-eight hours, with his connections, we had commitment of funds up to $10 million. And we went to work.
You and Rose Lane have the Charlane Plantation south of Macon. How old were you when you moved to Macon? I was eighteen. I had barely turned twenty when I joined the Allman Brothers Band.
There’s a great story that when your band used to open for the Allman Brothers, you’d sit at your acoustic piano backstage and play along during their show.
It was usually an upright piano, because that’s all we could get. After we played, they would pull the piano backstage. I would hang out because I really did love the Allman Brothers’ music. And I would bang on that piano backstage while they played. The first guys who noticed me were the roadies, and they’d say, “What is this kid doing back there?”
Not long after the death of Duane Allman, you were hired to play piano on Gregg Allman’s solo record. The Allman Brothers were hanging around in the studio in downtown Macon, and you started jamming with them. A couple of weeks later, Phil Walden—the president of Capricorn Records—calls you into his office and asks if you’d like to join the band. I remember you telling me it was so unexpected that your first response was, “Which band?” [Laughs] Well, it really did come as a surprise. First of all, I was extremely happy and elated to have the position with Gregg, to do the Laid Back record with him. The guys in the Allman Brothers would come in and hang out a little bit, see what Gregg was up to.
It was only natural that these jam sessions started taking place. It was very casual, very loose, and a lot of fun. This went on for a couple of weeks, off and on. And then, boom! I’m asked to be in the Allman Brothers. Gee. Wow. Okay, we can do that.
The piano solo on “Jessica” was your signature moment with the Allman Brothers. Did you write that solo, or was it improvised? Let’s say it was developed. I remember Dickey [Betts] explaining that he’d been watching his daughter as he wrote it and that he’d been listening to [jazz guitarist] Django Reinhardt. We were gathered around, listening to him play it on the acoustic guitar. I didn’t have that many opportunities to develop that solo; we probably did no more than five takes. It’d be interesting to go back and listen to those early takes. I’d love to do that.
Do you remember hearing “Jessica” played back for the first time after the master take? Yeah, I remember smiling and looking around seeing everybody else smile. Not just at my solo, but the whole thing. We were very happy. It was a direction the band had never taken, and it was refreshing to them because that’s what they needed. They were still getting over Duane’s passing; they needed a fresh burst of air and maybe I provided [it] for a minute.
Talk about Jimmy Carter. The Allman Brothers kept his campaign going early on through a series of benefit concerts, and this was a time when it was unheard of for a presidential candidate to embrace a rock ’n’ roll band. While Jimmy was governor, he connected with Phil Walden and said, “I want to come down and see what you’re doing.” I thought that was pretty dang cool. He came in and immediately everyone was at ease with him, he made you feel at ease. He asked really great questions. He was obviously very proud of what Georgia was doing musically.
When he decided to run for president, he talked to Phil about this idea of fundraising. There had been some new laws enacted, and for the first time, you had matching funds. So if we could raise X amount of dollars, he could get matching federal funds. That was a clever plan.
We were riding a wave at the time; we were at the top of the charts. So when we were asked to do that, everybody jumped right on it. We loved Jimmy so much; we thought he would be a great leader, and I think he was a great leader.
He’s a tree farmer now. He has a very strong interest in forestry issues. Through a mutual friend, we reconnected and started quail hunting together. We’ve done that almost every year.
The first time you played with the Rolling Stones was at the Fox Theatre in 1981. How did that connection happen? I’d gone up to Long Island in ’81 on very short notice and did an audition [for the utility keyboard spot]. The audition went very, very well. I made friends with everybody and especially Ian Stewart, their piano player. I thought I had the gig in the bag when I went home. I waited, no call. I waited, no call.
Finally Stu [Stewart’s nickname] called and said, “Hey man, don’t be disappointed, but they’re going to take [former Faces keyboardist] Ian McLagan out this time. But everybody loved what you do. Just hang tight and we’ll see what happens.” Well, I was very disappointed, as you can imagine. I wanted the gig badly. Could taste it; came that close. But what else can you do but accept it?
They start their tour, and about two days before the Fox Theatre gig, Stu calls me. He says, “We’re going to be [in] your backyard. Would you like to come up and have a bash?” In the midst of being disappointed, that was a nice uplifting moment.
Rose Lane and I came up. It’s always a scene when the band arrives. They came in very quickly, and there was not a lot of time to stop and talk. In due course, Stu came up and said, “Come on to the dressing room and say hello to the guys.” Everybody was very cordial and nice.
The gig starts. A moment comes and Stu says, “Come on out.” He leaves the stage and it’s just me and Ian McLagan. He’s playing organ and I’m playing piano, we’re ninety degrees next to each other. We’re in the middle of a song and he looks over his shoulder and says, “Oh, you’ve done this before, have you?” [laughs]
In late spring of ’82, the phone rang again and it was Stu. He said, “The guys want you to come on over to England.” I went over there to start my relationship with them, and here I am almost thirty years later.
The first time I ever saw the Stones was the opening night of the Steel Wheels tour in 1989, which marked a comeback for the band. Ian Stewart had passed away, and you were now the main piano player. What really surprised me was how closely Charlie Watts watched you and followed your lead. I realized you’d become their de facto musical director. And now that’s your official job description. The role kind of morphed into that over time. The Stones, as incredibly talented as they all are, they’re a bit scattered. Of course, Keith is the musical director as far as I’m concerned when we’re onstage. But he and Mick [Jagger] were both happy to allow me some space to help in that department. It took pressure off of both
It’s also like you forced the loosest band in the world . . . . . . to tighten up. [laughs]
Exactly. For the Rolling Stones, 1989 was an opportunity to be reborn. And they needed that. They needed a fresh approach. We knew it was going to be a big tour, and we felt pretty confident we’d be successful, but we knew there was going to be a lot written and said about the band. People were going to ask, “Can they still do it?” It was important that we rise to the occasion, and I think that’s where that role for me really began.
I’m excited that you’ve recorded a blues album; that’s a record I’ve wanted to hear for years. It’s been a fun journey. Steve Bransford, who’s the coproducer and my son-in-law, came to me and said, “I’ve got an idea. There’s been a lot of tributes done to jazz guys, to blues guitar players. But nobody’s really done it for blues piano players. I think you’re the guy to do it.” He handed me three CDs that had probably 120 songs on them. And I thought, what a neat idea.
We recorded most of the basic tracks in Athens. As time went on, I thought, “Wow, I’ve got to get Keith.” He graciously agreed to do it, and I’ve got him on two tracks. There’s this one song in particular, “How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone?” It was a collaboration between Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. You’ll realize where Keith got a lot of his licks when you listen to that song. And where I got a lot of mine.
Did you read Keith’s autobiography? I did and found it to be very entertaining. I especially liked the descriptions of the early days—the forming of the band, them playing the club scenes, the “starving musician” days. I was also very flattered with the comments he gave about me.
Next year is going to be the fiftieth anniversary of the Rolling Stones, which is pretty mind-boggling. Yes, it is. It’s absolutely astounding that you can consider the possibility of celebrating fifty years of rock ’n’ roll music by a band that’s been together that long. It’s groundbreaking. You’ve seen the jazz guys and the blues guys last that long and longer. But you haven’t seen a rock ’n’ roll band do it. And here it is. It’s a marvelous milestone, and it’s a great opportunity.
Which raises the question, will there be a fiftieth anniversary tour? I wish I had news to report, because I certainly want to see it happen. There’s been ongoing discussions, but no decision. My fingers and toes are crossed, I can tell you that.